For many the idea of going back into busy social situations and retuning to your workplace is both an exciting and a frightening prospect.
Some people are dreading the end of lockdown. They have adapted to all the social changes and isolation. They feel safe and in control with regulations and firmer guidelines around social distancing.
They fear being invited to occasions where people won’t have the same concerns and beliefs.
They have become detached from the way things used to be before the pandemic and the thought of going back to sitting on a full bus or having a coffee in a busy cafe is overwhelming.
The prospect of lockdown ending and returning to our old life no longer feels like freedom, it feels intimidating.
Don’t forget we’re all tired. It’s been a long year of adjusting to living in the strange pandemic world of isolation, staying home, and cabin fever with many of our normal coping mechanisms out of bounds. Stepping back into the world will take yet another huge adjustment.
When your car breaks down you either know how to fix it or how to find someone who can. But we have no previous experience to help us here.
We’ve been given a roadmap for the easing of lockdown but no help with all the complicated emotions that this throws us into.
So I thought I would give you an emotional roadmap with some tools to put into your toolkit in case there’s a bump in the road.
Tool 1: Make your own timetable
Give yourself permission to take things at your own pace. Even if regulations change, it doesn’t mean that you have to move at the same pace. Take control of as many decisions as possible and you can ease back into the outside world when you feel comfortable.
Make your own changes when you are feeling emotionally strong enough.
Can you try to live your life by prioritising your emotional wellbeing, and keeping this at the forefront of your mind when you are making decisions?
It can feel selfish and self-centred to start with, especially if you have always taken care of the needs of others first. But it’s not. It’s self care, in the true sense of that word. It’s more a question of balance. It’s putting yourself at least equal first.
As the saying goes: You can’t pour from an empty cup.
If you can decide to only do what you can cope with, it will be easier to boundary your choices. If going to a BBQ in someone’s garden feels too much for you, it’s ok not to go. If people at work don’t respect the distance that you feel comfortable with, it’s ok to say.
Future planning and thinking through where and when you go out will help limit the situations that you feel uncomfortable in and the amount of people around you.
It takes mental energy and courage to hold your boundaries. But even more energy to cope with doing the things that make you feel unsafe, uncomfortable and stressed.
Tool 2: Talk about it
You have one tool in your kit that you can always use: talking about your feelings.
Open up to someone about it. The chances are they will also be feeling some of the same emotions. Going through difficult things together is a great way to start to see everything differently.
I often hear clients say what a relief it is just to talk to someone outloud; to get something out of their head is the biggest relief.
So why do we avoid it or believe that it wouldn’t help?
There are a lot of reasons people find talking about our problems difficult. Family rules, social norms and cultural expectations can pressure us to keep things internal with messages that encourage us to just carry on, to not bother others with our troubles, to always put on a brave face. We hide from our troubles, our discomfort, our guilt and our shame with distractions and avoidance.
It feels too overwhelming to start talking.
Talking to a trusted friend, posting or commenting on social media (#itsgoodtotalk), find a therapist or try being open about your struggles can be such a relief.
Putting your feelings down on a page in a journal can also help to get thoughts out of your head.
But the act of sharing what your daily life is like can help you and others realise that you’re not alone and that what feels overwhelming is actually normal.
Just letting out your feelings with no real plan for a solution is a good place to start.
“I’m finding things worrying at the moment” can be a the opening of a conversation that helps you begin.
Your brain and body get a lot out of talking.
When you’re struggling with intense feelings and emotions - in particular anxiety, fear and threat - your amygdala is on full alert. This is the part of your brain that handles your fight/flight/freeze response. Its job is to identify and respond to threats. In the first place survival. And when we are stressed it overrides the areas of the brain that process in a more logical way.
But research shows that by putting your feelings into words reduces the response of the amygdala so that things feel less upsetting. You have the negative feelings either way, but if you hold back the stressful thoughts and feelings you have to work to repress them as well. This is exhausting, uses up energy and makes it more difficult to cope.
Talking things through really can be a vital first step.
Tool 3: Know the symptoms of anxiety
Recognising and noticing if you have symptoms of anxiety can help you make good choices for yourself. If you realise that you’re feeling overwhelmed by these feelings you can start to use your toolkit.
Symptoms of anxiety can be:
- Sleep problems
- Dry mouth
- Shaking hands
- Shallow breathing
- Racing heart
- Tight chest
- Digestion issues
- Recurring negative thoughts
- Hyper vigilance
- Difficulty concentrating
- Jaw clenching
- Back and shoulder pain
- Fear of going out
- Burning sensations
- Tingling or numbness
- Excessive yawning
- Difficulty swallowing
- Feeling detached from reality
- Cold hands and feet
Keep track on how your body and mind are feeling as stress and anxiety left untreated can start to impact all areas of your health and quality of life. Don’t leave it too long to ask for help from your doctor.
Ask yourself every morning, or write in a journal or make some Notes on your phone:
“How am I feeling?
What’s my energy level today?
Am I feeling threatened?
What one thing can I do to help myself feel safer?”
Is there something you can do to help reduce your symptoms?
Tool 4: Know what helps you feel safe
Do you know the things that help you feel safe? I’m talking emotionally safe as well as physically safe. Where and when do you feel safe? Do you have the grown up equivalent of a blankie?
Do you have a photo of a time when you felt loved and happy? Maybe make it your screen saver. Or make it into a poster and put it opposite your bed.
Is there a time in your life that you felt secure and attached in your relationships?
Are there lovely sounds (birdsong for me) or scents (Fig as it reminds me of special people in my life) that soothe you?
I know someone that sprays the inside of her mask with her mother’s favourite perfume. It helps her feel calm and close to her mother, even when she can’t be with her.
For some people safety comes from feeling warm, feeling fit, having a full fridge, having a tidy home or feeling in financial control.
And in these days it’s planning where and when you go so that you feel comfortable with the amount of people around you. Is there a different route to work that is less stressful?
I encourage my clients to know the things that help them feel in control and safe so that they can create a safe space at home full of all the tools in your emotional safety box. Is there a corner that would help soothe and calm you?
Tool 5: Connect with your breath
If you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious or panicky there is no more powerful tool than to focus on your breath.
By practicing Square Breathing (on the boxcards in M+E supplements) you can switch your body and mind from fight/flight/freeze and into rest and digest. All you have to do is take and hold deep breaths right down into your diaphragm - place your hand on your stomach to feel it.
This can be done wherever you like - while at your desk, when you boil the kettle, at a red light or pacing as you walk, run or climb steps.
Breathe in deeply
Hold your breath
Get into nature:
Forest bathing and the natural phytoncides emitted by trees help to calm us down. Use your daily exercise hour to get outside and head for a green space. Ground yourself and sit under a tree if you can. Take some deep breaths and do your Square Breathing.
Take a moment to ground yourself and get into the moment with this exercise:
Stop + notice where you are in this moment.
Close your eyes, take a long slow breath + when you open them find:
things you can SEE
things you can HEAR
Things you can SMELL
Things that you can TOUCH
Thing that you can TASTE
Keep your attention on the here + now
Tool 6: Nutrients for anxiety
Help your brain slow down and feel calm by boosting your GABA neurotransmitter. Your brain needs the right ingredients to produce plenty of calm brainwaves and to recharge, helping you relax feel calmer and sleep better.
You can do this by adding lots of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables to the foods that you eat.
Foods to help anxiety:
- Brazil nuts
- Salmon, Mackerel, Fresh tuna
- Flax seeds
- Dark chocolate
- Red and orange fruit and vegetables
- Yogurt, Kefir, fermented foods
- Green Tea
If you feel burned out and depleted try taking some Omega 3, methylated B vitamins, glutamine, theanine, magnesium and probiotics (try Calm Me) to give your body everything it needs to replenish.