This mental health week, let’s acknowledge how we really feel

Sally Walters, adviser in counselling and wellbeing for the diocese, writes on the impact of coronavirus on our mental health – and how we can support each other and ourselves:

The initial shock of the coronavirus

It was in December that my husband and I visited New York for a celebration of our 40th wedding anniversary. Now in May, barely five months on, it is hard to imagine those exciting tourist attractions; theatres, churches and shops that were full of Christmas wonder, are now plagued with the stark realities of death. The speed and horror of the virus in the world has quickly extinguished our human illusion of a safe and peaceful life. There are many examples of opportunities for personal growth that we know come out of various Biblical plagues and turmoil, though this current place we are in is genuinely frightening and you will naturally still be absorbing the shock of this global disaster yourself. Initially, in the mental adjustment of the crisis, you will have experienced some sort of a panic, if not overt, and this panic would be a normal reaction as you sought to fill your store cupboards and to make steps to protect your family. Or you may live alone and have fearfully wondered how you would manage being apart from others.

Physiologically, you may have noticed an escalation of physical adrenaline in your body as you consider the consequences of the pandemic. A stimulated production of adrenaline in response to danger can either cause you to be in overactive ‘drive’, putting everything in place for a worst-case scenario, or using a distracting technique to occupy your mind. The outcome of all this can be a tremendously positive and productive time and be sheer exhausting too! The pendulum can also swing the opposite way where stress hormones can produce low mood, tiredness, a lack of enthusiasm or a preoccupation with anxious thoughts or negativity. You may identify with either or both states.

We are generally fortunate in the South West, looking at statistics of deaths so far; however, we don’t know what lies ahead and we cannot be complacent. Many of you, though, will have suffered in this time and have lost loved ones when you have not been able to attend a funeral. Remembrances for an individual’s unique life may have been put on hold. You will have observed distress as the very life-saving restrictions have caused uncomfortable, yet necessary sacrifice for us all. You will be more aware of poverty, lack of employment, possible redundancies and mental health difficulties.

A possible personal cost of compassion

If you are someone who has supported others in this time, or undertaken voluntary work in the community you live in, you will be aware that individuals respond differently in crisis and experience unique vulnerabilities. Regarding the trauma that the corona virus has specifically brought with it, it is worth noting that, when you are supporting others the extreme circumstances of the current day are felt by both the recipient and yourself, where you can closely identify with their feelings in one way or another. It is a known fact that anyone who gives out a lot can suffer from compassion fatigue causing symptoms of burn out.

As a Christian, it would be easy to feel a pressure that you have to hold the fort for others, be strong in faith and resourceful. However, whilst you may strive for a focused trust in God and a certain amount of resilience, it is important to acknowledge the enormous impact this uncertain time takes emotionally. Personal thoughts and fears can be triggered, and we are all vulnerable to an acute stress response when your own nervous system produces extreme stress.

What then can I do to help myself?

Our individual circumstance will vary. Some of us will be working or caring for others. Some of us will be living alone and some will have children and be either home schooling or preparing for a return to school or facing exams. These suggestions may not be achieved but can be aimed for.

1) Make a space within your home for yourself that is comfortable and nourishing, both spiritually and practically.
2) Structure and plan tasks so your body doesn’t trigger a last-minute panic state, adding to the already natural high stress level.
3) As far as possible create a boundary to the day when you know it will start and finish.
4) Pay attention throughout the day to your body tension and sensation. It will inform you!
5) After engaging empathically with others around work issues, stretch, move rooms or change your body position. Listen to music, have a drink or eat a snack. This breaks the response of your own body taking on a stressful response on behalf of others. Remind yourself the person you are attending to is not yourself even though you might identify in feeling with them.
6) Have a set pattern at the end of each day to unwind. Eg take a shower, say evening prayers, read a book, gentle exercise.
7) Limit your watching or listening to the news. This may increase your body stress responses and you need some respite.
8) List something personal each week you want to achieve, eg watch a film, a long walk, do something artistic, talk with a friend.
9) Arrange some fun, eg a quiz with friends on the internet, cooking a meal with a difference, etc.
10) Don’t go it alone –contact with someone supportive.

Looking within and keeping hope for what’s ahead

I have been greatly aware during this stressful time of the experiences of the opposites within our living. On one hand we celebrate coming together in communities, in active ventures, showing very genuine acts of love and, on the other hand, I chuckle to myself as we suspiciously look over our shoulders, rightly, as if in danger from one another in supermarkets, in case our neighbour coughs, sneezes or gets too close. It seems unchristian to cross the road as someone approaches, yet it is bizarrely the kindest and most respectful thing to do, hopefully with a smile. We are both humanly fearful and need to trust in the same breath. It is no wonder we are in disarray at times. In our relationship with God, paradoxically, we may find ourselves going deeper into ourselves, noticing new expressions of faith to source deeper connection with our creator. Yet also as we look within, we may notice what is painful and unresolved. As you work your way through this torrid period, I encourage you to respect any internal struggles you might be experiencing and be open to what they are saying to you. There is no shame in ‘feeling’ as you do. Granted, we are facing a period ahead of post-trauma, though we pray for future liberation and healing.

Sally Walters

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