Elisa Morris Counsellor and Psychotherapist in Bath city centre

Managing transitions - emerging from lockdown

I have noticed an additional uneasy feeling among some of my clients this week, which many of them have been struggling to fully account for.

Tending usually to steer clear of talking about politics, it sounded strange even to myself when I wondered aloud with a client how they may have felt in response to Boris Johnson’s announcement of changes to the lockdown last Sunday evening.

My way of working is usually to follow my client’s lead on topics of discussion - but these are not usual times.

Where politics was once a background noise in a client’s life, Government guidelines are now centre-stage. I have found that the announcement of the beginning of a transition period has impacted people more profoundly than most have realised.

On the surface of things, many people’s lives have yet to change. Most of us are still cocooned at home. But what has shifted are some of the choices available to us; when and how to return to work, who to meet up with, and how often.

Faced with the prospect of re-entering a world where the threat of a virus is still very much alive, these are not easy decisions to make. And there may be additional pressures making us keen to hit the ground running, to make up for lost time, or perhaps a desire to do things differently.

There may be little opportunity, then, to stop and ask ourselves what we may feel ready for.

We have all had to find the strength within ourselves to cope with the restrictions and isolation that have been forced upon us. For many, this time has proved to be frightening, emotionally draining and socially depriving.

In contrast to the burgeoning spring that has been going on around us, people have found their lives on pause, frozen in time, at a standstill.

After the freeze, comes the thaw. Like the pain of a frozen finger or toe which comes achingly back to life, that can be the most painful bit.

A thaw can bring a torrent of strong and confusing emotions. At a time when we are feeling so deprived of social contact, longed-for reunion and reconnection can feel stilted and awkward - especially at a distance of two metres.

There may be hope and excitement at the prospect of returning to our lives, but inevitably there will be anxiety too as we tentatively step out into a changed world.

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Welcoming difficulties

Mindfulness and meditation teachers advise that we try to embrace the difficulties in our lives.

A favourite phrase used in many online guided meditations, by the likes of Tara Brach and Jon Kabat Zinn, is to “get the welcome mat out” for whatever life has to throw at us.

It is extremely hard to get the welcome mat out for the Coronavirus.

Even if it is possible to see some benefits to the current state of chaos – a renewed sense of time, a recalibration of who we value in society, some short-term relief for the natural world – it is hard to accept the devastation this disease is wreaking on so many lives.

And yet when we resist life, it tends to deepen our unhappiness.

Sitting with our difficulties presents opportunities to learn to accept aspects of our lives that are beyond our control, and to accept aspects of ourselves that we dislike or push away.

Meditation teaches us to welcome the feelings we hate to feel; the fear, the anger, the sadness.

Learning to acknowledge our feelings, rather than pushing them away, can help us to grow and to adapt to change.

Embracing difficulties can help us to learn more about ourselves and to feel more whole.

Lockdown doesn’t have to mean ‘shut down’

As we slowly get used to the new ‘normal’ of staying at home and talking to colleagues, friends and family via phone and video calls, it can be hard to stay alert to what is going on for us deep down in ourselves.

For many, especially those who have experienced periods of emotional and psychological difficulty, there can be a tendency to close off and shut down when our usual connections with others are disrupted.

The danger is that we then find we are cut off from ourselves.

In therapy, people become more aware of their defence mechanisms, the automatic coping strategies which have helped to keep them safe and protected in the past. Often these involve closing down to difficult experiences so that we don’t feel the pain.

These strategies are usually formed in our childhoods and become embedded in our behaviour over many years. As children, we may have felt vulnerable and sensitive to some of the harsh realities of the world, the things people say, the scolding of our parents.

When life gets hard, it can feel personal. We shut down to save ourselves. But this strategy doesn’t work so well for us in adult life. It can leave us feeling isolated and alone.

The challenge of this period of isolation and social distancing is to try to stay open, to allow ourselves to try new ways of communicating and connecting, to say ‘yes’ to opportunities for new experiences.

While we often feel under pressure to say ‘yes’ to other people, this is more about saying ‘yes’ to a connection with ourselves. To offer ourselves the support and nurture that we may need to get through these difficult days, weeks and months.

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Adjusting to change

Talking to my clients this week I have been struck by what a confusing mix of emotions this pandemic has stirred up in people.

During this first week of lockdown, people have spoken of feeling “let off the hook” from the often exhausting and relentless stream of jobs and obligations which make up their daily routine. There has been an appreciation for things slowing down. People have rediscovered time.

In the previous couple of weeks, many were struggling with difficult decisions about how to proceed; whether to retreat into an early isolation or soldier on with normal life. This seemed to come to a head on Mother’s Day with the impossibility of knowing whether it was best for mums to pay them a visit or stay away.

Once the Government declared lockdown, life became simpler in some ways.

“If your friends ask you to meet up, say ‘no’,” said Boris Johnson.

Rarely, if ever, are we given such clear guidelines on how to manage our social relationships. People often tell me how hard they find it to say ‘no’ to people. Here we were being given permission to say ‘no’, and not just to friends but to family and work too.

Not only could people stay at home, but they could stay at home guilt free.

Yet the impact of this astonishingly different situation in which we find ourselves, is being felt at many different levels. It is obvious to all of us that something on the surface of our lives – our engagement with the outside world - has changed dramatically. However, the shock waves of this change will be permeating into our deeper selves in more subtle and unseen ways.

For what we are experiencing on this deeper level, both collectively and as individuals, is a reminder of our vulnerability. Living in a society which has become so effective at beating disease and death, we suddenly find ourselves staring these strangers in the face. There is a very real sense of fear, whether for ourselves or for loved ones, and of impending loss.

We are not as invincible as we thought.

So whatever changes you are adapting to on the surface of your lives, it is important to remember that this experience is deeply unsettling on an emotional and psychological level.

Try to remember to be kind to yourself. If you can, notice that voice in your head which can get critical at times. There is no need to beat yourself up. This situation is already hard enough. Have an understanding of just what your psyche is trying to come to terms with at the moment.

And remember, good things can come from an awareness of our vulnerability and mortality. We can reassess our priorities, discover what is truly important to us and make better decisions about the future.

To add to my list (see previous post) of practical steps which can support you during this time:

- Limit the amount of news you watch
- Jot down one or two things each day which you feel thankful for
- Say comforting phrases to yourself, such as ‘it’s going to be ok’, ‘I will come through this’, or whatever works for you. This does not need to be a factual statement but a message of support for your more vulnerable self.

How to stay sane and look after your mental health during this pandemic

The Coronavirus outbreak is proving an extremely frightening and stressful situation for people.

During times of fear, uncertainty and heightened anxiety our bodies start pumping out adrenalin and stress hormones, limiting our capacity to think clearly or to calm ourselves down. We are having to deal with our fight/flight/freeze response on an increasingly regular basis.

Moreover, strategies that we may have used in the past to manage anxiety, stress or low mood, such as meeting up with friends, or going to the gym or shops, are no longer an option. There is no holiday to look forward to, no meals out, no sporting events to help us through. Normal life has been turned on its head.

People are often drawn to the idea of withdrawing from life for a while, stepping off the treadmill. However, this is different. Don’t confuse an imposed self-isolation or social distancing with a voluntary withdrawal or retreat. In practical terms you may find you have time to do things you want to do at home, but emotionally and psychologically this will feel totally new.

In situations of intense stress we often fall back on our most rudimentary of psychological coping strategies – self-criticism. That little voice in our heads tends to start criticising ourselves and comparing ourselves unfavourably to others, often without us even noticing.

Here are some simple tips to help you get started to find ways to support your state of mind and encourage self-compassion, which I will be adding to over the coming weeks:

• Manage your expectations of yourself - different people will find different aspects of this situation hard. It is important to recognise how and why this is difficult for you.

• Find a routine to give yourself a structure – try to get up and go to bed at the same time, this will support your sleep pattern during this anxious time, and eat meals at regular times. Make weekends different from weekdays.

• Set yourself small tasks – whether it is simply a matter of getting dressed and making your bed each day or completing some jobs around the house, recognise these tasks as small but substantial achievements in the current climate of fear and uncertainty. Beware of taking on too big a project – don’t set yourself up to fail.

• Avoid alcohol where possible – this can leave you feeling worse the next day.

• Try to get outside for a walk or half an hour in the garden each day. Escaping the four walls of your house, however briefly, can help you gain a different perspective.

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