Sunday, 1 November 2020

Mental health during Covid-19

The charity Mind has a lot of useful information if you or someone you know is struggling with how they are feeling right now. Don't feel you have to wait until you really can't cope; look for help as early as possible.

The news of another lockdown will have triggered anxiety and stress in many of us. It may well trigger our amygdala to 'hijack' us into a flight/freeze/fight response; common signs of this include:

- finding it difficult to concentrate on tasks or remember information.

- shallow breathing, maybe faster than normal.

- sweaty palms.

- sleep disturbance.

- feeling short tempered or jumpy.

We may notice that we are feeling very strong emotions such as fear or anger.

This response, part of the limbic system, is an ancient survival one designed to help us cope with physical threats. If we sense something that the limbic system interprets as a potential major threat it will assume we need to act faster than we can think and initiate an instinctive response, over-riding the more rational part of the brain that normally analyses sensory information and decides on an appropriate response. This system works well for transitory threats such as a vague shape that may be a bear, getting us to a safe place from where we can then analyse the sensory input more rationally, but is not so great for the chronic stress events that are common in post industrial life.

How to switch from the amygdala response to a calmer one:

- over ride the amygdala by encouraging the rational part of the brain to kick in. This is why people tell children to count to 10! Other ways of doing this include writing down any thoughts that are going round and round in your head. Taking them out of your head and onto a piece of paper creates a context: you can analyse them and decide how much of a problem they really are. Write down any possible action you can take. If the thoughts come back, remind yourself that you have already written them down. You can annotate and illustrate as you like.

- breathe. Take notice of how you are breathing and ask if you can relax, slow down. Check how evenly your torso is moving with your breath; relax any tension and ask your breath to travel to all areas of your rib cage. As you breathe in feel the breath travelling over the back of your teeth even as you breathe in through your nose - notice how your face and neck relax.

 - shift your focus to potential positive outcomes, actions and visualisations. We often focus on the worst case scenarios and catastrophise; this reinforces anxiety. They don't have to be big positives: small ones are cumulative. Identify things that you have some control over. Set yourself a daily achievable goal and when you complete it make sure you acknowledge this - maybe tick it off a list - to stimulate a feel good factor and a sense of control. Make sure you recognise the positive things that happen each day - maybe write them down or draw a picture or symbol. 

- if you are finding it difficult to sleep explore a positive memory, for instance mentally walk through a woodland, recreate a favourite climb or visualise sunbathing on a beach. This is a relaxing distraction for the brain.

- ground yourself. Take a moment to notice what you see, feel, smell, listen, taste (if appropriate). You can focus on the world around you, for instance what the wind is doing,  or just something close by such as a pebble, leaf, textile or paintwork. If able to, go outside; the low level but varied stimulation and natural light an outside environment provides is very soothing for us, especially if you can find some green space.

- learn to recognise the warning signs of a potential amygdala hijack; as you become better at interpreting your physical and emotional signals you can initiate coping strategies earlier and avoid a hijack. Do not judge yourself for these feelings; they are a natural survival response, just one that you wish to moderate in this context. The act of recognising signs such as tetchiness and body tension and acknowledging the trigger is calming in itself; it engages the rational thought process and gives a sense of control. You can also learn to identify potential triggers and use your strategies to diminish the response. 

- Minimise your exposure to anxiety feeders such as social media and the news, and do something absorbing instead such as gardening, housework or making something. If you have to stop work, ensure you still keep to a routine and remember to include self care and fun activities. 

- Talk to others; this will help put your own thoughts and feelings within a context.

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