Covid-19 in the runup to Christmas: What can we learn from coping during the second lockdown?

As I am preparing to publish this article, I am struck by the incredibly historical moment at which we all find ourselves right now: As the countdown to Christmas 2020 starts, readers in the UK are also experiencing a second countdown, much longer in the making, namely the runup to the end of the transition period that followed Brexit and it looks like a trade deal with the EU is becoming increasingly unlikely, while at the same time the rollout of at least one Covid-19 vaccine has started in earnest. Economically, the times are apocalyptic: Several well-known mainstays of the high street have just gone into liquidation, and thousands of people are likely lose their jobs; there is a giant hole in the Treasury as our national borrowing has skyrocketed to see us through the current pandemic, and the most optimistic estimates for life to return to some kind of normality is Easter 2021. All of this, taken together with a socially distant Christmas for 2020, appear like a recipe for a mental health disaster. We are already seeing an increase in concern about the well-being of children and young people to the extent that many schools are now implementing “happiness classes” and other interventions to support the mental health of their pupils.

So, perhaps at this juncture, it is an apt moment to ask yourself, “How am I doing?” Personally, I find that it helps hugely to stay positive, keep a routine going, and to avoid exposing myself too much to all of the bad news doing the rounds! What are your coping strategies?

Earlier, we published a set of evidence-based ideas and actions that you can take to preserve your mental health and fortitude during this pandemic, which we called the Covid-19 Five-a-day.  These are now more apt than ever. In this follow-up article, we conducted our own small-scale survey among friends, family and acquaintances to explore how people in the real world are feeling right now, and the ways in which they are coping with the present situation. Molly Chatwin, assistant psychologist, designed the survey and collated the findings for us. Her results are provided below in the hope that learning from others and focusing on making the Covid-19 Five-a-day a reality your own and others’ lives may help strengthen your resilience and bring hope this Christmas.

The original article on the Five-a-day can be found here.

Back to Basics:  5 Fundamentals for maintaining mental health after the second lockdown.

By Molly Chatwin and Dr. O

A while ago, when Boris announced we were going into a second nationwide lockdown, it meant another month of uncertainty for everyone. Pubs, restaurants, and non-essential shops closed. Mixing with other households inside homes was outlawed, and we could only meet 1 person from another household leaving face to face social interaction very limited.  For some, this was a good thing as they wanted to get the pandemic under control, for others, this was the worst thing that could have happened. So this raises the question of how we all managed cope (or not) this time around? Were we more prepared mentally and physically? Or, perhaps, did the dark nights of autumn and winter exacerbate the mental health impact of lockdown 2.0?

Lockdown affects everyone differently, but it is important to keep up your well-being if you are struggling/ did struggle.  As we are now coming out of this lockdown, many parts of the UK are still under restrictions and even if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in Tier 1, it is still unlikely that it will feel like things are ‘back to normal’.  

That is why we went ‘back to basics’ and reminded ourselves of the COVID-19 Five-a-day. These essential elements of mental well-being were described as follows:

The Covid-19 Five-a-day

  1. Have some fun! Shared humour and laughter are great ways to combat stress and help people to feel connected.
  2. Take time for me! Take some time out every day to look after yourself. Everyone needs a little personal space to ground themselves and get some perspective. “Time for me” also includes self-nurturing activities such as taking care of your appearance, finding creative ways to get exercise, creating moments of downtime, and finding ways to relax.
  3. Cultivate compassion. Being kind to yourself does not always come easy. Use this crisis to develop ways in which you can be more accepting of yourself and more helpful and tolerant of others.
  4. Interact with others! Social distancing does not have to mean that you cannot interact with other people. You should really try to find creative ways to keep yourself socially connected. A phone call to ask someone how they’re getting on, an email or a face to face contact (at a safe distance) can help to meet your need as a human being for contact with others.
  5. Be positive! Remaining positive is extremely important in this crisis. Set yourself a daily routine, keep a healthy sleep pattern, and manage the amount of information you consume and your social media to avoid becoming overloaded with negative information.

Lockdown 2.0 Survey

In the survey, we asked our participants what they really did with their days in self-isolation, and how they rated the personal importance of the various aspects of the Covid-19 Five-a-day. Our survey does not qualify as scientific research. Still, we believe it illustrates some of the variety of reactions and responses of ordinary people, like you and me, to the current lockdown. 

We had 28 responses covering a wide range of experiences, showing how creative and diverse people are in dealing with the current situation. Some of the specific areas we asked people about include how well-prepared they felt this time around and to explore how well they felt they were coping. We also wanted to look at what, if anything, people are doing to try and stay positive during this uncertain time, and what they may worry about for the future as a result of the pandemic. Here are the highlights from the analysis:

Lockdown 2.0: How are people feeling this time around?

Our survey indicated that 39% of respondents felt that they were not really mentally prepared for this second lockdown.  When asking our respondents if they feel the second lockdown will harm their mental health, 43% answered ‘Yes’ and 57% answered ‘No’. So well over half of our respondents felt their mental health was at risk due to the lockdown.

Interestingly, most of our respondents were still working (rather than being unemployed or furloughed) during the second lockdown (90% of our respondents) whether that was working from home or still travelling to the office every day (47%: 43%).

When we asked those who felt that their mental health was at risk, to tell us what they felt were the key risks they faced, these were typical responses: 

  • “I do not want to work at home due to having negative thoughts. I would like to keep on going into my office and working.”
  • “Lack of physical face-to-face contact.”
  • “I feel enclosed in my house like I am being locked away.”
  • “Life seems to be a bit of a struggle at the moment.”

An interesting question in our survey concerned whether or not people were concerned about personally becoming infected with coronavirus: Just 56% of respondents were worried they would personally catch covid. This figure was derived by combining three response categories: Moderately worried, increasingly, and extremely worried. However their worry-level increased dramatically when asked if they were concerned that one of their family members would get the disease – to almost 80%.

In summary then, our survey indicated that most people tried hard to maintain their employment during the second lockdown, although home working did not work equally well for everyone. (Some needed the external structure, change of scene, and social contact – even if socially distanced- that going into work offered.)

Just under 40% felt mentally ill-prepared for lockdown 2.0, while more than half felt that the lockdown placed their mental health at risk. Negative thoughts (and worries), lack of face-to-face contact with others, and the feeling of being couped up all contributed to their fears.

Finally, people showed much less concern about themselves “catching” coronavirus than about their nearest and dearest (or others). This is an interesting example of what psychologists call “optimism bias” and may be able to explain the many reports of people breaking lockdown rules, by for example having house parties. Optimism bias is universal and involves us feeling a little bit invincible (risks to self are minimised), while accepting or even overestimating the risks to others.  When we feel a little overoptimistic about our risks, of course, that makes for coping a little better and not being overly worried, but, if as a consequence, we choose not to follow the rules, we may place ourselves and others at increased risk. 

So, what have people said they are doing to help themselves during Lockdown 2.0?

One of our questions was how people tried to stay positive throughout the second lockdown.  Here are some examples of the responses we had:

  • “Keep a positive mindset.”
  •  “Go on walks.”
  • “Reassuring myself this is just short-term.”
  • “Try to keep active: get outside.”
  • “Keep a routine going.”
  • “Appreciate family time I didn’t have before.”

These are wonderful “homemade” versions of some really powerful psychological coping strategies. Keeping a positive mindset illustrates the “power of positive thinking” (apologies to Norman Vincent Peale!). Changing our thinking by finding the positives in a stressful situation, along with the hint at developing an optimistic mindset are both key ingredients of psychological resilience. (In fact there is some research that shows that an optimistic approach to life can extend your life span by up to a decade!!!)

Going on walks, getting outside, and keeping active are great strategies to maintain our general health and well-being, but combined with a full daily routine, provides the behavioural activation that can help combat depression and, interestingly, as illustrated in a previous article, support stabilising your mood. To find out more about the power of a stable daily routine, you can access the post here.

Self-reassurance is also an incredibly powerful way to “stay sane” in insane times. In fact, rejigging our thinking is one of the key pillars of cognitive-behavioural therapy. How often do you find that you view the situation you are in as a total disaster, and that can lead to a stream of negative thoughts and their accompanying negative associations. But what if you could persuade yourself that the disaster is only temporary? What if there is hope, a light at the end of the tunnel, even if you’re not through the worst of it yet?  Just turning your thoughts from focusing on an absolute, interminable disaster, to accepting that “things are really bad right now, but it too will pass”, can really make hard times survivable.

Finally, the comment about appreciating family time is a great reminder of that subtle little mental manoeuvre that resilient people and entrepreneurs have in common: The ability to see opportunity where others may only see disaster or loss! What do the restrictions you face enable you to do that you were unable to do before: Spend more time with loved ones? Re-discover your values? Reinvent your career? Start your own new business?

What about having fun and self-care?

Having fun is another important part of the Covid-19 5-a-Day. So what did our respondents tell us about having fun whilst at home during a lockdown?

  • “Watch movies, speak with friends, baking/cooking, and online shopping!”
  • “Cuddles with my dog.”
  • “Playing video games, writing and reading.”
  • “Sitting down together at family mealtimes and exercising each day.”
  • “Put on some music and dance!”

Taking time for yourself whilst being in lockdown may seem hard when you are in a full household, but it is also very important to maintain your well-being over time. Here is what our participants told us about making time for themselves:

  • “Make time for fitness.”
  • “Bubble baths and meditating.”
  • “Put on a face mask and hair treatment – looking after myself.”
  • “Taking the dog our for a walk.”
  • “Ensuring I take breaks from work when working at home.”
  • “Go for a cycle, run or walk.”

These ideas speak for themselves, but it is noteworthy that most of these strategies require acknowledging our needs for creating safe spaces for ourselves and our loved ones where everyone can be themselves, both alone and together with others.  From a psychological viewpoint, taking regular exercise, meditation, physical contact with animals, eating together, self-pampering, and almost all the other strategies mentioned, have some evidence behind them that they support well-being and help us to de-stress, both at a psychological and at a physiological level, releasing hormones and neurotransmitters that promote good feelings and calmness with long term benefits to health and well-being.

Keeping in touch?

As we have been stripped from most of the physical contact with others outside our bubbles, how do people keep in touch with people who are important to them? Here are some answers to a question on how people keep in touch:

  • “Facetime, What’s App.”
  • “Schedule weekly calls/chats.”
  • “Meet one friend for a walk occasionally.”
  • “Use zoom as a way to communicate altogether.”
  • “Make sure I text my friends to check in on them.”

As you can probably see from the list above, these responses reflect the limited range of options we have available to us – which mostly consist of connected technology platforms that use the internet.

Within these limited means of staying in contact, we are also aware of many innovations from both the workplace and people’s social contacts. Examples include teams that rarely met face to face in the past, now having weekly “check ins” online, and even online team building events such as team quizzes! You can now have a virtual birthday party, or join a friend for a virtual catchup, and even go on a virtual date!!!

Finally, what does the future hold?

With all this uncertainty around us, it is hard to remain positive. It is important to recognise our worries, so we can face the anxiety they bring us with effective strategies that acknowledge our fears, yet allow us to live life to the full despite these. Here is what our respondents said worried them about the future:

  • “How long will this last for?”
  • “This is only just the start.”
  • “When will this end?  When can we get back to having a normal life?”
  • “Long term economic consequences.”
  • “Lack of social interaction.”
  • “Not being financially stable.”
  • “Not getting back to normal.”
  • “Job security.”
  • “Going into another lockdown in the future.”

All of these are very real concerns, and they are made even more salient as we live in an age where there is increased mistrust of authorities such as governments and experts. Staying optimistic and coping well under the circumstances is a challenge. We really believe that despite these overarching worries for the future, you can learn from the real world solutions that our participants found for their lockdown challenges, through implementing the Covid-19 Five-a-day in your life. Here is a recap with some of the ideas from our survey included as practical examples:

  1. Have some fun! How incredibly important to keep your optimism going! Participants in our survey reported a wide range of fun activities, ranging from putting on some music and having a dance, to cuddling up with their pets! Watch a movie, have a bubble bath, bake a cake!
  2. Take time for me! Meditation and having a nice bubble bath, or indulging yourself with a bit of covid-secure  pampering can help reinforce the message that you are value and care for yourself. Remember that it is very difficult to look after everyone else if you neglect yourself!
  3. Cultivate compassion: This dimension relates to the previous one: One of the most important ways you can cultivate compassion in your life, is to be compassionate to yourself – something that is ever so hard for many of us. Time spent in contemplative or mindfulness meditation can help, as can changing your internal conversation to one that acknowledges that you deserve to be valued too. Reaching out to others by keeping in touch and checking in with them helps to spread your compassion outwards from yourself to those in need around you.
  4. Interact with others! Make the effort. Recent research has shown even talking to strangers and exchanging pleasantries can improve well-being. Our participants engaged with friends and family online, but some made time to meet someone face to face. As humans we are wired to be social, so reaching out to others helps not only them, but also yourself.
  5. Be positive! Changing your mindset to be more optimistic, seeking opportunities for growth in these dark times, and creating positive moments in your day all serve to build your resilience.

The vaccine is here! So, there is hope for many of us as the national rollout has already begun, but it will take time, and there are people all around the globe to think of. They, just like many of us, had their lives changed irrevocably by the pandemic: Many have lost people close to them to the virus – at the time of writing this, the global observatory at Johns Hopkins University reported 65million cases of Covid-19 globally with 1.57m confirmed deaths, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, have lost jobs or livelihoods, and life for the human race will be very different even after the pandemic has been conquered.  This can bring anxiety, of course it can, but perhaps also some opportunities to live, work and think differently. How will you take up this challenge?


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