Covid-19 caused anger, fear and unrest for many of us, which may not end with life returning to ‘normal’, even with the promise of a vaccine on the horizon. As those of us living in England prepare to transition out of the latest lockdown, here’s how to manage the anxiety
Is your life back to normal? It’s more likely that the Covid-19 lockdown means you don’t know what ‘normal’ is any more, and the transition out of social isolation may be presenting just as many mental health challenges as the restrictions – if not more.
‘The gradual return to “normal life” is happening against a backdrop of months of isolation and social distancing, which are known to harm mental health,’ says psychotherapist John-Paul Davies (thistrustedplace.co.uk). ‘During the first lockdown, most of us experienced real anxiety around how the virus might affect us physically, and around job and financial losses, and we might even have experienced the trauma of being directly affected by the illness. When we’re anxious or angry for too long, our nervous system has a tendency to switch off to cope, which can lead to depression and possibly even suicidal feelings.
‘Our toolbox for maintaining mental health has also been partly shut: physical contact became potentially dangerous, gyms and meditation groups were closed and even socialising became a health risk,’ he adds.
Many people have lost jobs, temporarily or permanently, but there is naturally an anxiety around returning to work, looking for a new job and even seeing friends and family again, particularly in confined spaces.
‘The messages to stay home and save the NHS were very loud,’ says Andy Lane, professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton. ‘We were fed images of people on ventilators and numbers that raised our awareness of the potential for death. This is in direct conflict to going back to work, where there is risk. The previous risk was small but people will be nervous as long as there is a risk of catching the virus. And intense negative emotions, including anger, will arise if there’s a second wave and the death rate spirals.’
Anger is already a factor for many. ‘It’s helpful to think of anger as a secondary feeling, wading in on top of anxiety, or some sense of unfairness, so you can see why it has taken hold,’ says Davies. ‘We’ve evolved to band together in social groups and too much anger can isolate us. Anger sparks surges in cortisol and adrenaline as our body gets ready to fight, putting a strain on our heart and immune system. We’re only really meant to
be angry to quickly deal with imminent threats to survival, not all those times that our imagination is triggering our emotions.’
Anxiety remains the primary concern, however. ‘Anxiety was able to change our behaviour quickly because we’re programmed to automatically believe and act on its “red flags” and alarms,’ adds Davies. ‘It has access to our memory and imagination, leading to our natural tendency to catastrophise and preoccupy about worst-case scenarios.’
Coming out of lockdown means somehow managing this anxiety into the background. And anxiety can be debilitating at the best
of times, let alone after a global pandemic when we’re adapting to a new way of life.
The key to returning to some form of normality is to focus on you. ‘It’s important to take personal responsibility for managing our own experience of all this,’ says Davies. ‘We understandably look outwards to governments and “authority” for protection, but let’s think about ways we can help ourselves and each other. Rather than focusing too much on our external environment, try to keep in mind the mantra of: “I’ll control what I can and let go of what I can’t.”’
That means formulating potentially new routines and focusing on your immediate sphere of influence to stay calm and build a strong psychological foundation.
‘It’s about staying “calm and alive”, because we shouldn’t forget the importance of that feeling of “aliveness” that we all want and need, particularly where we have a tendency to depression,’ says Davies. ‘Many of us are feeling a loss of excitement – a trip to the cinema, football match or pub – and may feel as if we’re in a vacuum. We might turn to behaviours and substances at home that do us more harm than good. Behaviours such as mindfulness, getting fresh air, reading and even singing will all help maintain the feeling of being “calm and alive”.’
And ensure you make time for those HFM workouts. ‘Exercise is a good way to maintain your immune system, to get you ready for any physical battle,’ says Lane. ‘Secondly, exercise is a proven mood-booster, and if you’re worried about your job, the virus or being cooped up with others, heading for nature can help restore a more positive mood. And exercise in nature is a good way to enhance both your mood and immune system.’
Planning ahead to maintain the momentum you build now is key. ‘One aspect of any programme is preventing injury or strengthening a previous injury,’ says Lane. ‘This is a perfect opportunity to address any imbalances – to do pre-rehabilitation work. Break down the sport you wish to do, and come up with a plan to get mentally and physically stronger.’
Aim for new targets
‘Set exercise goals that are under your control, with an outcome goal for the future – a year or so away,’ he adds. ‘Then think about what steps are needed to achieve this goal.’
The choice is yours: it could mean planning for a 10K run or a marathon, a bike race or building strength. ‘With the latter, you could do a hard session of any exercise that lasts 60-75 seconds, with 30 seconds recovery, and repeat: burpees, press-ups, squats, sprints,’ Lane adds. ‘You build physical and mental strength. My challenge has been to do chin-ups for each day of lockdown – so by 9 June, I was up to 80 chin-ups per day.’
Your goal can incorporate training at home via myriad online running, cycling or rowing challenges, and even in isolation these can make us feel part of a group.
‘Anxiety, stress, depression and anger all tend to disconnect us from others and it’s important to keep finding ways to connect to, and feel a part of, a wider community,’ says Davies. ‘We should also try to notice whether conversations with others are helping us to manage our mental health or are actually doing the opposite. Fear and anger are infectious. We can still plan things to look forward to, even with the current uncertainty.’
Facing the truth
None of these tactics are purely about shutting down or ignoring anxiety and stress, because it’s important to recognise and confront them. ‘We can manage excessive anxious, angry and stressful thoughts by noticing them and choosing alternatives. Anxiety, in particular, will focus on conjecture such as second waves and mutating viruses. These things might happen but they might not – they’re not facts as yet. Instead of reaching forward in fear, we can try to be present in each moment as often as we can. Again, activities like walking in nature and daily mindfulness will help with this.’
An acronym used in mindfulness practice can help manage anger: SOBER. ‘Stop: what we’re doing to avoid reacting in a way that will give us a problem to fix,’ says Davies. ‘Observe: turn our attention inwards and ask ourselves why we’re angry. Breathe: calm ourselves down. Expand: when we’re calmer, we can see the broader picture and test whether our anger is justified or helpful. And, lastly, respond – take action that’s going to help, not hinder.’
Finally, remember to talk, to a professional if necessary. ‘Most therapists are working online at the moment and this can be just as helpful as face-to-face work,’ says Davies. ‘The safe and calm space that therapy provides can help us navigate a way through these unprecedented times.’
Of course, this can also involve talking to loved ones. The lockdown has isolated us from friends and family but has also helped us to examine and adjust our priorities in life, and there will be people out there willing to listen to you voice your thoughts and feelings. Just remember to listen and learn, too.
For more expert advice on mental wellbeing, read the latest issue of Healthy For Men, on sale now in Holland & Barrett stores and online at hollandandbarrett.com