COVID – 19. A physical illness with physical symptoms attacking people physically. We all know about the high temperatures, the persistent coughs and the loss of certain physical sensations. We’ve probably all had a cough or a flush moment and thought “is that it? Have I got it?” We’ve made the joke when a family member has coughed. “Ooop she’s got it, get her out!”
We know about it physically. We’re aware. We’re either glued to the death toll statistics or consciously avoiding all news outlets. It’s safe to say we get it. Also safe to say we’ve more than had our fill.
It’s not particularly insightful to suggest that COVID-19 will have a massive effect on the mental health of this and every other nation. I mean its obvious right? Places where people go to keep well? Closed! Social gatherings? Cancelled! Jobs lost or suspended. People who were never at home are now never out of it. People who interacted for one hour a day are now permanently in each other’s presence.
Non- essential outpatient appointments are cancelled. Therapies aren’t happening. Many people are being left alone with their thoughts and all the terror that they can bring. COVID -19 should prompt us enough physically to take action. But it should also prompt us enough mentally to take action. Both for ourselves and for those around us. Because the covid mental health crisis is surely coming. How could it not?
Since this thing started I’ve known about the mental health impacts of the pandemic because I’ve seen them. In work and in general society. This past week though I’ve known about them because I’ve felt them. Experienced them myself. The details of my struggles are not relevant for this piece. Other than that they have prompted me to write something. Writing in the hope that it might encourage someone and have some sort of positive impact.
For some reading you may have a lengthy “mental health history.” For others you may have an “ongoing mental health problem” or “a diagnosed condition.” The terminology’s not so important. You are where you are and that is fine.
Some of you may be reading this, having never been touched by “mental illness.” That’s fine too by the way. Hopefully this can still be just as applicable for you.
As I said it has been my own struggle that has prompted this piece. Please don’t see it as advice or guidance. I don’t claim to have anything that will help you or make your situation better. I’m just sharing what’s helped me. Adapt as appropriate. You do you!
In this past week I’ve spent time trying to change my actions to make myself feel better. I’ve tried to just address behaviours and hope that in turn my thought patterns would shift too. But that didn’t work. It was only when I addressed my thinking and my acting in tandem that I saw and felt change. So with that in mind I shall split this in two. ‘Addressing our Thinking’ and ‘Addressing our Doing”
Addressing our Thinking
· Allow ourselves to feel
We’re taught to challenge all negative thoughts right? Taught to dismiss them and replace them with more positive affirmations. Ignore our feelings if they don’t fit an appropriate narrative. Suppress them even. We’ve all done it. If we’ve liked someone who doesn’t like us back. Or wanted something that we “shouldn’t have” or struggled when we “shouldn’t have.”
Do not sit with negative thoughts. That’s the answer right. Don’t let them fester.
I mean you can see why this advice is prominent. You can see why in some cases it may even be appropriate. Yet can you see how it could also be harmful. People being forced to tell themselves they shouldn’t be thinking what they are. Rather than allowing they should be ignoring.
This past week when I’ve been struggling because I’ve been doing just that. Telling myself to wise the frig up. In a global pandemic, my fear of returning to an eating disorder is completely irrelevant. So what that my life has been halted; people are dying.
Yet surprise surprise my attempted avoidance didn’t help. It was only when I began to allow and accept the feelings that I was having that I began to be able to implement changes.
It’s incredibly tragic that people are dying. We are right to sympathise with their families. There are indeed people who have it way worse than you. Yet YOUR fears and YOUR anxieties are important. They matter because they matter to you. You are allowed to be ridiculously anxious and overwhelmingly frustrated. Let yourself feel. It’s the first step.
· Know that a reLAPSE is not a reTURN
To any of you who have suffered with mental health problems I have no doubt you will be able to empathise with this. Addiction is similar. As are past mistakes we have made. One of our biggest fears is that the same bad thing or bad things that happened before are destined to happen again.
For me as someone who has struggled with bulimia and will no doubt continue to do so throughout my life my biggest fear is being back where I was. When you experience a positive level of recovery there is a part of you that wants to believe you’re “over it.” That it’s not an issue anymore. So when a thought or a temptation slips in I can only describe it as intensely distressing.
In that moment it’s like all your years of positive recovery have vaporised. And you’re right back there. In the pain. In the place that you hated. You’re terrified ‘it’s all going to happen again.’ Several of those moments happened this past week. It’s been a while since they have. Man they suck.
The self-doubt and the forensic analysis of yourself and your actions become suffocating. Whether you actually ‘give in’ or ‘fall’ is almost irrelevant because the fear itself is so powerful.
But you are not back there. I am not back there. There is there and here is here. The steps you have taken and the progress you have made mean as much as they ever did. You can never be back ‘there’. Because ‘there’ doesn’t exist anymore. It’s in your past and there it will stay. The now is developing in front of us. The experience you have gained from ‘there” can positively impact your ‘here.’ History is not destined to repeat itself. We have the capacity to make different choices.
· Know that we are not alone
Mental distress can be an incredibly isolating experience. Being trapped inside your own head. Struggling to process what is going on, never mind coherently explaining it to someone else. It can be very easy to believe that you are the only one. Even in a time of global crisis, your thoughts and fears may well feel completely unique to you.
Yet there is comfort in knowing that you are not alone. If you are a person of faith then it ought to bring you tremendous comfort. If you are not there is still comfort to be found in knowing that fellow human beings are experiencing what you are. Asking the same questions and feeling the same anxieties.
The world is simply too big for what you are feeling to be unique. No offence. You’re just not that special.
Positive thoughts are good. But positive thoughts without positive actions are so very limited. We must first address our thoughts become they come first. But actions show change. So we must address our doing.
Addressing our Doing
I don’t know what kind of person you are when you struggle. Maybe you are a ‘reacher outer’.(my own term) When you’re struggling you want other people to know about it and you’re good at reaching out for help. You’re good at texting your friends and telling them you need help. You’ll arrange that FaceTime and you’ll “cry it out.”
Or maybe you’re a ‘puller inner.’ You’ll hide your feelings, put on the mask and play the game because you don’t want to worry anyone. You want to maintain that expectation of you that everyone has. I mean you’re the strong one. The helper of the group. And so suppress, divert and ignore are the verbs that characterise your behaviour.
It’s always ok to ask for help. Especially now. Choose the person that you know won’t judge you and speak to someone. It can be anyone. Start the conversation for yourself.
Oddly enough listening comes with talking. During this time it is so important that we prioritise listening. So many people are struggling in isolation or have had their worlds turned upside down. Many are coping just fine but many are not.
We must be prepared to listen to people. To actively seek people out by phone or by text and offer them our ears. We probably all have friends or families who are experiencing deep loneliness at this time. By offering our ears and giving them an outlet we can do something incredible. Letting people speak is a powerful thing.
· Structure the unstructured
Life right now is a bit all over the place. In some ways I’m fortunate to still have work to go to. That reality may not be yours. Your days may be chaotic or random or perhaps just mind-numbingly boring.
As boring as it sounds for the vast majority of people structure and routine are fundamental parts of maintaining positive mental health. That starts with getting up. Are you still setting an alarm? Have you noticed it’s getting harder to get up? Are you eating at your regular time? Perhaps your appetite is all over the place. These can be small signs that perhaps you may be starting to slip in a direction you don’t want to.
Ultimately you know the things that get and keep you mentally well. Now more than ever it’s vital to fight for these things. At times it will feel like you are forcing yourself. It might not just come naturally. Fight for that daily exercise. Fight for that good nutrition. Do those beneficial self-care activities. Take that nap. Just maybe not all afternoon. Strive for a level of productivity. Fight for your mental health.
When meaningful activities like work and social gatherings have been removed it is our responsibility to make our days meaningful.
Interestingly enough – it always was.
You’ve read nothing revolutionary here. Nothing that is likely to change your life.
Just the musings of someone who had a crappy week.
Someone who relapsed.
Yet on we go