Our work and personal lives can be stressful at the best of times. Enter Covid-19 and everyday challenges can feel enormous, particularly for those of us who have underlying mental and physical health challenges. We know from research that high levels of stress and sustained unpredictability can worsen our mental health. If there is no opportunity to recuperate, our physical health can also take a beating. Calls to Beyond Blue have gone up 30% in recent months and given 1 in 3 related to Covid-19, points to the current levels of anxiety and worry out there.
Humans have highly evolved brains; however, our primitive brain continues to serve its primary role of keeping us safe. It has no idea we are living in 2020, it simply wants to keep us alive by running from perceived danger. Physical and psychological stressors cause our primitive brain, more specifically the amygdala (aka our built-in danger detectors) to switch on. The Covid-19 pandemic is a significant physical stressor. Coupled with psychological stressors such as uncertainty, loss of control, loss of predictability, and the perception that things are worsening, it is not surprising that most of us are feeling some level of stress.
And if we think about it, there was very little time to prepare for all this change. No six-month change management plan to ensure the disruption to people was minimised. No project plan with objectives and milestones to execute before Covid-19 was coughed on our shores. In fact, one day, I was the only person in the family working from home, peace beautiful peace, and the next day there were four little vegemite’s under one roof.
So, what can we do to manage some of the unique and ongoing challenges we are facing you may ask? Here goes…
CHAOS AND ROUTINE
Many of us moved to work at home fulltime with little, or no notice. There was no adjustment period. Looking for the ideal work-station in the dining-room, home-schooling our kids and living under the same roof, 24/7 became a reality. To cut through this chaos, creating a routine is crucial. Our brains love routine and so focusing on regular sleep times, meal-times, break times and generally structuring the day makes it ‘feel safe’ and our stress response calms down.
UNHEALTHY HABITS AND SELFCARE
It is so easy to get into the habit of ordering takeaways, reaching for sugary snacks in the pantry cupboard and grazing all day when we are at home. Not to mention reaching out for the wine glass at 5pm and binge-watching Netflix until midnight. It takes discipline to proactively institute self-care strategies and combat our unhealthy habits. Daily exercise, cleaning up our sleep routine, eating well and drinking lots of water are vital areas to focus on. Our bodies and minds will thank us in the long run.
BRAIN FOG AND CREATING CALM
Some days we may feel that we can’t even think straight or make a simple decision. Staring at a computer all day and being on back-to-back zoom calls can make us feel mentally foggy. Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, yoga and meditation can help create some calm in our day and ground us in the present. Creating structure, focusing on today’s tasks versus a long to-do-list, and putting the TV off can also help clear the fog.
REACTING AND PUSHING PAUSE
When we are stressed, we tend to be more emotional. It is that pesky primitive brain again wanting to run screaming at the top of its voice to make sure we stay out of danger. There is no time to think and rationalise that it is 2020, and we live in a first-world country. Many of my clients have reported being more impatient, easily frustrated and less tolerant over the last few months. Before our emotions get out of control, we need to push the pause button.
This provides an opportunity to calm down and get our thinking brain back in the driver’s seat. Given our emotional centre can hijack our thinking brain, managing our emotions when they are still at low intensity is critical. Particularly if we want to successfully coax our anger down.
LONELINESS AND CONNECTION
There is a lot of research showing that loneliness can be detrimental to our mental health. If we are feeling isolated, pick up the phone and connect with family, friends or the local community. There are also several helplines that we can call (Lifeline on 13 11 14). And don’t forget to look out for those who may be on their own and have limited support. Take the time to check in with them to see if they are OK.
OXYGEN MASK AND PUTTING IT ON FIRST
Selfcare is not optional. Just like breathing through an oxygen mask in a flight emergency isn’t a nice to have. Focusing on our emotional, mental and physical health is mandatory and should be at the top of our list. We should look after ourselves daily, and not reserve it for the weekends or those annual vacations under palm trees sipping shocking pink cocktails. You get my drift as my father used to say.
So let me ask you, where does self-care appear on your to-do-list? If towards the bottom, then wake up, smell the coffee and do something about it. If in contrast it is a scrawled one liner in the top three, then keep up the excellent work!