We are in a new normal. We’re at home. All of the time. Either alone, or with all the members of our household. Both of these situations have their challenges but apparently a common symptom of being in lockdown is to have moments when you wish you were in the other camp. (Only what I’ve heard.)
We’re working from home, Zooming from home, parenting from home, homeschooling from home, eating, socialising, relaxing, all from home. All the boundaries and transitions have gone and let’s be honest, it’s weird. I was on a video conference the other day and one of the participants was late in joining. She sent a message, joking that she was sorry but the traffic was really busy on her landing. To be fair, she’s now living with not just her husband, but also her two adult children and her son’s partner. So it’s crowded.
More seriously however, it’s a challenging time for us all in lots of different ways, not least for those who have vulnerable family members or friends who have been seriously affected by the virus. But we’re all feeling the pressure in some way or another and inevitably there is now a growing discussion about our mental health. You may have seen the online video from Ryan Ramsey, who was captain of the nuclear submarine HMS Turbulent and once spent 286 days at sea with 130 people without seeing the sky. He shares his insights on dealing with isolation and it’s well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it. Similarly, there are more and more articles appearing online from psychologists and other wellness professionals, trying to help guide us through these unprecedented times. Not surprisingly, in nearly all the advice being offered, there are a few consistent themes. So here you are, a few tips for staying well right now, in every sense of the word.
1. Routine, routine, routine.
I’ve not seen a single piece of advice on wellbeing during this crisis that does not refer to this. We’ve lost nearly all the external things which used to impose our routine on us, so we have to make our own. Structure your day in a way that works for you and your family and try to stick to it. Give the weekdays a stricter routine and make it looser on the weekends so it feels different. That said, don’t feel that your routines have to be the same as anyone else’s. It’s incredibly tough if you are managing jobs and childcare and I know some of you are working shifts with your other halves trying to keep both professional and family life vaguely on track. Find what seems to work best and keep at it.
2. Dress for the life you want not the life you have.
There has been so much chat about what we’re all wearing during lockdown, and some of it’s really funny. Prince William joked about remembering to put on his trousers as well as his shoes before going outside to clap the carers. Someone else talked about getting changed every night at 8pm from the “daytime pyjamas” into “night-time pyjamas.” However, according to business psychologist Charlotte Armitage, if we’re working from home for the longer term, not just for a day or two here and there, getting dressed into some designated working clothes will help you focus on your job as you normally do in the office. She says;
“When the routine of getting changed into new clothes for working from home is practiced enough, psychologically you become conditioned to associate the changing of clothes with a change of mindset, psychological pace and focus, therefore preparing you for the working day ahead.”
Same goes for showering, shaving, putting on a bit of makeup, or whatever you’d normally do.
3. Fresh air
Compared with the submariners, we are lucky that we can still go outside. Get out at some point every day. The dog owners are sorted with this, but we all need to do it. If you’re concerned about contact, go earlier in the morning, or later in the evening. If you’re high risk, or living with someone who is, walk round your garden if you have one, or at the very least, open the windows. The other day my husband asked me why I was putting plants in the garden when it had started raining. I told him I just needed to be outside and wasn’t bothered if I got wet and wrecked my hair because I wasn’t going anywhere…. Fresh air will lift your spirits.
You know this one, and so do I, but it can be hard to motivate yourself, especially, as can happen in our house, we leave it till work is finished and just want to numb out with Netflix, FIFA or, even worse, the news. But movement is medicine. Make yourself do it and you will feel a thousand times better. If you hadn’t heard of Joe Wicks before, you probably will have now. Online workouts are having a moment, see also Chloe Ting, and a host of other options online. Find something you enjoy, whether it’s yoga, HIIT or going for a walk. If you’re exhausted, tell yourself you’ll only do ten minutes. Once you get going, you’ll nearly always do more.
5. Eat right
Stay hydrated and eat well. Again, we all know this, but when we’re stressed it’s easy to fall into our own particular bad habits, whether it’s comfort eating, forgetting to eat, or over -relying on alcohol to unwind which then just makes us feel worse. Again, impose some structure; be stricter during the week, then treat yourself at the weekend.
5. Minimise conflict
Oh yes! Are you surprised that conflict management gets talked about a lot when people are living in close quarters? To quote the submarine captain;
“you will start to find things about your family members really really annoying….. and partners….. its going to happen”
Give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and a wide berth when necessary. The head of pastoral care at my son’s school said to his students, “you don’t have to turn up to every argument you’re invited to.” This is wise counsel, and applies to work colleagues as well as spouses and kids. Everyone will have moments when they’re not at their best and we’re all trying to get through this the best we can.
Find a way of connecting with your family and friends. This is especially important if you’re living alone, and if you’re with family, you’ll need a break from them and some contact with other friends. There are loads of apps for this like FaceTime, Zoom or Houseparty, but if you’ve been on video calls a lot for work, a phone call with your feet up may be more relaxing. Video calls drain our energy in ways that in-person meetings do not. There’s a great article online which explains this and I recommend reading it; (“The reason Zoom calls drain your energy” by Manyu Jiang)
We’ve found the Thursday Clap for Carers a good opportunity to have a (socially distanced) chat with neighbours but find what works for you.
To everyone having struggles with their kids right now, the psychologists say that we should EXPECT behavioural issues in children and adolescents in this strange season and that we should try and respond with patience….. Children are even more highly reliant on routines to make them feel safe and will be struggling with the disruption. Expect anxiety, regression, sleep issues, limit testing and meltdowns. Be cautious about implementing any big new behaviour strategies during this time, and focus on your relationship with them.
Be intentional about your consumption of news and COVID-19 information, which changes moment to moment and is often sensationalised. Stick to a few news sources that you trust and limit it to a few times a day. Regarding social media; if you care at all about your mental health, treat it like a controlled substance. It can be fun and a great way to connect and have a laugh, but if you’re not careful, you’ll waste hours and feel terrible.
9. Lightness and fun
Try and find some humour in each day. There is plenty to be worried about, and with good reason, so try and balance it with something light-hearted, a funny film, a daft TikTok video your kids have made or even a bit of stand-up comedy on the telly. We all need some light relief.
10. Notice the good in the world.
There is a famous quote from Fred Rogers which often circulates during crises;
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”. To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realising that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
As well as all the negative, scary information, there are all the stories of people sacrificing, donating and supporting each other in ways big and small. Step forward Captain Tom and our key workers not to mention the multitude of invisible acts of kindness that we won’t even hear about.
11. And finally………. Expectations
You may need to lower them slightly. Many of us are trying to do too much at the moment. Each morning, make a “must happen today” list for work and one for home and prioritise what really matters. Those of you familiar with Mazlow’s hierarchy will know that our need to eat, earn a living and keep ourselves and our families safe is the baseline. Self actualisation is at the very top. I spoke to a friend recently who’s juggling her job with homeschooling her two young children while her husband works 10 hour shifts in a hospital and arrives home late with his pile of work clothes that have to be washed separately from everything else. If this reminds you of your life right now, avoid the comparison trap with others whose situation is different and who have the time and space to landscape their garden or bake sourdough bread. This is closely related to point 8 about being mindful of our consumption of media.
Finally, and most importantly, if you are having difficulty coping, reach out for help. If it’s work related, communicate with your manager. There is support available to you, even at a distance. If it’s home related, your children’s teachers and related service providers will do all they can to help. Our usual support networks have gone, so get any other help that is available. Although we are physically distant, we can always connect virtually. Remind yourself daily that this is temporary. It’s a season of life which will pass. We will return to feeling free and safe in the days ahead.