November 19, 2020

6 tips from therapists on building emotional resilience for a second lockdown

Extended remote working and restrictions on socialising look set to continue over winter, making it trickier both to stay mentally strong ourselves, and to stay calm and motivated to support our teams and families too. What advice do the experts on emotions have for us as we go into a winter lockdown? We go through six big tips, collated here by mental health startup Spill.

1. Keep an eye on your media diet

💡 Understanding the psychology

Together with the rolling UK lockdown updates, the recent media frenzy around the US Election has been a timely reminder to monitor where and when we get our news. A steady stream of sensationalist headlines can elevate stress levels, trigger anxiety and cause difficulty sleeping. At the same time, a total lack of information can also cause anxiety - when we aren't informed, our brains love to speculate and arrive at worst-case-scenarios.

As we head towards Christmas amidst much uncertainty, we can improve our mental health by effectively managing our media consumption. If you know deep down that doom-scrolling Twitter leaves you feeling subdued, consider deleting it. If certain clickbait news sites put you on edge, give them a wide berth. And besides the quality of our media intake, make sure you keep a handle on the quantity too.


👉 Putting it into practice

  • Consider limiting your news intake to once or twice a day
  • Try to time this after (rather than before) any emotionally important events — for example, a big work presentation or playing with your kids
  • Avoid speculative stories by sourcing your COVID updates from quantitative news outlets like the ECDC or these BBC charts

2. Remember that self-care isn’t selfish

💡 Understanding the psychology

‘Self-care’ might strike you as just a pop-psychology buzz phrase, but its importance is verified by science as well as feel-good Instagram posts. In a “New Normal” where we often struggle to balance the needs of other people at home and at work, the idea of self-care might also seem too self-serving.

It's all too easy to fill your day constantly worrying about other people: Are your team happy at work? Has the new joiner settled in? What about your partner or kids? When did you last call your parents? However, if you give all of your energy to others, you will ultimately end up drained and less effective. Self-care is a regular, intentional process of devoting oneself to protecting and sustaining mental health. It’s a Broad Church, spanning sleep, nutrition, exercise, spending quality time alone and with loved ones, finding time to relax, and practising self-compassion.

Does the thought of prioritising time for yourself have you fretting about how your colleagues and loved ones will fare in your absence? Take inspiration from the safety announcement you hear before an aeroplane takes off: "Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others."

👉 Putting it into practice

  • Block out a time in your diary to exercise, and treat it with the same importance as a meeting
  • Put an out-of-office on one day every couple of weeks for deep work
  • Make sure you take 100% of your holiday days, even if you can't go anywhere

3. Try to view COVID restrictions as a challenge, not a threat

💡Understanding the psychology

A 2014 study found that reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement improved people’s performance in a range of nerve-inducing events. By using minimal strategies like saying "I am excited" out loud, individuals were able to reframe their anxiety and went on to outperform others at karaoke singing, public speaking and maths exercises.

When you perceive a situation as a dire threat, it changes the way you process information. You no longer measure the pros and cons of your choices evenhandedly. Instead, your attention narrows and your interpretations become biased, so that you assume the worst when a situation is ambiguous. If we can rewire a certain thought pattern through repetition and practice, as cognitive behavioural therapy promises, we might be able to avoid this threat response mechanism.

Of course, we are living through an objectively dangerous pandemic and highly unpredictable times. But we may have more agency than we think over our cognitive response. So instead of viewing a second lockdown as a threat, try to reframe it as a challenge and convince yourself they're making things more exciting.

👉Putting it into practice

  • List all the things you've always wanted to do but never had the time for. Which could you reasonably do during lockdown?
  • From puzzles to books, card games to boxsets, positively indulge in the great indoors this winter.
  • Try to gamify the situation: how many games or team-building activities can you think of that work indoors?

4. Encourage self (and group) efficacy among people close to you

💡Understanding the psychology

Self and group efficacy are one of the five elements of psychological first aid, an approach for helping people in the emotional aftermath of a crisis. Psychological first aid recognises a fundamental paradox: a person in crisis often feels powerless, but by stepping in and helping them you essentially further their own powerlessness.

One of the core tenets of psychological first aid, also a phrase commonly repeated among care home staff, is not to do anything for people that they can do themselves. This doesn't mean not having empathy; far from it, in fact. The 'help' you give should predominantly take the form of active listening, understanding and empowerment. It doesn't need to involve you fixing things for them. As humans, we have a tendency to leapfrog straight to solutions when often what people most want is simply to be understood.

👉Putting it into practice

  • Use language that infers control: talk about the things we can do, not the things we can't
  • Make sure you have a shared group view of the lockdown situation and discuss updates together so there aren't any big divergences in understanding
  • Ask to understand, not to solve the problem

5. Focus on micro-level decisions to give your brain the illusion of control

💡Understanding the psychology

Right now, so much of the conversation online and in real life focuses on things we can't control. Your mind naturally ends up ruminating about these things: everything in the lighter blue circle above, including whether our planned holidays next year will be cancelled, when and how the government restrictions will be softened, and far more. Dwelling on these things just gives more oxygen to the feeling of being out of control, which itself fuels anxiety symptoms.

It's tempting to feel like not much is in our control at the moment, and that we're trapped inside with less agency than ever, if we bring our attention down to the micro-level it's possible to see there's a lot we can control. And the more we focus artificially closely on these micro-level things, the more it helps to put up armour that keeps us mentally strong when the conversations around all the things we can't control crop up again.

👉Putting it into practice

  • Remind yourself you're in control of the meals you cook, what exercise you do, who you call
  • Remind yourself you control the quality of work you do at home and the effort you put into hobbies and interactions
  • Remind yourself you control how you react to colleagues, friends and family

6. Find something that can get you into the state of flow

💡Understanding the psychology

Anxiety loves an empty mind. Anything you can do to stay busy in your free time while social distancing is great, but anything you can do that gets you into the psychological state of flow is even better. Flow is when you lose all sense of time because you're totally engrossed in an activity that's just the right balance of difficult enough to be interesting, but achievable enough to not be demotivating. Video game designers spend their whole lives trying to make sure players stay in flow throughout all the levels of a game: there's a real art to it.

Lots of activities can get us into flow: hobbies, exercise, work, childcare, volunteering. It's impossible to say some activities are objectively better than others; it depends completely on the individual. The best approach is to try a few things, each for at least five hours before giving up, and see which activity you get lost in most easily.

👉Putting it into practice

  • Try a hobby you used to like doing as a teenager or young adult, but stopped doing: video games, an instrument, etc
  • Try something way out of your comfort zone that no one would expect you to do: an online hostage negotiation course, woodwork, scrapbooking...
  • Think less about what would be a productive use of your time and more about what you would simply love doing and could easily get lost in for hours

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This article was written by Will Allen-Marsh, Partner at Spill. Spill lets employees book video therapy sessions in three clicks through Slack. See Spill's guide to preventing burnout for advice on how to avoid this common issue and check out our own article (to come) on burnout based on a Burnout webinar Will hosted with Learnerbly. 

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