Wellbeing in worrying times
Life changed suddenly and radically for every citizen in this country, when it was announced that we would be living in what has been termed “lockdown”. With one short address to the country, some of the rights and freedoms that we had enjoyed for many years were suspended in order to fight a thing that threatens us all, that we cannot see but we are told is everywhere and anywhere. And in that fight, many of the outdoor spaces that we hold dear, our national parks, our beaches and children’s playgrounds have been closed off to us. Shops and services shut have also been shut – no leisurely retail therapy with friends or a giving yourself a bit of a boost by getting a haircut, no going to the gym or taking the kids to Wacky Warehouse to let off some steam. The message was very clear – stay home. Now, while we all accept that this situation is necessary and for the most part we’re happy to do our bit, there’s no getting away from the fact that for many people and for many reasons, this is a very tough call indeed and will have huge impact on their wellbeing.
For most people, home is a sanctuary but there are some for whom it can be a prison. People who live in an abusive situation will have almost no escape and reports by activists from other countries who started ’lockdown’ before the UK, have noted an increase in incidents of domestic violence during this time. Also, many people who have significant mental health issues will have seen their usual support mechanisms such as drop in groups, walking groups, art sessions or coffee with friends stop. The peril and uncertainty of a pandemic situation can make anxiety much worse and people may turn to unhelpful strategies to try to cope with this. Older people and those with specific health conditions have been advised to not leave the house for 3 months and for some of those people, this might mean not seeing another human face in the flesh for that whole time. There is a lot of information about online support for each of these groups from reputable organisations such as Women’s Aid, Mankind, Galop, AgeUK and Mind and also a wealth of information and tips regarding what you can do to support someone who you know is isolated. We can’t all be frontline warriors on hospital wards, but we can all message a friend or family member who may be unable to go out – it could make all the difference to their day (and yours!).
Confusing and worrying time
For almost everyone, this is a confusing and worrying time. Some people have had to become educators of primary or secondary school children overnight and find ways of explaining a very complex situation to those children, 6.8 million unpaid family carers have had their routines and support completely upended and students across all stages of education have a great deal of uncertainty around exams and grades. Many people face difficult decisions about whether to continue as front line health workers when they also have care responsibility for a vulnerable person or children at home. And for very many, their employment and income is uncertain.
This is perhaps the biggest curveball we have been thrown in our lifetimes and it can seem trite or indulgent to give any thought to our wellbeing when faced with such a huge situation. But our wellbeing is closely linked to our physical and mental health and so we each need to take some care of it to allow us to keep going as it looks like we’re in this for the long haul. But what to do when we can’t do the things we would normally do to take care of ourselves?
In popular culture, wellbeing is often thought of as the same thing as happiness but the New Economics Foundation, authors of the ‘5 Ways To Wellbeing’ concept, offer a broader definition which encompasses feeling in control, having optimism and positive social connections. So how on earth can we maintain those things when so much is out of our control and social distancing is mandatory?
A central piece of advice from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy is that if you feel anxious about the current situation and these thoughts are becoming constant and out of control, acknowledge them, don’t dismiss them or think it’s silly to be thinking that way – you can’t help how you feel but you are in control of how you act on it. They suggest writing down your concerns and worries and then ‘fact checking’ them. Anxiety feeds on uncertainty and ‘what if’ so once your concerns are on paper, look for the facts and then put them away. It’s important to remember that a degree of anxiety is completely understandable and a normal human mechanism in the face of a perceived threat so don’t think you’re ‘wrong’ to worry, but do check your perspective with facts. As well as acknowledging and fact checking your worries, there are a couple of other things that can also help you to regain a sense of control. Take time to make sure that you are clear about things like your income and expenditure and that you are receiving all the financial and practical help that you’re entitled to, including deferring payments where needed. If you have people who need you in an emergency, devise strategies with them for how that’s going to work. Having practicalities organised will reduce anxiety and give you some space to focus on the wellbeing of you and those around you. You might also find it helpful to reduce your consumption of news. Being informed is important but there is little to be gained from having a stream of news items arriving all day so change channel and switch off news notifications to your devices if it’s becoming a problem for you. Catch up once a day as part of your daily activities, don’t let it become your day’s activity!
Find a new routine that works for you
Having routine is recommended by the mental health charity Mind as a way of giving you a sense of control and improving your wellbeing. It’s tempting to try and keep to business as usual but for most of us, that’s an impossibly tall order. Things can’t be how they were and the usual rhythm of life is disrupted but there is scope to develop new routines – you can’t work/study full time from home and be full time educator to your children or a carer for a family member, it just isn’t possible but can you divvy up the day so that everyone gets some of what they need? How you do that will be individual to you and your household but routine can give a sense of security and comfort when everything else seems in flux. Save emotional energy by shifting the focus to what you can do, rather than what you can’t do.
Even if you’re fairly sanguine about the whole situation, there comes a point when the funk sets in and you’d trade your stockpile of loo roll and bread flour for half an hour with friends. That’s to be expected, we’re a social species and connecting with each other has been an important part of our evolution. The first of the 5 Ways To Wellbeing is ‘connect’ – we’re all aware of the impact of loneliness on our health and we have a need to be connected to others but how to do that in a time of social distancing? If you share your space with other people, this could be an opportunity to connect in ways that you wouldn’t normally when you’re all out busy in your own lives. Board games might seem a little cheesy, but they’re a good way to interact when you’re clean out of things to talk about. If you have nothing to hand, have a look on the internet for ‘Minute to win it’ games – any age can play, the stakes can be anything you want, you won’t need any special equipment for most of them and they’re bound to raise a laugh and get you talking. Film some of the sillier ones and share the clips with family or friends– it’ll give them a chuckle and might inspire them to do the same. If you’re home alone and you’re not a fan of FaceTime, you could connect with friends through online games – there are apps for things like scrabble where you can play against other people. Anything that gets you in touch with people who make you feel good is absolutely fine (provided it’s safe and legal and keeps within social distancing rules!).
Get walking if you can
If you’re able to get out to go for a walk, do. Not only is being outside beneficial for your wellbeing but it’s also a good time to take notice of things that you don’t usually, even if you only have your local streets to patrol. You can add an extra dimension of interest by setting yourself small challenges each day. For example, look for 5 plants or flowers along the way that you think are beautiful but you don’t know what they are. Respecting people’s privacy and property, take a photograph of each of them and when you get home look them up and find out more about them. You can adapt this for other things – look for quirks in buildings, old signs or plaques and find out more about the history of your local community. If there’s just you walking, you could set up an online group using WhatsApp or similar and share a daily challenge with some friends. If there’s 4 or more people in the house and you exercise in pairs, why not use this as an opportunity to compete in an old fashioned street treasure hunt to find everyday objects? It’s probably not wise to pick things up but someone from each team could photograph their finds. Adding something like this to a daily walk occasionally can help to relieve the tedium of doing the same route every day and could help you to see the place you might otherwise just drive through in a whole new light.
Give a little
So far, we’ve hit 4 of the 5 ways to wellbeing – connect, be active, take notice and keep learning. The final way that is proven to give us a boost is ‘give’. It’s lovely to give material gifts but in the current climate that may not be financially or practically viable. You can still bring other people joy and pleasure, on a shoestring and often without leaving the house. If you have a garden and can source some seeds, why not sow some annual flowers? There may be someone in a neighbouring house who isn’t allowed to go out and a splash of colour from your garden that they can see through the window could bring them a real lift over the summer. You might need to scale it down a bit but what about a container of easy grow flowers for by the front door? If it’s something you’d like to see then the chances are that someone else will get a buzz from it too, a sort of wellbeing twofer. If you’re not a floral fiend, maybe some postcards or messages in the window for passers-by to see?
In short, these are difficult, worrying and challenging times and much of what keeps our wellbeing in shape normally is not available at the moment. There are still ways of keeping ‘wellbeing fit’ though. Take care of the practicalities, acknowledge that there are times when you might be anxious, remember that there is support online through many reputable organisations and make space to do one small thing for your wellbeing each day, even if it’s only sitting on the doorstep with a brew and a hobnob for 5 minutes away from the chaos inside. Those 5 minutes are all yours, cherish them.