Mental Health and COVID-19

This blog post feels a bit different to my usual blog posts but it’s in keeping with the concept of us all currently facing a highly unusual time. Time is something that is going to feel very different in the coming weeks and months.

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During the last five days of self-isolation, I’ve tried four times, to sit at my laptop and produce a blog post. My head’s had so many words in it, but each time I’ve tried to think coherently and write, a mish-mash of nonsense has appeared on the screen. I’ve been here before. I recognise the signs. It’s anxiety driven.

But actually, I haven’t been here before. None of us have. Covid-19 and its impact upon us, is part of a whole new frightening world. What started last December in Wuhan,  Eastern China, a place many of us hadn’t heard of, and which seemed so far away, is now on our doorstep.  And, of course, we all know where Wuhan is located now.

Our lives, and our little worlds, have changed for the foreseeable future. They have both become a whole lot smaller. The corona virus disease and the pandemic it’s caused, has hugely impacted our freedom of movement and that’s only the beginning of a long list of things that it’s changed.

I’ve just read that last sentence out loud; hearing and processing it makes me feel very emotional and not in a happy, joyful way. They’re emotions that sit hand in hand with an uneasy feeling that I’ve had in my tummy for days now. I know you know what I mean. I don’t need to explain.

Yesterday morning, the uneasy feeling developed into a tight knot that sat roughly in the centre of my abdomen. It woke me up, it had tied itself so tightly. Who put it there? Well, I guess I did. Or rather, my brain did. Painful muscular tension is a result of how the human body deals with stressful situations; the triggering of the stress response flooding our bloodstream with adrenalin and cortisol, preparing us for fight or flight, a highly adaptive mechanism that works exactly the same way now, as it did thousands of years ago.  This isn’t intended to be a human biology lesson but I’ve found it extremely beneficial to remind myself how our thought processes, and the way our minds cope with stress, enable and activate physical reactions in the body.  It’s how I’ve learned, over many years, to cope with anxiety and its effects on my mind and body.

Overactivation of the stress response causes a whole load of physical and emotional reactions which includes blood being driven away from the stomach, leaving you with a ‘nervous tummy’ feeling, as our blood is diverted to the large muscle groups in the legs – the ones that allow you to run for your life – away from danger. Except, we’re not going anywhere are we? We’re stuck and some of us are more stuck than others. But remember, this isn’t about me or you and our different degrees of ‘stuckness’. Because we’re all in this together and we’re all going to need a lot of help and support to get through the next few months. I recently learned about Kristin Neff’s model of self- compassion. It includes the concept of fellow human suffering. It’s something I want to read more about because my belief is this: patience, compassion, tolerance and understanding are coveted qualities and we’re going to have to dig deep to find them. If they’re qualities that you feel you’ve already got in abunandance then great, pass them on. Do the right thing and share your compassion. Don’t take twenty five toilet rolls when you only need four! Look around and take a proper look. Let’s ask ourselves a soul searching question. Who is less fortunate and less able than me? There is always somebody.

I’m in self-isolation and that’s an incovenience but I have access to what I need which  includes my daily cancer drug which is keeping me alive. You know I said earlier there’s always somebody worse off? I have friends in the cancer community who are staring death in its terrifying face because the clinical drug trial they were due to access next week is now no longer taking place.

Self-isolation is a necessary step for me because I sit in a vulnerable category. There are thousands of people, living with a whole range of medical conditions, that are going to have to do the same thing because it’s the best and right course of action to protect their wellbeing. It’s what we’re being advised to do.

Let’s try to understand better one another’s situation. Millions of people in our country are now going to bed every night faced with a level of uncertainty that was perhaps confined to the subject of a bad dream a few weeks ago. The prospect of job losses, personal income and livelihood because of this disease, is now very real. And of course, the biggest loss of all, that of human life, which to date and at the time of writing, has  tragically surpassed 5,000 in Europe alone. We know this number is growing by the day.

Physically, I can cope. I can breathe. But the mental impact of this pandemic upon us all is something entirely different.  Our lives are now filled with a level of uncertainty that is unprecedented during peace time. That feeling, of being at peace with oneself and the world seems very elusive right now. So I’m going to be reaching for my tool kit. The bag that’s got things in it that have helped me through some very difficult times. There’s stuff in there that I forgot I had. They’re things that have helped me to develop resilience and I’ve got a new tool, one that I learned yesterday which I want to share with you.

They say timing is everything and that could not be more true now, for a whole host of reasons. For me personally, I started an eight-week online mindfulness training programme three weeks ago as a lead in to a more advanced form of training later in the year. It’s going to help and support me enormously during the next few weeks. It sees me revisiting something I was first introduced to back in 2012. The organisation delivering the programme is called Breathworks. Yesterday, during the two hour online session, we were introduced to the breathing practice below. It can be done regularly throughout the day and has a gentle, grouding effect:

Step 1: Position your left hand with your palm facing upwards. Rest it in a comfortable position on your lap or, if  it feels more comfortable and you are able to, use your right hand to hold and support the underneath part of the wrist on your left hand.

Step 2. Close your eyes and take a breath in and as you do so, gently curl the fingers of your left hand inwards, until they touch the palm of your hand.

Step 3. Pause.

Step 4. Breath out and as you do so, gently uncurl your fingers until your hand is returned to its starting position.  

Step 5. Repeat this fives time.

Step 6. Repeat this exercise on your right hand.

Step 7. Open your eyes. 

Self-isolation is going to give me more time to think.   I’m going to try to use that thinking time wisely and try not to get entangled in thoughts that aren’t helpful. I hope to share some tips and techniques with you in the coming weeks that I’m finding helpful, which in turn, you might find helpful too. Apologies in advance if you see too much of me via this blog in the next few months. I might be indoors but I want to remain connected to you all.

And finally, this blog post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the enormous debt of gratitude that all of us owe to everybody in close contact with this disease who is working tirelessly to protect as many of our lives as possible from it. We remember too, those whose lives have been lost. You are in our hearts and minds.

 

 

 

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