Professor Hugh Koch, January 2021
Recent blogs on encouraging kindness, trust, positive relationships and wellbeing during COVID-19 commissioned by Cheltenham Council and its partners are illustrating the Council’s commitment to a year of action called “No Child Left Behind”. This strategy is highlighting the support for children and adults who are growing up and living in poverty in Cheltenham and encourage all sectors to work together to make significant changes over the short and long term.
I have been writing a blog called ‘becoming more virus-resilient’ for students and staff in colleges and universities since March 2020 and I wanted to summarise some of the main points I have made in this series of 25 blogs.
Focus on good news
Since March and the start of the pandemic in the UK, we have often been bombarded with bad or worrying news. The reports of infection rates, death from COVID-19, understandable restrictions on our activities and so on have meant our own thinking and conversation have predominantly been on negative and down-beat issues. We need a regular antidote to that sinking feeling we get from the TV, newspaper or conversation with each other which inevitably focuses on ‘bad news’. The stress hormones in our bloodstream stick around, and don’t immediately evaporate.
From time to time, we will hear the good news of releasing lockdown, easing social distancing guidelines and progress towards getting a vaccine soon. The trouble is that, it’s not just enough to hear good news when our lives aren’t immediately altered. Our expectations tend to veer towards rapid delivery and release from fed-upness.
So, what’s to do?
a. Get support from those around you in your bubble or via Zoom and email and focus on ‘good’ news. This is probably in small doses e.g., a sunny day, a dry day, a fun conversation, an appetising meal, in preparation or consumed, a favourite TV programme, … anything that allows you a mindful appreciation of something positive.
b. Acknowledge, name and share your feelings, whatever they are, with someone nearby; this makes us feel less alone or lonely and makes sadness more manageable.
Listen to these thoughts in a non-judgemental way, as a sympathetic friend would do.
Visualise life post-pandemic
When is post-pandemic? This spring, July 2021, 12 months from now? We don’t know. But I think we can say that sometime soon we will have a vaccine, the virus will have temporarily dissipated and our lives in general, both social and work, will have been ‘unlocked’.
So, use visualisation and thinking ahead to look forward and seek meaning and purpose – a reason to get up in the morning, talk positively to our relatives, friends and colleagues. Talk more openly about things that lie ahead, demystify the future and, instead, plan for it positively – it is there.
Managing relationship stress
Since March last year experts have mentioned the importance of staying connected with friends, family and colleagues in any of many ways. Relatively easy ways have included email, text, telephone, and socially distanced face-to-face meetings. What about our ‘close relationship(s)’? The pandemic continues to place enormous strain on our close relationships with a partner, close friend or regular daily contact. ‘Couple stress’ can occur in many forms: arguments, dis-ease and unhappiness, separation and adverse physical contact or physical distancing.
The pandemic itself can be a source of couple stress with specific areas of concern being a fear of infection, and excessive extra time spent together at home or in the office bubble.
What are the reasons for this stress?
a) An imbalance of time spent together rather than spread across several relationships and different social activities.
b) Partner’s adverse reaction to each other’s daily routines and leisure interests e.g., reading, listening to music, exercise preferences, listening to each other, ‘catch up’ phone calls.
c) Managing views, comments and tension about different activities during lockdown, including political views.
d) Incremental boredom arising from the ‘sameness’ of daily activity and routines – exacerbated by the number of hours in each other’s company.
So, what can we do in our “couple bubble”? Compared to feelings of loneliness and isolation that we can all feel when cut off from good friends, having a ‘best’ friend or partner has many advantages for our wellbeing and mental health. Some of the strategies to help us manage our own “couple bubble” includes:
a) Appreciating activities together and attempts to inject novelty into these when possible.
b) Appreciating activities done separately and the opportunity to share how these went with each other afterwards.
c) Keep the simple positive communication skills going and practice these with each other including, listening to each other, looking at each other and smiling during these conversations. I mean an ordinary ‘social smile’ not a Cheshire cat smile!
d) Appreciate their concerns, worries and anxieties in a warm and non-judgemental way.
e) Offer helpful suggestions if that seems wanted or welcomed.
f) Manage disagreement or potential disagreement by recognising that there is more to agree about which makes the tension and conflict less and easier to resolve.
g) Be mindful of their efforts and skills – telling them that you appreciate this will make you both feel less stressed.
h) When you or they ‘leave’ e.g., leaving the home or ‘come back’ to each other, remember to smile and be affectionate, in the context of what your relationship is.
We are fortunate to be sociable and have good friends – these friendships benefit from being nurtured and reinforced.
‘Who is your best friend’? Show them this blog and thank them for reading it.
Helping the little ones
I can hear the sound of tiny feet …. if you have children, you will know how the pandemic is affecting the little ones in your midst already.
As we walk around the streets and parks, we see young children who are going about their playful experience. Are they aware of what’s going on or oblivious of it.? Whether we have children or grandchildren, they are all around us and being resilient at this time means understanding and responding to them in our own ways. As in any other time, children pick up our concerns and worries, so since the pandemic, they will have been aware, to varying degrees, of our own anxieties.
So what can we do:
a) Keep explaining why there are Covid rules … if their routine changes, let them help plan new ones.
b) If they show some irritation with everyday alterations, tell them it’s ok to be frustrated, let them label and discuss difficult feelings like disappointment, sadness and frustration.
c) Use a breathing game when they get stressed. Teach them to practice calming strategies including deep breathing and relaxing. Make this fun and useful.
d) Regularly praise their achievements, their efforts and, generally, encourage them, by your comments, to value themselves.
e) Listen to them “actively”, that’s how they learn to listen to you. Keep eye contact with them with language appropriate to their age and language skills.
f) Help them see they can persevere and achieve even if a task feels a bit difficult to them.
g) Teach them gratitude by thanking them for something and getting them to think of someone to thank each evening.
In general, watch out for upset, anxiety, behavioural changes including irritability as possible signs of extra stress that need talking about or comforting.
Anyone who has children should be able to identify with one or more of these situations and practical ideas. Those whose main contact with children is through extended families or friends, can also identify with this positive and comforting approach when in contact with young people…they will appreciate and value your ability to reach out to them at their level.
People who don’t have (young) children can use these ideas and also adapt them to their adult relationships, can’t they? Our skills in communication, empathy and positivity are just as applicable to each other as to the young people around us.
Empathise with others
The waves of the pandemic are raising our anxieties and testing our resilience to keep practicing healthy and appropriate action, including hand washing, social distancing, not touching surfaces and mouths/faces. Despite our efforts, we all battle with the psychological fall-out in different ways, depending on our personal social, financial and personal circumstances.
What specific things help us with this ongoing battle? Irrespective of the financial/economic and behavioural/lockdown-related strategies, one underlying and crucial variable is our ability to “empathise” with each other.
Empathy, sympathy, genuine authentic response, honesty – these are all relevant when we think how best to:
a) Put ourselves in someone else’s shoes
b) See their personal perspective on some issues
c) Saying or suggesting something to help them
It would take a long article to list all the different circumstances, people and contexts which are being affected by COVID-19 – people of all age from young pre-school children separating from mum and dad through to people mature of age, who are lonely and isolated, people with work-related problems and unemployed people. Alongside these people there are the rest of the population coping as well as they can day-in, day-out.
Whoever we come into contact with, briefly or consistently, they deserve our kind responsiveness and ability to understand and share their feelings.
It is important to appreciate what it’s not: –
a) Not to intellectualise other people’s problems
b) Not to be so emotional as a reaction that we cannot help the other person
c) Not to focus on self not others
We need the right balance between logic and emotion.
We need to maintain a compassionate balance between reflecting their feelings and being logical or rationale, as appropriate.
Some specific Active Steps for feeling and showing empathy include: –
- Don’t be distracted when someone is telling you their experience
- Be genuinely and honestly ‘curious’ about their story
- Don’t try to immediately ‘solve’ their problem
- Imagine how you would feel in their place
- Ask them questions and nod to acknowledge you’re listening
- Listen more than talk – change the usual 50%/50% conversation into a 10%/90% conversation
- Keep looking at them, don’t get distracted
Being unhappy, uncertain or helpless is a difficult and often lonely experience, use your listening and empathy skills to help them feel more hopeful and confident.
How to deal with feeling frustrated
The last ten months since March have been a rollercoaster of emotions for most of us – we have been experiencing significant changes in our psychological, social, work and economic circumstances – in different ways for different individuals. Anger alongside being fed-up, nervous, worried and lost has been a fairly constant feeling. Much has been written about anger management so I would like to focus on some key causes and some practical strategies for managing anger at this difficult time.
Anger is a normal and intermittent feeling which, although it is uncomfortable at the time, is nonetheless an important safety valve for “letting tension out” – I agree with the normality and variability descriptors and I really agree with the link of anger with a build-up of tension. We often get angry and tense when: –
· We feel things are uncertain and uncontrollable.
· We feel helpless and dependant on others for support.
· We feel that support is perhaps unclear or insufficient.
· We are unsure about whether we are doing the right things.
Knock-on effects of this tension can be toxic debates which maintain frustration, cause fallouts, and leave us feeling more ‘at sea’ and ill at ease.
As we have discussed in earlier blogs, we can often get frustrated with the government, the council, our MP, and other macro-agencies. The greater the distance between us as individuals and the apparent object of our anger, the more amorphous, non-specific or magnified it can get – it is a venting without any particular outcome or resolution.
So, what are some useful tips for all of us when we feel this build-up of tension, frustration and irritation.
a. Be specific about the reason for your anger (e.g., specific action, statement, initiative)
b. Avoid “whole person” or “whole organisation” anger (e.g., they/he/she always does this) – try not to exaggerate the information (e.g., “everyone’s forgetting to wear a mask)
c. Identify what effect your anger is having on your relationship with that person
d. Relabel your anger as tension and either share your tension with one other(s), or distract yourself with an interesting task, exercise or time-out
e. Watch your email language! Read an ‘angry’ email three times and each time, moderate your language. Eventually consider not even sending it.
f. Manage your self-confidence – the better you feel about yourself, the better you will be at managing frustrations.
A one size approach to our response to the virus does not fit all! We are all different.
So, in summary: –
- Appreciate your skill and value in listening to others
- Acknowledge the differences in our experiences
- Listen to children’s anxieties and encourage their confidence and skills
- Create your own autumnal ‘sunshine’ with reinforcing routines and connectedness
- Tell one person (or more) what helps you.
We will get through this – I hope this blog has some helpful tips for you to use.
22nd January 2021
Professor Hugh Koch is a clinical psychologist.