Blog: Weathering the storm together
A health and wellbeing blog by Jo Dell, Clinical Psychologist at National Star.
There has never been a more important time to look after ourselves, our loved ones, check in with wider family, friends and neighbours and be responsible with our actions to help protect and save others. But all that stuff is going to take its toll on our emotional wellbeing, especially with fear, uncertainty, stress and anxiety spreading as fast as (if not faster than) the virus itself.
At the moment, it very much feels that we are looking into the eye of the storm – the storm of the Coronavirus pandemic. That’s why this blog post is called ‘Weathering the storm together’.
We know that the storm will pass but to help us navigate a path through this ever-changing, turbulent period, we’re all going to need a few more tools in our toolbox, a bit more fuel in our tanks, a bit more charge in our batteries…you get the idea (I’m running out of metaphors!). These will also need to be easily incorporated into our already hectic, frazzled lives.
Over the coming weeks, I will be sharing with you a range of evidence-based psychological strategies that hopefully strike a balance between helping us keep our heads during these crazy times, without unravelling (too much).
Inevitably, not all of these strategies will appeal to everyone. That’s okay – just choose which ones seem to work better for you and start to build them into your day.
The aim is to increase emotional wellbeing – some of the techniques may not be appropriate for those experiencing significant mental health difficulties, such as an episode of clinical depression, acute anxiety or panic disorder.
When we hear the words ‘pandemic’, ‘lock-down’ and ‘loo-roll shortage’, regions in our brains and nervous systems switch on like Blackpool illuminations. A small almond-shaped thing called the amygdala takes over and starts bossing everything around.
This served us very well when we were cavemen and women and was essential for our survival – it helped us not get eaten by sabre-tooth tigers and woolly mammoths. Unfortunately to the amygdala, pretty much everything looks like a sabre-tooth tiger or woolly mammoth. The amygdala has three main settings – leg it and run away from the sabre-tooth tiger as fast as possible (flight), stand your ground and fight off the sabre-tooth tiger (fight) and try to blend into the background scenery by growing roots and moss (freeze).
For a small almond-shaped thing, the amygdala is very powerful, and it floods the body with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This results in:
- physical changes (heart beating faster, breathing goes more shallow, butterflies, tense muscles, etc)
- emotional changes (fear, anxiety, irritability, etc)
- cognitive (thinking) changes (assuming that the worse is going to happen, jumping to conclusions, irrational thinking, etc) and
- behavioural changes (shouting, crying, not sleeping, feeling exhausted, wondering if it’s okay to murder someone if they channel hop again, etc).
This is all great if you happen to come across a sabre-tooth tiger or woolly mammoth during your weekly shop but for those times we don’t, we need to have an effective way of managing this by turning the volume switch down on our amygdala. This couldn’t be more important at a time when we’re trying to process reams of information and mind boggling statistics, continuously assessing and minimising risks (even close friends have become ‘risky’) and continue functioning, ‘turning up’ every day.
One of the things we can do whilst things are feeling so restricted and tight, is to create openness and space by remembering to breathe.
Breathing exercises (also called belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing) are very effective in shushing and calming the amygdala (we’re not looking to completely gag it as it does have its uses).
The general principles are:
Breathe in through the nose and slowly out through the mouth (you can let out a loud sigh if it doesn’t scare the neighbours or cat).
Try to make the outbreath longer than the inbreath. There are lots of different techniques to try so you should be able to find one that suits you. Click here for a few techniques to get you started.
Do this for a couple of minutes if you have time or a few full breaths if you don’t.
When learning this technique, it can be useful to practise it lying down as it’s easier to feel your hands moving up and down. Once you’ve mastered this, try practising whilst sitting and standing – we’re looking to be able to do this several times a day and it might not be convenient to lie down in the middle of the frozen food aisle.
It is likely that your mind will try to hijack what you doing with a million different thoughts – this is normal and we’ll look at what we can do about this in the next blog post.