Since 23 March, when the UK first went into nationwide lockdown, the four devolved nations have moved at their own pace to ease restrictions, and subsequently reinstate them as and when the number of coronavirus cases and death toll rises.
Although a second nationwide lockdown in England has not yet happened, the introduction of a new three-tier system and continued localised measures is seeing large parts of the country living under ever-stricter rules. Even if it isn’t exactly the same as March, there are increased curtailments on people’s freedoms and socialising.
But, unlike at the start of 2020, there is no novelty to the situation we find ourselves in. We have long passed the six month mark of the pandemic, and yet the finish line seems distant too as we wait for a vaccine we have been told could be at least another 12-18 months away.
Emma Carrington, advice and information manager at Mental Health UK, says: “Following a summer in which many were able to socialise, the prospect of losing that and being unable to make plans to see friends and family, especially with a fast approaching Christmas period, will be difficult. This lack of control over our lives can be a source of anxiety for a lot of people, and will only be exacerbated by the current climate.”
So what should you do if this is all getting too much? There is much evidence that the pandemic increased mental health problems; loneliness, feeling of isolation, anxiety and depression; as well as concerns that people are struggling to access help from home. So The Independent asked the experts about the best way to deal with what lies ahead.
Be reassured - there is no ‘normal’ response
Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind says: “It’s important to note that there’s no ‘normal’ response to lockdown restrictions changing, and that your feelings might change too. "
And Dr David Crepaz-Keay, head of applied learning at the Mental Health Foundation agrees: “Stress and anxiety are a natural response to uncertain times, so be conscious of your triggers and responses."
But Buckley warns: “If you notice changes to your feelings, thoughts or behaviour that affect your daily life, last longer than two weeks, or keep returning, it might be that you’re experiencing a mental health problem instead.”
Keep your mind and body active
Buckley says sticking to a routine of physical exercise, good sleeping habits, and keeping your mind busy is key to this period. “Consider trying an online course or see if your local library has an app you can use to borrow books, audio books, or magazines.
"Any access to nature can be really helpful in boosting wellbeing. Even something as simple as sitting by a window and watching the birds, or taking care of a pot plant, can be beneficial.”
Dr Crepaz Keay agrees that although going out when it’s dark and cold might seem unappealing, taking a break from our screens and going out into the fresh air is important if you can. “If your work life enables you to take a break during daytime, go for it. Daylight – even in the winter – is dramatically brighter than indoor lights. Being out in it helps keep our body clock regular.”
And if you are stuck in the house then try mindful activities such as knitting, gardening, baking and arts and crafts instead of just watching TV or other screen-based activity.
Don’t obsess over every update
Dave Smithson, operations director at Anxiety UK, says it’s important we “learn to be kind to ourselves” and one way of doing this is to take a break when we need to. “Try not to become obsessed by the news and constantly monitoring the latest developments, limit yourself to maybe one bulletin a day and take a step back and look after yourself.”
Emma Carrington says you should also be keeping an eye out for clues you’re struggling to cope with constant influx of new information and news. “Pay attention to any clues that suggest you’re experiencing anxiety or struggling to cope with what’s going on around you.
“It’s important to recognise that anxiety can manifest itself in many ways and it’s not just thoughts and feelings - you might experience physical symptoms, from a fast heartbeat to extreme tiredness or lack of energy.”
Make a plan
Dr Crepaz-Keay, recommends getting ahead of any changes by taking a proactive step: “Work towards a positive plan [for lockdown]. Try and think of winter as one of the regular seasons, perhaps a time for reflection and doing more things like reading, relaxing and recharging your batteries.
“Though the situation now is different to when lockdown started in March, it may be helpful to think back to that time and ask yourself what was helpful then, and what you could do differently. But don’t dwell on gloomy “what if” conversations with friends. Try and get out of rumination – chewing things over in your head - watch for negative thought patterns.”
Think about circles of control
Dr Crepaz-Keay says: “An important way to manage uncertainty and look after your mental health is to control the things you can.”
A simple way of doing this is drawing circles of influence and putting things in them that you can control - your daily routine, your exercise, your healthy sleeping habits - and thinks you cannot - government policy, whether other people follow rules.
Stay in contact
Depending on where you live in the UK you might still be able to see a few family and friends - or you might be banned from household mixing. Either way, it is important to keep open lines of communication.
Buckley says: “Connecting with other people is a vital way of maintaining wellbeing, so try to do that however you can. Make plans to have regular chats with friends and family over the phone or over video, like Facetime, WhatsApp, Skype or Zoom. You could explore whether there are any helplines that might be useful to you or any online friendship groups you can join.
Smithson agrees that as we enter a new phase maintaining your support network is crucial. “Talking to a loved one, a close friend or a colleague can make a real difference. Talking to people and sharing your thoughts and feelings with others in similar situations can be really supportive. They understand what you’re going through and what you’re dealing with because they’re in the same boat.”
Carrington: "If you're worried about socialising, it's important not to internalise those feelings. Instead, try and talk about your worries with your friends to establish how you can see them and still feel comfortable.”
Get expert help if necessary
Carrington says: "If you begin to feel overwhelmed with anxious thoughts or behaviour, contact your GP as soon as you can. They will be able to direct you to what treatments are available in your area, whether that's one to one therapy, online support groups, or even medication.
You can also get support online from the NHS. The “Every Mind Matters” website, which has videos, practical tips and relaxation exercises. If you don’t yet feel comfortable seeking professional help, you could try Mind’s website or call 0300 123 3393, Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm. Or the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day on 116 123.
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