It was around this time last year that things started to change for us. Post the initial inertia amid the pandemic, many gradually adjusted, resolved to persist and saw through the increasingly stressful incomings through the year. Even so, to say that we have gotten used to the restrictions, anxiety, masks, no school, virtual meetings, cars and outings reeking of sanitisers, will be far from the truth.
2020 ended with a high note of vaccinations on the horizon and a desperate hope of a truly trying year finally coming to a close.
While a broad generalisation, psychologists were approached mainly for clinical or diagnosable concerns, post firm or repeated referrals by psychiatrists, school or college principals, medical doctors or brought in by well-meaning relatives or friends. In the last year however, people got into therapy for several reasons other than disease management. Besides coping with a global threat of a potentially fatal disease, we fought multiple daily irritants pushing people to inquire about tools and strategies to cope. From “presenting problems” usually being anxiety, psychosis, depression, I began to see job loss, loss of a family member, child addicted to gaming, couple conflict, missing socialising and stress due to homeschooling as common reasons for people contacting me.
I give so many people credit for rising up to the challenge of both the seekers and providers of support and crisis management. After trudging up four hundred and something days, stressors and triggers haven’t reduced. Our physical and emotional muscles ache with fatigue, giving way to doubt, fear and hopelessness.
How do we get through such a time in life?
At this point, it is important for us to understand the body and mind connection and the role of stress in our acceptance of and adapting to the “new normal”.
The body-mind relationship suggests that the causes, progression and consequences of a physical illness are impacted significantly by the interplay of psychological, social factors. Research also proves that biological factors, neurotransmitters, hormones and other brain processes impact emotions and coping.
Emotional health can be affected not just from “tough life events” like divorce, lay-off or death of a loved one, but even “good life events” such as a promotion, marriage or birth of a baby. The so-called “routine” events such as planning a daily meal, fighting rush hour traffic, meeting a deadline, unrealistic self-expectations, and interpersonal relationships can also trigger stress.
Our body responds to this stress in various ways. Inflammation, pain, high blood pressure, skin rashes, ulcers, indigestion, fatigue, headaches, shortness of breath, and sleep disturbances are some manifestations.
One way or the other, the body-mind inter-dependency proves one thing for sure. Stress doesn’t help. Stress can cause disease, reduce immunity and reduce quality of life. This implies that we need to find a way to first, perceive things in way that they do not cause stress and put the brain and body in flight, fight or freeze mode. Secondly, if a situation does cause stress, how do we cope and reduce the impact of the body’s reaction to stress on our mind and emotions?
I have four rules for us to follow and stay on in the field.
1. Stay relaxed
If there was one thing I could include today in school and college curriculums, it would be teaching children how to relax. We often hear and preach the word “relax”, “chill” and “calm down” but how many of us actually know how to do it? From breathing techniques to sensory-specific stimulus, guided meditation, yoga or yoga nidra, invest in exploring and practicing different relaxation techniques.
2. Stay focussed
“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” – William James
Setting specific goals, breaking them down into steps and setting a comfortable pace in order to make daily small contributions towards them help staying focussed. Using multi-sensory input for reminders of our goals, such as visual posters, post-its, auditory reminders and even situational or contextual reminders such as “every time I sit in the car”, or “every time I hold a cup of coffee in my hand”, can help with regular goal reviews and taking note of progress and achievement.
3. Stay optimistic
Believing that this moment is the best possible now, keeps me marching forward. Our motivated attention, an attitude of hope and belief systems need to sing to us that today is as good as can be and that tomorrow will be better.
A study showed that perceived stress (correlated with pessimistic perceptions) and fatigue are related constructs. There is a notable association between fatigue and stress. The highest relationship could be detected between fatigue, tension and lack of joy or pessimism.
A thought that helps optimism is forward thinking. By accepting the past that was tough, knowing that there is no going back, and the present that is challenging leading us to learn, there can only be going forward. If we are entering tomorrow wiser, there is every chance that it will be brighter.
4. Stay determined
Determination helps us persist in the face of challenges. Determination is the ability to get up, show up, muster up what we have and do despite difficulties–what we can do to make “today” count, to make “now” matter and inch towards our goals.
“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” – Henry Ford
We have all experienced and continue to live with the obstacles and consequences of a pandemic. This is not a trivial experience. However, a determined attitude towards coping and seeing ourselves through these times will restore, nourish and rejuvenate many of our tired muscles.
The year gone by will not change. It taught us, changed us and will always be seen as a pivotal year in our lives. Accept that we may never go back to who we were, that the world has changed and that we need to stop wanting things to be the same as yesterday. Looking behind over our shoulders to cherish what was will keep us from moving forward.