There is no doubt about it, the pandemic is different this year to last year, and our psychological responses are different this year to last year. Although we learned many lessons about how to cope well and even thrive in 2020, we are finding that this is a different phase, this isn’t a repeat of all that we learned last year. This year has new lessons and we will be coping, surviving and maybe even thriving in different ways.
To any of us who have been through life changing situations that we did not choose and we did not wish for, we will recognise some of the pattern of this process. While we may never be glad of what we’ve been through, we may be grateful for our capacity to draw on those experiences to give us comfort and reassurance on this stage of the journey.
This isn’t going away
Casting my mind back to last year as we approached the first lockdown in the UK, I’m remembering that, in spite of the anxiety, there was a sense of novelty and energy as we faced the changes. Not always, but on the whole, we rose to the challenge, learned to Zoom, adapted our lives, pulled together and clapped for the heroes. There was a sense of getting through this crisis together. We were buoyed up not only by this sense of novelty but by a sense of hope and belief that this was a temporary measure and would not last forever.
Some of us enjoyed the quiet of lockdown, the pace, the reduction of external expectations and the chance to live a simpler life. We could hear birdsong. I particularly found it evocative being in my hometown with the traffic levels similar to when I was a child in the 60s and 70s. We felt our efforts would be rewarded, so there was a sense of agency and control. “If we do A then then B will happen.“
It is noticeable to me that some new themes are emerging in the conversations I am having with others, family, friends, colleagues and clients.
The three changes that I am going to address today are hope, planning, and energy.
Burnout; Overthinking; Loss of Hope
The map I know is that of illness, so forgive me for drawing on my experiences of the last years, yet again.
The first year of having cancer was centred around surgeries, scans, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. I definitely had the energy and strength to engage with all these things with some level of excitement. It was going to be hard but then I would be better. I threw myself into survival, heart and soul, powered by hope, a timeline and a belief that I would get back to normal.
The second and third year were far less glamorous than being supported through hair loss and other more debilitating side-effects of chemotherapy. The second and third year were boring, frustrating, and ‘meh’. The cancer journey I had imagined, based on documentary or fiction, never happened. I was alive, but still in danger, I had not returned to normal and was starting to question if I ever would. Powering through wasn’t working. I engaged in A but B never happened. Engaged in C and D, E and F, still I did not emerge into the hoped for return.
It is this place on the illness map, which may well correspond with some of your life losses and experiences, and that we are now in communally at the start of 2021.
I noticed as I went back to work last week that I didn’t feel refreshed by the Christmas break. So many of us began this year’s work still burnt out from last year’s. And we were riding the rollercoaster of hope (with the vaccine) and having our hopes challenged (because of the new variants emerging).
In the UK we were forced into overthinking. This wasn’t part of our internal process but due to multiple and rapid changes in government policy. All of us were required to make plans, change plans, review plans, cancel plans, then make plans again in a seemingly endless cycle. Anyone with an anxiety disorder would’ve been familiar with this process, but it was as if we had an anxiety process imposed upon all of us. A teacher friend of mine told me she had written her teaching plans six times over due to structural changes about how, when and where these lessons will take place! Most of us will have experienced careful planning to have a safe Christmas and that changed at the last minute, after food was bought, or not bought, after train tickets or other reservations were made. While most people I know support and agree with the need for lockdown, the constant changing of approach induced a community-wide level of adrenaline that I believe was unnecessary. The place I am most noticing the consequences of this is in a huge increase of reports of sleep problems and nightmares. It’s a clear signal of people being alert and ready to respond quickly, a survival response. Being in a constantly vigilant state will send signals to our bodies that it’s not safe to relax and rest. No wonder some of us don’t feel refreshed.
This article is about how we might approach the issues of burnout, “overthinking”, and loss of hope through self care, planning structure and re-framing hope.
First, part of self-care is simply acknowledging truth. There is a popular approach to New Year and resolutions as if somehow a date on the calendar will provide us with the energy and opportunity to return our lives to normal, or even to make them better, and to take control. Some people have experienced the usual disappointment of the promise of a new year not being what we hoped, more profoundly this year than other years. It’s a common experience, which is why the third Monday in January is considered to be Blue Monday.* Some of the reason for Blue Monday, is to do with the realisation of having overstretched hope to unrealistic expectations. Loss of hope can lower our mood.
Starting where we are, working with what we have
Take that first step of honesty: What are your honest energy levels? What are your honest needs? What is your honest capacity? Having an honest and truthful relationship with ourselves is hugely powerful. Tell the truth.
Hope is possible but perhaps not for what we would like it to be. Making our hopes more realistic, taking into account our honest situation, we have more chance of achieving fulfilment in the moment, in the now.
Part of grief is acceptance of the change and that something is gone. This grasping obsession with ‘returning to normal’, I completely understand from my own experience and suffered a great deal because of it. If we can focus on hopes other than a return to normal we have a much better chance of being helped by hope rather than thwarted by it.
I invite you to challenge your attachment to life as it was before, to ‘a return to normal’. It may feel difficult to let go of this hope, but it makes space for different hopes.
We absolutely need hope and we need to have some plans and some timescale in our lives. It’s so hard to live in limbo. Accepting the limbo, what structure can we have? What help can we have? When I was very stuck in the limbo place it was about immediate comforts, the heated blanket on the sofa, my book on audible, a nap.
Finding agency within our situation is possible. Some people might have fitness goals, increasing their steps each day. My personal goal is simple, and that is to keep my stress arousal levels low enough to experience a sense of safety and peace, to not get stressed.
We often talk about self-care but I cannot emphasise enough how important this is right now. It begins with the honesty as above and is essential to a sense of trust that somebody is looking after us. This in turn will increase a sense of safety and lower our adrenaline levels and our stress arousal. This is not simply a time to maintain self-care, I invite you to increase it. Could you increase your self care by 10%? If you increased your self-care today what would you do?
1 Truth: Speak the truth to yourself.
2 Hope: Revise your plans so that self agency can be used to meet your goals,
rather than being dependent on an external variable.
3 Love: Self care is more important;
remembering others are not their best selves is also a useful reminder during these times.
To summarise: This year is different. Tell the truth. Do not give yourself, or others, artificial pep talks. Have agency in the areas that you can. The main area that you can have agency in is self-care. If the self-care comes from an honest place you will build a relationship for life with yourself and find your hopes are more attuned to possibility and that they are achievable.
Daily awareness of what is good in the moment. Why don’t you request to join my lockdown Facebook group, Niceolation: A Thousand Beautiful Things? There are daily prompts for focus on the moment through our senses and to enjoy every day objects or experiences.
Staying aware and thinking about your approach. You can follow my therapy business on my Facebook page — Miriam Blue Skies — I haven’t posted there as much as I’d like but I do post thoughts and tips, articles and blogs there.
Groups and courses to explore personal resilience some more. I’ve no places for private therapy at the moment but my Nourish and Nurture Group has been hugely helpful and supportive for 11 women over this last winter and will run again October 2021 — March 2022. My Tending to your Sore Heart course will run for 4 weeks in April and is for those recovering from the end of a relationship. More details of my groups can be found here.
*What is Blue Monday?
Blue Monday is usually the third Monday of January in the UK. But don’t worry it doesn’t mean that you will feel blue on that Monday!
It was originally calculated as a marketing strategy, so that companies could take advantage of our susceptibility to purchase holidays.
It is important that we consider a mental health 365 days of the year, however Blue Monday can serve as a useful time to consider the impact of the season on our mood and to look at tips for managing.
It is interesting to think that marketers understand this as a time when having hope, something to look forward to, a date on the calendar when things will be better, seems particularly necessary for many people.