Returning to the new normal - dealing with anxiety
Next week will see further developments here in the UK with regards to coronavirus pandemic. Some schools are seeing children from selected year groups returning, restrictions regarding non-essential shopping are steadily lifting and more businesses and organisations are starting to put social distancing measures in place to allow face to face meetings to take place.
But how are you feeling about this? Both inside and outside the therapy room, I have heard various discussions which I’ve summarised as follows:
For those of you starting back in various work environments next week, there might be a looming sense of dread and panic about the invisible risks of COVID-19.
Having children back in school may give you a sense of relief after months of home schooling and trying to balance their emotional and physical needs with your own commitments. However, you may feel anxious, or even guilty, that it is too soon and that you are putting them and yourselves at risk.
Returning to the physical workplace can also stir up a nervous ‘Sunday night’ feeling, usually this can occur before bedtime. Lockdown could have given you the increased flexibility to manage your workload around home and family life, but right now you are feeling worried about the perceived restraints of being back in a structured, managed environment.
‘Survivor guilt’ can weigh heavily on your mind when returning to employment, particularly if you have family members, friends or colleagues who aren’t due to redundancy, poor health or sadly, bereavement.
All the above can leave you feeling low, emotionally drained, or depressed. I know some of you are equally experiencing high levels of anxiety and restlessness, specifically at night-time when you may struggle to sleep, having lots of ruminating thoughts rushing around your head.
As a counselling psychotherapist, I want to assure you it is okay to feel this way, you are not alone in having these emotions. I recently attended an excellent webinar by Dr Karen Treisman (www.safehandsthinkingminds.co.uk) which explored how the pandemic has impacted on sleeping patterns and how anxiety manifests itself. We each have our own experience and feelings during these uncertain times. I loved her expression, ‘same storm, different boat’ which beautifully captured our different perceptions of the COVID- 19 situation: some of us are seemingly enjoying lockdown whereas for others, coping in lockdown can be difficult.
So how do we deal with those anxious feelings about going back to work? Plus, why do they plague us when we want to sleep? Following the webinar, here are some suggestions for self-care that I have pulled together:
Plan and prepare. Having a schedule is helpful when dealing with the new normal of social distancing and re-integration. Weekly to-do-lists which, for example, incorporate family meal plans, new travel routes and confirming childcare can make the return less daunting. With work, perhaps think about what core work goals you want to achieve during those initial weeks, but try not to put too much pressure on yourself. If you’re still feeling uncertain about returning, speak to your manager. Most organisations are offering flexible working to slowly induct staff back into the work environment. If this hasn’t been offered, do ask.
Night-time routine. Having a regular bedtime routine can also ease sleep problems in this difficult climate. For example, adopting a nightly practice of having a relaxing bath or listening to a podcast/music can help calm and lead to better sleep patterns. Others may find setting aside a short time to keep a journal, can ease concerns about returning to work. Journaling anxious feelings or writing down those looming key tasks for the week, rather than having them crammed in your headspace, can help reduce sleep anxiety and nightmares.
Create your own sensory space. If you are creative, Dr Karen’s suggestion of a sensory box could be for you, I love the sound of doing this. They are used with children but can be also helpful for adults. Decorating an old box (or creating a sensory space in your home) and placing in items such as postcards, trinkets and squishy toys which stimulate happy, positive memories can be a helpful aid to stress and anxiety. Sensory boxes which contain items associated with the five sensory stimuli that you can touch and smell, e.g. scented candles or relaxing oils, can be used in a mindful bedtime routine and be a helpful sleep tool particularly if you have difficulty with falling asleep. These don’t have to be used just at bedtime, they can be useful at any time of the day as a valuable grounding tool - an approach used in therapy for dealing with anxiety and trauma.
Relaxation exercises. If you get first day nerves, try this simple deep breathing exercise. Imagine you are holding a flower, breathe in slowly through your nose as if you’re inhaling its smell, then breathe out slowly through your mouth as if you’re blowing out a candle, the out-breath taking longer than your in-breath. Do this exercise three or four times and see how relaxed you feel after. This is another grounding tool I use in my practice. Alternatively, investing in meditation apps such as Calm or Headspace can help balance out daily stress.
Be kind to yourself. The inner critic can be very loud with negative thoughts and feelings about yourself. Talking with colleagues, as well as friends and family about how worried you are feeling, can help decrease the negative thought bubble. Not forgetting social distance guidelines, regular walks and exercise are important for mental and emotional wellbeing. Regular breaks from reading about the pandemic issues on telly or social media help too. For me personally, I’ve developed a short morning practice of a kindness ritual that I've been doing over the last few months. It’s included either a silent meditation, writing some positive affirmations about myself or listening to a piece of music. It's been great for my own self-care as a therapist. Before switching on devices and starting the daily grind, I’d recommend trying to dedicate some morning time for yourself, I can’t stress enough the need to be compassionate to yourself in this current climate.
Hopefully, the above suggestions can manage those back to work worries you may be experiencing. If you are still feeling stressed, please do remember there is professional help. As a therapist, I’ll provide a safe and reassuring space to explore those feelings you’re experiencing as well as help you develop techniques to regulate your anxiety and emotional wellbeing.
Don’t be afraid to seek out support.