*Updated on the 24th July 2021.
As my eldest child faces another birthday in lockdown, and in Melbourne we are in Lockdown 5.0, what has changed in the last 12 months?
COVID lockdowns are here to stay, at least until Australia reaches a level of acceptable vaccination. Since last year debate around vaccination effectiveness has increased. The Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) have backflipped over appropriateness of the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine for different age groups. Recently it was said not be to suitable for anyone under 60. This was shortly after I received my AZ vaccine (and I'm 54). No wonder you're confused. The TGA has received and reviewed 399 reports of deaths in people who have recently been vaccinated and found six that were linked to immunisation. Availability of both the AZ and Pfizer vaccines are limited. So whilst there is political debate about the reasons behind these limitations, this is overlaid with what vaccine is best for what age group, how to prioritise the groups to receive it, and are the risks worth it. Amidst the debate, I know young adults who have quietly taken matters into their own hands and received the AZ from the family GP, as they decided that was the best option for them..
Currently we are watching NSW try and contain the virus, particularly in Western Sydney. The Federal Government is still trying to explain why there are not enough vaccines. The States are trying to hurry along purpose build quarantine facilities. It's now normal to check in with a QR code wherever you go. Shop front businesses are struggling. Children are in and out of school and out of school activities. Parents are taking on and putting off their pseudo teaching hats. University students are having course completion dates extended because they can't do placements. Young adults are losing casual jobs because they can't go to work. People are looking for new fabric masks as the old ones are becoming worn out. New South Welshman are locked out of Victoria, Victorians not in the State are locked out of Victoria. The Olympics is going ahead without crowds, with 17% of athletes unvaccinated.
COVID-19 and COVID lockdowns are causing emotional distress in the community and amongst individuals. How do you take care of yourself in the midst of this distress?
Some initial research into the first month of COVID-19 found mental health difficulties were at least twice as prevalent as in non-pandemic circumstances. Studies into the mental health impact of COVID are ongoing, and seem to indicate that for many people once the external stress of COVID reduces, such as coming out of lockdown, levels of anxiety, psychological distress and loneliness also reduce. However for many individuals the impact is much longer lasting.
WHAT CAUSES ANXIETY?
In many people the presence of COVID-19 and being in the midst of a panademic triggers fear (as well as anger and sadness). At its most basic a pandemic represents a threat to life. Additionally, the presence of COVID-19 threatens your health, your liberty, your place in society, and exposes the divide between the haves and the have nots, both locally and globally.
The nature of Covid-19 is accompanied by factors other than physical threat that are contributing to increased anxiety, psychological distress and loneliness in the community.
These factors include loss or lack of control, the unknown, uncertainty, economic pressure and isolation; and the presence of other emotions such as sadness and anger.
Loss or lack of control
Having the government restrict movement is not something our society is used to, or likes. It raises questions such as of how far is this going? Is it needed? When your daily routine is changed by someone else this is very disruptive. Additionally, government control highlights societal vulnerability.
Societal vulnerability and level of resources
There are numerous examples of how your circumstances impact on your ability to manage Covid-19 and contribute to anxiety. I have outlined a few below
The unknown and living with uncertainty
With Covid-19 you don’t know what is going to happen next. You wait each day to see what the numbers are doing. There are have many cases of unknown origin. You don’t know where the next cases are going to be found, you don’t even know when the next press conference is going to be held. You don’t know when you’ll be put into lockdown, or how long is it going to last? Even in Victoria, the Lockdown 5.0 the roadmap is still a day by day proposition. The number one question from journalists is, when are we going to get out of this?
Your brain craves routine. We really are creatures of habits, and when the way you live is changed without your control it contributes to anxiety. Your thinking brain is designed to problem solve, and when it can’t do that effectively due to lack of information, or changing parameters, this creates anxiety.
Not knowing when it will end and what the long term repercussions will be. Will I get my job back? When will Jobkeeper finish? When can I open my business? Am I going to lose everything? These are chronic sources of stress, leading to ongoing anxiety.
Prior to Covid-19 the world was experiencing unprecedented loneliness and isolation. Although as part of Covid-19 the emphasis is on connecting people virtually, there are many, particularly vulnerable people for whom physical isolation is a significant contribution to increased loneliness.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FEEL ANXIOUS?
When anxiety, or your fear response, is triggered your body responds on instinct. It sends you into an acute stress response. Without you thinking about it, physiological changes in the body happen that are designed to keep you safe. Once your brain identifies something as a threat to your safety, it sends a message to your adrenal glands requesting energy to take action.
When your body responds a cocktail of biochemical survival hormones are released such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol, norepinpephrine and ephinephrine. These hormones influence everything you do, from eating and running to feeling, thinking and behaving. Your heart will start beating quicker as it pumps blood to the areas that your brain believes are needed right now, like your muscles. A rush of adrenaline causes your lungs to take in more oxygen which the heart pushes to the rest of the body. Your breathing becomes more rapid and shallow as the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts.
WHAT IS THE FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE?
Examples of the Fight Response
Includes arguing with the government and authorities, defiance (eg breaking the law and community standards – think house parties, extended family gatherings, toilet paper hoarding, refusing to be wear masks, check in), blame, deflect, disbelief (eg conspiracy theories) increase of domestic violence, ostracization, and abuse.
Examples of the Flight Response
Includes people fleeing to their holiday homes. Other people may avoid all societal contact, not even going out for daily walks.
Example of the Freeze Response
Think stuck brain. Inability to change routines or do anything proactive. For example – binge watching Netflix, losing track of the day, not being able to adjust to current reality.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER YOUR FEAR RESPONSE IS TRIGGERED?
Usually when the situation that triggers the fear response disappears, your body starts to return to normal. The fear response is an emergency response and is designed for short term work. However, when a threatening situation is ongoing, like the threat of COVID-19, you can start to experience chronic stress.
Without engaging in intervention, like good self-care, your feelings can start to overwhelm you.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU EXPERIENCE CHRONIC STRESS?
Some of the common effects of chronic stress can include:
HOW CAN I HELP REDUCE MY ANXIETY?
Some of these factors above you can do nothing directly to change. When a threat is ongoing, without intervention your Fear Switch will keep firing and that’s unsustainable. You will end up exhausted and your mind and body energy will run out.
I can’t get rid of the ongoing threat of COVID-19 or tell you when it will end, however, there are many things you can do help reduce your anxiety and general stress levels. I am going to share with you some practical strategies that you can do right now. This is where self-care is so important. Taking responsibility for your physical and mental health changes the focus away from what you can’t control to what you can control.
Of course, if your level of stress and anxiety is significant please seek professional assistance. There are a number of organisations providing free support especially related to COVID-19. For places other than Victoria you can always check in with your GP as your first point of call.
Reduce exposure to the news cycle.
I can’t get rid of the ongoing threat of COVID-19, or tell you when it will end, however, there are many things you can do help reduce your anxiety and general stress levels.
Focus on what you can control
Look at what you can control. Your mind is a thinking machine and left to its own devices will go over and over again all the what ifs.
Journalling is a great way to express your feelings and thoughts and help with clarity. Here is a journal prompt to help you get into a more positive and constructive mindset. Grab a piece of paper and pen and start to write - “I can control……”, or “I have control over….”. Aim to fill the whole page and start each new sentence with one of the prompts.
Move your body
To calm your body a daily walk is thoroughly recommended. I know for me Covid-19 restrictions have meant less incidental exercise., this is the exercise you do without planning for it and having to organise things. For me I have always walked when I take my children to their sport training, or watch them at activities. But their activities aren’t on at the moment. Maybe you used to walk your children to school and can’t do that anymore, or walked part of the way to work, and now you are working from home.
But I want to add in dancing, because maybe you can’t walk outside for some reason, or you just want to try something different.. This you can do in short bursts at home. Make a playlist, or just play your favourite CD, album or dance without music. Let yourself really go and move to your emotions.
Love your life
What is important to you?
How can you still access that in your current circumstances? This can require some creative thinking. What can you can do to continue your pursuit of meaning? My value of supporting people is now being expressed entirely online through telehealth, vlogs, writing, zoom meetings etc, rather than face to face.
Tune into yourself
Connect with yourself. When you acknowledge how you are really feeling, this is a way of releasing some of your feelings power over you. It may sound weird, but I encourage you to give it a go. You can simply say it aloud. “I am feeling worried”, “I am feeling stressed” etc. The emphasis is on saying the word feeling, rather than saying, “I’m so worried”, “I’m stressed”. Try it both ways and see how it feels.
You might be scared of acknowledging how you are really feeling, OR you might be totally stuck in the feeling. Either way this strategy can help. You cannot block out just one emotion successfully. If you do, you are effectively stopping your emotional message system. You become numb and unable to experience joy and other positive emotions as well. You tend to stop caring about yourself and your needs.
This is not what we want to be the legacy of COVID-19. Looking after yourself, practicing positive, practical self-care is the best way to avoid long-term mental health difficulties.
Be kind to yourself
How would it feel to treat yourself, talk to yourself like you were your best friend? You are doing the best you can at the moment. But sometimes we all need a bit of reminding. Actively practicing self-compassion can help reduce distress. Give it a go.
COVID19 is both an acute, and an ongoing stress. You might be experiencing psychological distress, anxiety and loneliness. Your feelings are moderated by past experiences, your resources, thoughts, feelings, knowledge, physical and mental health. They are also influenced by societal factors such as class, income, minority status.
You can interrupt the stress response. You can manage your feelings, think clearer, make better decisions, prevent chronic stress conditions and keep living your best life you can. Practice nurturing tuning into yourself, loving your life, moving your body, focusing on what you can control, cultivating happiness, and being kind to yourself.
Thank you for reading. If you have found this article useful, please share with someone who it might help.
Until next time, take care of yourself.
Psychologist | Fierce Self-Care Advocate.
ps 7 Mini Stress Busters is a one page download that you can stick on your fridge, and includes some of the above strategies.
pps This is how I felt coming out of Lockdown 4.0.
* My aim is for these posts is meant to useful, interesting and/or inspiring. They are not designed to be used for therapy.. If you are experiencing stress please contact your GP or mental health professional.
Kim Ross is a Psychologist and Founder of Positive Young Minds and Essential Self-Care for Psychologists.