It’s perfectly natural to feel stressed and anxious at the moment. “There’s a lot of fear around and a lot of questioning,” says Sarah Gilligan, a psychotherapist based in Capable Minds on Capel Street in Dublin. “There’s an uncertainty that has arrived into people’s lives that maybe they haven’t had to deal with before.”
Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist and author of 15 Minute Parenting, elaborates: “It’s the unknown of this. It’s the anticipation. For some it’s the stress of just being at home all day, and trying to juggle parenting, working, teaching…
“And there’s somebody in everyone’s immediate network who is maybe immunocompromised or more susceptible to this, and that just puts us into a state of heightened arousal.”
So what should people do?
We should acknowledge that it’s difficult, and that we are experiencing worry and stress, says Fortune. This is particularly important for children, she says.
“The best thing we can do is name [the worry] and work with it and process it. I work with children and teenagers a lot, and even small children are experiencing the impact of this. Toddlers are wondering why they’re not seeing their nanny and granddad, and wondering where their friends are or where their minders have gone and why this long weekend with mom and dad seems to be going on forever.
Ration news and social media
It’s important to stay informed but that doesn’t mean endlessly scrolling through news feeds. Both Gilligan and Fortune recommend that people check into the news at set times of the day and limit their social media use.
“We’re spending too long on social media, constantly refreshing threads that are just filled with bad news,” says Fortune. “It can become very difficult to discern the fact from the fiction online.”
Stay in touch
Stay in regular contact with the people in your life over the phone and use various face-time platforms. “I find myself telling everyone to mind themselves and I really mean it,” says Gilligan. “Check in on people and know that everybody is in this at the same time.”
Fortune tells me that her book club is planning to convene online. “It’s about staying connected. Even if we can’t physically be together we can speak with each other. Other self-employed friends are sharing a coffee break – having a FaceTime call while having morning coffee – saying ‘how are you doing?’ …A good old belly laugh is one of the best ways to rid ourselves of residual anxiety we’re holding in our body.”
Relish the small things
“I’ve just had an office disco,” says Gilligan (she was, she tells, me dancing while she tidied prior to my call). “Really, really small stuff matters. Can I listen to music I really like? Can I access nature?... It’s about the importance of accessing really simple things. If you want to write something, write it. If art is something you do or want to do, then do it.’”
Establish a new routine
“Part of the stress for all of us is that we have a loss of structure to our days,” says Fortune. “You may have had your one and only hot cup of coffee a day on your way to work and you don’t have that anymore…. So try to set up a new structure. ‘I’m going to get up before nine o’clock. I’m going to get dressed. I don’t have to be wearing a suit but I’m certainly not going to wear pyjamas and I’m going to have my breakfast and then I’m going to sit and work for this amount of time. And then I’m going to stop’.”
Exercise is important for good mental health, says Fortune. “I know the gyms are closed and that’s going to affect a lot of people who rely on exercise to keep themselves balanced and manage how they’re feeling. So look at online tutorials – there are endless amounts of them for yoga and for at-home workouts.”
Don’t expect everyone to respond in the same way
This crisis is collective, says Gilligan, but it brings up different issues for different people. “Everybody will have a different crisis that’s going on in their life. I always ask clients, ‘What is this about for you? In a crisis what does that uncover for you?’”
She says these sorts of crises can often lead to people re-evaluating what’s important in their lives, before making very positive changes. “I’m not saying everyone can do that in one moment. But something like this can awaken something on a bigger scale for people if they have enough supports.”
People with existing diagnoses
Is what’s happening in the world now particularly difficult for people with existing mental health diagnoses? “It’s very triggering for people with anxiety, depression and OCD in particular, because you’re being directed to keep washing your hands and be careful of germs,” says Fortune.
“So your pre-existing symptoms will be amplified by what’s going on…I would advise anybody who has a pre-existing psychiatric diagnosis, such as generalised anxiety disorder or clinical depression or OCD, even if you’re not actively linked in with a therapist or psychiatrist or a psychologist ... to get help.”
Watch for warning signs
“Look for any significant change in behaviour,” says Fortune. “If you’re suddenly not eating or you’re suddenly overeating. If you find all you want to do is sit on the sofa in your pyjamas scrolling through social media. If you find that you’re a little more irritable in relationships or with your kids...then it’s a sign that actually you are not coping very well with this.
“And I think a lot of people might be drinking more than usual because you don’t have to get up at seven o’clock in the morning. It’s an unhealthy way of trying to manage anxiety.”
Talk to someone
And if you find it difficult to self-correct, she says, you may need to talk to someone. To do this you can consult with your GP or simply look at the accredited lists of counsellors on the Irish Association for Psychotherapists (www.IACP.com), the Irish Council for Psychotherapist (www.psychotherapycouncil.ie) or the Psychological Society of Ireland (www.psychologicalsociety.ie) and call them. Many counsellors are now providing online or phone counselling.
The HSE has guidance for people on their mental health during the Covid- 19 crisis at: https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/mental-health/minding-your-mental-health-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak.html
Anyone in immediate distress can also call the Samaritans on 116123 or email email@example.com