Coronavirus – how will you use this time?

In light of the current Covid-19 pandemic I have recently found myself wondering how our drastically altered lifestyles are affecting us all at an emotional level. And I don’t just mean the obvious anxieties we hold around our employment, finances, housing, food access or health either.

My thoughts are turned more towards what happens when we remove our go-to coping strategies which occupy much of our time; our work, spending, shopping, socialising, leisure time and all other forms of distractions. I recently read a comment by a psychoanalysist who suggested that we will all project our biggest fears onto this virus, and from observations in my daily and clinical life I tend to feel this is a fairly accurate statement.

I am witnessing a great number of individuals in unhappy or unsatisfying relationships being forced to spend time with one another, with no means of getting away or consciously dissociating from their problems.

We are being called upon to tackle our elephants in the room.

In my view, this gives us a number of options to consider. Do we fully address the personal and interpersonal challenges in a constructive way, abandon ship, or continue to put our hands over our eyes and ears pretending everything is normal? Undoubtedly this incredibly trying time calls for each of us to pull on our inner and outer resourcefulness and compile an emotional and practical stock-take of all the things that serve (and no longer serve) our needs.

There has never been a better time to get the psychological house in order, utilise our time wisely, reflect, and plan for the future. Are you happy? What do you need? Where do you want to be? These are all areas of our lives which require (and deserve!) our attention as we contend with taking the difficult immediate steps to ensure our current safety and survival.

Perhaps some good can come of this crisis, that we may find an improved version of ourselves, focused more inwards on our spiritual and emotional well-being, rather than reaching for endless distractions to unsuccessfully plug the hole.

I hope you stay safe and wish you well.

Take care,

Steph x

Struggling to switch-off? Stop trying!

The last Friday before Christmas is almost upon us. The end of the working year rushes into sight and the promise of a hefty break wafts into the room.

Tips for switching off floods social media with the obvious suspects of mindful breathing, CBT strategies, meditation and yoga – but what if these relaxation techniques just don’t work for you?

What if trying to relax stresses you out?

If you’re struggling with feelings of anxiety or are going through burnout you might feel frustrated and a bit hopeless that nothing really works to truly calm all that inner-buzzing.

And whilst therapists, gurus and self-helpers tout the benefits of quietness and turning inwards, for those who have experienced trauma or raised in an environment of dysfunction, having external stresses suddenly taken away can actually feel overwhelming. Rest and relaxation can quickly become fraught with sensations of restlessness, muscle fatigue, cramps and general fidgety agitation.

In a nutshell, doing nothing to find your inner-peace may well be counter-productive.

So what can you do when your off-switch is firmly wedged on? My clinical supervisor talked today about going with the flow of your own internal tick-rate, that is, if you’re a person used to running on adrenaline coming to a sudden stop can feel a bit like someone has unplugged your treadmill mid-sprint.

She suggested to me that high-energy types (such as myself!) may ultimately feel more relaxed by engaging in something of an equally high energy. Interesting concept.

Personally I like to drum (Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age, anything beefy and loud..) which paradoxically keeps me still, present, engaged and mindful. Others may find intense physical activities relaxing. Maybe throwing yourself around the living room screaming to Slade in your Christmas undies is your thing. Whatever works, works.

Don’t be fooled into thinking switching off needs to be a certain way. If sitting watching Netflix actually fills you with wall-climbing tension, listen to the feelings and take care of your body.

Find your own groove. And a very Merry Christmas.

The Christmas Survival Guide (or how to avoid a meltdown)

It’s that special time of year again where we are bombarded by cosy television adverts featuring ‘perfect’ happy families enjoying ‘perfect’ magical scenes eating ‘perfect’ celebratory lunches. Back in reality though it’s also that time of year where we often find ourselves rushing around like headless chickens trying to compete with such manufactured scenes, and feeling somewhat disappointed that our ‘big day’ doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Our spouse wakes up in a grumpy mood after too many tipples left out for Santa the night before, our children squabble over suspicious smelling sprouts and retreat into a world of smartphones, and oh dear, the roast potatoes are burned to a crisp. Is it any wonder so many of us go into seasonal meltdown?

A 2014 study shows that just over one in four women feel stressed about Christmas preparations, whilst one in three people in general are worried about the financial strain it brings. Gideon Skinner (Head of Political Research at Ipsos MORI) said:

Christmas is meant to be a time for sharing – but our survey suggests the burden isn’t shared totally equally between men and women. Women are twice as likely to say they feel stressed about their Christmas preparations, while nearly a quarter of men say they haven’t done any of their Christmas shopping so far.”

At this time of year from a counselling point of view I see a sharp increase in the number of clients feeling very worried about Christmas with many reporting worsening stress, anxiety and depression.

Are we taking on too much or simply blowing things out of proportion?

It’s no joke that rushing around the high street, queuing up for lengthy periods and over-facing yourself with military-style duties is going to increase your blood pressure and with many of us having such limited time to get things done it can become incredibly easy to succumb to a sheer sense of panic.

So what can we do? Here’s my top five list of things to help you beat the winter frenzy and keep your cool when the kitchen’s hot.

RELAX It might seem glaringly obvious but a quick grounding in yourself will help snap you back into the present moment and stop you feeling caught up in the external chaos.

I recommend you find a quiet spot wherever you can (even if it’s the public loos if you’re out and about) and concentrate on your breathing – inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of five and exhaling slowly through your mouth for a count of seven. Keep your eyes closed and put a hand on your chest to connect you with your heartbeat.

Repeating this process for even just a few minutes will immediately decrease your heart rate, encourage deeper breathing (goodbye tight anxious chest..) and start to relax the tension in your muscles.

PRIORITISE Rome was not built in a day and spoiler alert… there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ Christmas. Believe me, I’m sure Jamie Oliver and his wife bicker over the washing up and Nigella buggers up the sprouts. Don’t be fooled by the mass media whose sole purpose is to encourage you to spend, spend, spend.

Remember that what you see on TV is completely fabricated and staged. The happy family you are watching likely only met each other that morning and aren’t even related.

Work yourself out a schedule (or even just a basic list) so that tasks get broken down into manageable chunks. Shop online if you can and make sure you leave yourself lots of time so you aren’t panicking at the last minute.

And be sensible. Do you really have time to arrange a three-course meal for fifteen relatives? If the answer is no you might want to ask yourself why you are going to such lengths. Duty? Obligation? Remember, this is not your responsibility to deal with alone which leads us nicely to…

ASK FOR HELP – For the love of Christmas, remember to delegate! Any successful project manager will ensure they utilise every possible resource at their disposal, so be smart and play to everyone’s strengths. For example – if you have a colleague who is nipping out over lunch to pick up a few things, why not ask if they could also collect some things for you too?

By all means make sure it is a fair swap and return the favour – maybe Carol in Accounts could be responsible for your food shop whilst you pick up all the smellies for her Book Club? Team your time wisely and chant the mantra – Bite. Size. Chunks.

JUST STOP – Now I know that if you want to feel more efficient then taking a break will probably seem counter-productive, but seriously it will help and there’s an important science behind this.

When we are operating within our normal parameters of stress (the day to day stuff) we can function reasonably well and process all the bits of information coming into our brains. But when we become exposed to too much stress our bodies go into a state of either hyper-arousal (the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ response – hypervigilance, anxiety, panic) or hypo-arousal (the parasympathetic immobilised response – numbness, freezing).

In either case the stress hormone cortisol will be flying around your bloodstream causing all kinds of mischief (memory loss, inability to concentrate, confusion, irritability) making everything seem like an uphill struggle.

It can seem all too easy to be seduced by the internal anxiety which screams, ‘BUT I’VE GOT TOO MUCH TO DO’ but that’s your primal adrenal glands talking – not your common sense. You are not in danger.

To regain control over your central nervous system try taking a nap, walking the dog, listening to music, doing meditation, yoga or Tai Chi. You will be amazed at just how much clearer you feel after taking a short break and remember – subjecting your body to anything which puts your health in potential jeopardy is really not worth it in the grand scheme of things. And lastly…

ENJOY YOURSELF – This is your time too. Don’t kid yourself that you’re responsible for everything, learn to let go. So, run yourself a bath, pour a glass of wine, and ease yourself into the festive spirit. Nothing needs to be perfect (and besides, nothing ever is) and this is not the end of the world. Applying the basic time-management and grounding techniques mentioned here will free up some headspace for you to have fun.

Christmases come in all shapes and sizes and some of the best ones I’ve ever had have been where I’ve switched off my phone, barricaded the door and spent some quality time alone. You are certainly not obliged to do anything you don’t feel comfortable doing.

Christmas can be a difficult, lonely, nostalgic and sad time for many and there are no right or wrong feelings to be had. Feeling a pressure to ‘switch off’ any present negative feelings simply because it’s Christmas will only make you feel worse (fighting the feelings/ keeping up a façade) so please allow yourself to just BE and go with the flow. Doing what feels right for you isn’t selfish – it’s basic self-care.

Wishing you all a very peaceful, merry (and stress free!) holiday time.

Steph x

Steph Jones (MBACP PGDip BSc Hons)
BACP Registered Counsellor and Psychotherapist

Counselling for Stockport