Natalia Braun has spent a decade in the corporate world before transitioning into psychology and counselling. She is a critical psychologist advocating social change, trained in expressive arts therapies and psychological crisis interventions. Natalia writes that we may be more atomised than usual; this, however, doesn’t mean we cannot support each other. And she provides her professional advice about how we can get through this crisis.
“I’m entering a room with many people. I’m realising I forgot my face mask, and the people in the room are not wearing masks. I’m scared, I start panicking, and I cannot leave, the door is closed…”
Uncomfortable dreams have been widespread during the pandemic, and mental health professionals listen to more and more of such narratives from their clients. Clinically, they could often be interpreted as a fear of becoming sick with a dangerous and unknown disease, of being unable to breathe and at the mercy of uncontrollable power. The pandemic is a traumatic event and can induce a feeling of losing control. It could be individually, but it could also be an indication of our collective trauma.
When the pandemic broke out, and the first lockdowns were imposed, it was a shock but also a mobilisation of strengths and coping mechanisms for many. Although lockdowns were challenging in many ways, the rules were more or less clear, and everybody was affected by them.
The pandemic was a new experience, and as a disaster, it seemed to be something terrible but also something that will pass like a storm. Indeed, when the first wave flattened, and the lockdowns were waived, it strengthened those hopes and made people believe the storm is over. We wanted to believe that, but the pandemic showed to be a marathon rather than a sprint. The awareness of that crept slowly like a swamp and sucked us down into its darkness, coldness and wetness, triggering the nightmares of fear, danger, and hopelessness.
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How can we get through this trying time?
Our difficult times could be particularly tough for those who are prone to anxiety and depression. I want to remind you of the things you could do for your mental and physical health during these challenging times and share some new insights:
- Talk about your dreams with others, don’t suffer in silence. As a new study shows, it would help you in coping with your extreme emotions, depressive and anxious mood. If you are increasingly and continuously having nightmares, look for a qualified mental health professional.
- Wear masks and wear them in the right way.
- Don’t follow every news on the virus.
- Physical distancing does not have to imply social distancing: keep in touch with your loved ones and friends via telephone and virtual forms of communication.
- Avoid making major life decisions as far as possible. This is not the right time for that: too much uncertainty along with too much excitement would mislead you and make you regret your impulse in the future, even if it feels so needed right now.
- Clean up your home place: cleaning up your living space has an effect of cleaning up and sorting out your mind. You could undoubtedly find a wardrobe, a box or a bookshelf you’ve always wanted to sort out or rearrange but never got around to it.
- Exercise every day. Physical health plays a significant role in maintaining good mental health. Exercise releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood and reduce stress and the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Dance in particular improves health and wellbeing and is an effective stress-coping mechanism.
- Try some forms of creative arts; they are powerful in stress reduction. There is lots of evidence that making art significantly lowers stress-related hormone cortisol. Art-making is being experienced as relaxing, enjoyable, helpful for learning about new aspects of self and freeing from constraints.
- If you have indoor plants, a balcony or a terrace, you might engage in some gardening and reconcile with nature. Gardening has a positive effect on our mental health, which includes relaxation, positive feelings, staying in the present moment, coping with difficult emotions, and feeling in control. Spending some time in the sun boosts your vitamin D balance which is vital for maintaining healthy bones.
- Keep a diary. Writing down your feelings and thoughts may help sort them out and calm down. You may even want to try poetry writing – you never know what hidden talents you may have.
- Try relaxation techniques like meditation, diaphragmatic breathing or progressive muscle relaxation: tightening an individual muscle group, holding it for a while and then relaxing it.
- As our mind and body are deeply interconnected, eat healthily: choose nutrition-rich foods, especially those that strengthen your immune system. Food supplements like L-arginine would additionally boost your immune system, and rutin or vitamin P would maintain and protect your blood vessels, which are particularly prone to be damaged by Covid-19.
- Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep is crucial for countering anxious and depressive mood and overall for good mental and physical health. Try to wake up and go to bed at more or less the same time and get at least 8 hours of sleep. Don’t look at your phone or tablet at least an hour before going to bed, don’t read, listen or watch any news. Read a good, relaxing book instead. Make power naps in the afternoons.
- All this being said, maintain a daily routine. Make a daily schedule for all these things and try to stick to it – and to enjoy, too.
The pandemic is a symptom of an already sick world
We are living in trying times, which to a considerable degree are brought about by ourselves. A number of researchers today think that it is humanity's destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19 to arise.
There are many calls for normality around there now.
While it is emotionally understandable in the times of great uncertainty, we should not forget that the normality has brought us where we are today. It is our predominant neoliberal economic system, which is largely contributing to the way the world deals with the pandemic, the many deaths of people who cannot afford health care, the vast rise in unemployment, the understaffed hospitals hollowed out by the endless cost-cutting measures and the pressure to gain profit instead of providing care, with overworked health care professionals.
We took lots of things for granted and learn to treasure them now. In our rush for achievement, we forgot to pay attention – to these small but important things, to our environment, to those around us, to ourselves. During the first wave, it was often repeated that we are all in this together. It would be nice if it were true, but the reality has taught us a different thing.
The rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. In many ways, we have been left to ourselves. The governments have been overly considering the advice of the lobbying groups rather than strictly relying on medical experts. So those who cannot escape to their own island on their own yacht, which is the majority of us, have to set aside our differences and rage and help each other instead.
Whether with physical distance or not, we are lonely ships in this dark sea as Dr Irvin Yalom wrote, and whether physically or mentally, we can help each other: “We see the lights of other ships, we cannot reach them, but their presence, the light of these ships, and their tragic position similar to ours give us great comfort in our existential loneliness.”
Find Natalia at Psychological Counselling (psycounselling.com).