This week is Mental Health Week in the UK. In normal circumstances, issues surrounding mental health are critically important and deserving of attention. In today’s world turned upside down by COVID-19, this importance has increased further. Many of us are under greater strain, managing difficult personal circumstances. Lockdown has presented new challenges for those with mental health conditions isolated from loved ones and from the vital services they depend on.
To mark this week, the CPI team has come together to share our own experiences. We believe that the more we talk about the issues around mental health, the more normal it becomes. In this ‘Slackticle’ (Slack thread turned into an article), we answer the question:
‘How have you been feeling? What’ve you been doing to maintain your mental health?’
I’ve felt my anxiety, stress and anger levels increase during lockdown. Primarily motivated by dealing with care issues for my dad, and the challenges of dealing with incredibly inflexible and difficult bureaucracy. Some days it’s been really tough because you feel like a failure, or that you’re overreacting, and I always have at the back of my mind the social workers you deal with have the power to remove you and family from decisions and that’s incredibly stressful.
So the positive steps I’ve taken. I’ve had to accept that there are things I do that are inevitably stressful and unavoidable.
I try to talk about it with close friends, and really talk out my stress and anxiety. It’s often more than just as surface level moan, but I often have to go over and over something before I’ve got it out of my system.
Talk about it, talk about it again, and keep talking until it’s no longer dominating your thinking.
Personally, it has been an interesting journey. I’m a person who normally catastrophizes things. So in a normal world, I’m able to rationalise and get out of the spiral. It is harder to do that when you are in an actual catastrophe of global proportions. So this has me regularly thinking about doomsday scenarios; is my family safe; what about our finances; will my wife being furloughed impact my visa application; will my wife’s company fold? It can be hard to get out of that cycle. When locked in, that can sometimes mean I’m not the best fun to be around (which generally increases guilt and makes me feel worse).
What positive things do I do about this? I think I can probably do better here. I try to talk to my very supportive and understanding partner. I try to do some exercise. I try to rationalise and take proactive steps to minimise the chance of the worst case scenario actually happening, so that I’m in control of the situation, and the situation isn’t in control of me.
But sometimes I have to realise I’m not in control, and can’t be, I shouldn’t try to be.
I can’t control what is going to happen with the virus, or the economy, or when schools open. So I have to put that aside and stop worrying about it. Rather than take some kind of ownership of it, because there is literally nothing I can do – and sometimes, that’s ok.
Being a person that’s pretty chill about most things, lockdown has definitely tested my mental state.
I’ve worried about the health of my family, partner, friends, job security (having enough toilet roll) and hundreds of other things.
One thing that I really rely on is my daily routine of going to the gym. For me, it is like a little ritual I use to de-stress, let out anything that’s playing on my mind and get some clarity on my thoughts. Sounds silly, but I did have a little panic at the beginning of lockdown as to how I was going to cope without my daily dose of exercise.
To combat all of this, I’ve found accepting you’re not going to be running at 100% helpful, it takes the pressure off. Good enough is okay.
Trying to keep to a routine has helped massively. Although I can’t pump the iron as normal, I’ve found ways to get a decent workout to stay active and de-stress. I always add a workout to the top of my daily to-do list and try my best to work down it.
At home, my wife and I have figured it’s probably best we share with each other when I shouldn’t walk through the kitchen in a pair of pants. Starting the day with a coffee together, sharing what we’ve both got going on, and when we need space, has been massive.
Personally, starting a gratitude diary has been a game changer. There’s a lot happening that isn’t ideal, but there’s also a lot we can be thankful for. I use the ‘Gratitude App’ at the end of each day. It’s simple to use and gives you a little nudge to reflect.
I personally have felt I have been oscillating quite a bit during lockdown.
At times, I feel the longer we spend in lockdown, the more I adjust to the stay-at-home life and feel comfortable in my flat. Other times, I feel the longer we stay in lockdown, the more trapped and stir crazy I feel, and really just want to go outdoors and talk to people.
At times, I feel the bright optimism around the chance for change this crisis may represent, a better future that will come out of the other side. Other times, I feel so pessimistic and sad about all the terrible health and economic impacts I am seeing in my world and in others.
I feel a routine helps to maintain some order, structure, and perception of control amidst the chaos. Other times, I feel so bored by doing the same thing every day and night.
Upon reflection, I have been feeling many different things at different times and do not quite know what it all means. What I do know though is there have been some positive, creative things I have started doing that I certainly wasn’t doing before and that are good for my mental health, such as:
- Painting – I am quite awful, but I have started doing water colour and have found it relaxing and fun.
- Poetry – I used to write poems a lot growing up, but haven’t written any for a while. I rediscovered my interest in this and wrote some poems for families and friends.
- Cooking – while I miss my favourite restaurants, I have enjoyed cooking new meals. For Mother’s day, I led my Mom and the rest of the family through a virtual “homemade pasta making” class using Padella’s cacio e pepe recipe (which I highly recommend!)
If anyone told me this would happen three months ago, I’d have said “well that will finish me off!” I feel positive right now because, as an extroverted character who NEEDS others, FEELS everything and THRIVES off a good night out with my gals and LOVES to look my best, I’ve done rather well having none of that.
There have been dark days where I think “what about my kids’ lives? What about my parents who don’t live here and who I miss? What will become of us and of them?” But in those darker moments in my head, and they do come, I’ve got to congratulate myself that I am fitter (I jog daily now!), stronger and more informed about the needs of my family and me and why I do this job at all.
I don’t need all that I thought I did. I can find motivation in me. Or I say “it’s okay it’s just one of those days”. Before, I’d get in a state about one bad day, one bad conversation. I would think I can’t juggle work and kids, but now I see all parents are thinking that too. We can only do our best, and on calls we tell one another about it. Our kids are part of what life is about and what drives me – why do I hide them? I don’t have to anymore. There’s relief in that now.
On a negative, I’m not dealing well with knowing others are not coping. It makes me lie awake at night feeling guilty. My kids are lucky (and I tell them!), there are others who have no education and fear being at home and have limited space. How can I help them? I try to channel that desire to help into my work and our team feels as committed to do good. I feel we are together, and forgive one another’s imperfections more. So look, I just got positive again!
Finally marriage, well I never signed up to this! My marriage was based on a mutual understanding of our respective needs to be individuals. Anyone who knows me knows I’m fiercely independent. We have proven we are a strong team, but it’s hard to find the moments to feel alone and at times I think “am I doing all the cooking again? What happened to feminism here?” and he gets an earful. But now I see and appreciate what my partner does for us. It’s teamwork.
This makes us parent together more, rather than ships passing in the night. But it does put a strain on us. I feel my schools need to be more visible. Not just tasking with more exercise papers, but providing motivation and encouragement to the children on video and maybe to us parents too homeschooling! My son is entering teenagehood and the moods that come with it. He and his sister fight then love every half an hour. It drains me. He too needs his space to lash out. I worry for his mental health.
If he walks over to me for a hug in the middle of a call I give fully. I can always go off camera.
So like any partnership, work, home and marriage and friendship – it’s all an adjustment and work in progress. I guess what’s lifted is pressure to be the best, look my best and need others to tell me I’m doing great. I have to welcome that it’s enough to know it in myself. Of course I won’t change who I am but I can reason much better with myself. I’ll hold onto that.
One thing that I constantly read is how people are feeling isolated. For me, I have had the opposite issue – I felt overstimulated with social interactions, and then I felt guilt about this sentiment when so many are struggling from isolation.
While I am outgoing, I value alone time to recharge. Pre-COVID, the majority of my weekdays had low interaction beyond with my partner. I own a business that has always used a remote structure, I work a lot (admittedly a bit too much), and regularly exercise and cook – so my weekdays were pretty much accounted for. My friends and family were all used to my lifestyle, so they wouldn’t be upset if I took a day to respond to texts or saved all of my phone calling and outings for the weekend (plus, they were busy too). With COVID-19 that has changed, others around me are now alone far more than they are used to, and they are craving social interaction. I found myself with at least 1 Skype date per day and a constant stream of text messages.
For the first chunk of quarantine, I was dedicated to being there for everyone, and it was exhausting.
After coming down with COVID myself and still attempting to maintain my 24/7 emotional support for loved ones, I knew things weren’t sustainable. I took a step back and recognized that feeling overstimulated is valid, emotional labor is taxing. In fact, no feelings are ‘wrong,’ especially right now – this is a strange time and we will all react differently. Over the last few weeks, I have been working to carve out time for myself by:
- Letting my loved ones know I was exhausted: I gave them a heads up that, sometimes, I needed to unplug. If they needed me urgently, they could reach me via a phone call.
- Picking 3x/week to fully unplug: I turn on airplane mode and spend an evening or full weekend day recharging. I even put an auto-response on my phone to let people know why they weren’t hearing from me during my mental health recharge time. To my initial surprise, my friends and family have all been extremely supportive and some have even taken up the practice.
- Going on surprise dates: I am fortunate enough to be quarantined with my now-fiancé (COVID engagement!). Each week, we plan a surprise date for the other person where we unplug and focus on being present together. The limits of being locked in/social distancing have made us think creatively and led to some fun new experiences; sunset on the roof, baking together, attempting to do headstands, exploring long-deserted spaces nearby.
As a social person who thrives on the energy of others, I struggled being isolated alone. I often felt lonely and way too deep into my own thoughts, to the extent that I sometimes felt scared of myself.
Thoughts of my family in Italy becoming sick, and uncertainty about the future, was top of my mind most days.
Initially, I tried to make up for it by having video calls with families and friends, but I sometimes found it hard to be my full self in those, especially when they involved lots of people. COVID-19 was always the main topic of conversation, making it harder to stop those automatic negative thoughts.
Eventually, I started finding coping mechanisms that work for me. Starting the day with exercise, going for daily walks without my phone, sticking to 1:1 video calls rather than group ones, reading novels (I used to be bad at it as I normally read non-fiction) and learning new things (picked up juggling again and started a course on how memory works). I was also happy to be able to build a relationship with an elderly neighbour who I met through a volunteering programme and who I now speak to on the phone every week. Somehow she manages to stop worrying every time, by telling me stories of growing up in Grenada and raising her three children.
I am definitely starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and when I look back at the toughest days, I feel that I have come a long way building resilience that is there to stay.
The first weeks of lockdown were really tough. I’m an extroverted, outgoing person, and getting used to staying at home proved difficult. On top of this, I have been away from my family, with my dad continuing to work as a bus driver, and my mum a nurse in a COVID ward. This made for worrisome nights, sad calls with my mum, and knowing that even when people are allowed to enter other houses again, I still won’t be able to return to mine until she is no longer a high risk.
Despite these problems, I knew I was in a very lucky position, and I tried to use this to remind myself to be grateful. I have a roof over my head, a spacious one with outdoor space. I have sociable housemates who are all good friends. I have my boyfriend with me, who is there for support otherwise it could’ve been very easy to go mad! I am working from home, still with an income, still with my health.
It’s easy to get absorbed in thinking only about the negative things, and get so lost in our worries and stress, that we forget what we have right in front of us.
Like many others, I’ve tried to use this time to try new things, and get more in touch with family and friends. My findings so far:
- Yoga is relaxing but also HURTS!
- Sourdough starters require lots of patience
- Long walks with podcasts in ears will always be therapeutic
- Zoom pub quizzes & challenges can be as hectic and fun as in real life!
- Weekends in lockdown CAN BE FUN. For example, themed Saturdays like barbecues, Mexican, ‘wellness’ (veggie food, painting and yoga)
- If all else fails, books will always help. I’m making my way through Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, and Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
For me, similar to Nadine, if someone had told me this would happen I would have been terrified about how it would make me feel. I thrive off socialising and being around people! How will I continue to be myself and find joy?!
There are days where I really miss my friends, family and freedoms that I took for granted (like being able to go outside for hours on end, or even just pop into the local pub for a pint!).
But it has also made me realise that I was doing a lot of things in my life because I felt I had to.
Being made to stop doing any of that has made me realise what I really value and need to be happy, and what I definitely don’t miss and only do because of an internal pressure, like running around London on a weekend trying to catch up with everyone and their mother.
It has given me a new sense of freedom from the obligations I put on myself, and pressure that the hamster wheel of working life can sometimes make seem very real. It’s made me reflect a lot on my mental health and what some of the drivers for good mental health are for me.