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Mental Wellbeing

Beating COVID-19 stress

pandemic-related stress
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Entering a new phase of the UK response to the pandemic has created new anxieties. We examine simple steps we can take to manage our thoughts and feelings during this uncertain time.

In our previous Wellbeing Pulse piece, we looked at how the unparalleled uncertainties generated by the global pandemic were raising anxiety and stress levels for us all. The national response to the pandemic has now moved into a new phase and although the gradual relaxation of the lockdown is removing some uncertainties, it is also giving rise to many new ones.

Financial worries for some people have overtaken health fears as the biggest anxiety. With UK households set to see a monthly fall of £515.00 in disposable income, making the money stretch far enough is becoming a major concern.

As the economic indicators worsen, job security now preoccupies people, with employment prospects certain to deteriorate in the months ahead. As I write, with new infection rates still at over 1,000 cases per day, there are also fears that we may be relaxing lockdown too early. Indeed, a GMB survey found four out of five employees felt fearful about returning to work – concerned that by doing so, they would be putting their families at risk. And with the government still discouraging use of public transport, many who have no option but to use it, fear exposing themselves to renewed risk. So there remain plenty of reasons to feel anxious.

Here, I’m going to explore some of the steps we can take to manage our anxieties when they become too much. But I’ll also look at some positive steps we can take, that will help to build our resilience and leave us less susceptible to feeling stressed and better able to cope when it happens.

Managing stress and anxiety

Firstly, reframe how you think about the situation you face. That means being positive but realistic. A lot of this is about the conversations we have with ourselves. If we can view things in a more positive light, it makes a big difference to our mood and to our sense of control. So rather than thinking “here I am again, stuck inside as usual” – reframe it as, “good, now I can focus on some things I’ve wanted to do for ages but never got around to.” Instead of seeing some things as “just too much to deal with right now,” try saying “Yes, it’s a challenge but I can do it.”

Manage what you can, let go of what you can’t. This is another cognitive reframing. It’s about accepting the limitations you face. We’d all have loved to take a foreign holiday this summer but we’re unlikely to get one. Let go of it. There are some things you can’t do or change, so forget them and focus on the things you can affect.

Reduce your coffee and tea consumption. Taking in too much caffeine is proven to increase heart rate, anxiety levels and nervousness.

Keep the scale of threat in perspective. People can’t help linking the shocking things that they see globally – the casualty figures, the hospitals struggling to cope, the lack of equipment – with their own personal risk. They project these worrying events onto their personal circumstances and that can mean their anxiety levels become disproportionate to the actual risk they face.

Practice deep breathing. This is by far the best way to calm anxiety. And it will usually work when anxiety levels have become too high to reason yourself out of it. Interestingly, neuroscientists recently discovered why deep breathing calms anxiety – it disrupts the flow of neurons that carry messages to the brain’s arousal centre, which activates anxiety.

Revisit previous stressful occasions. Think back to what helped you before. Was it talking with friends and family, doing exercise, or perhaps playing a musical instrument? Whatever it was, if it worked then, it’s likely to do so again.

If you need help, ask for it. Speak to your GP, or if your organisation has an employee assistance programme, as many do, you can turn to them for confidential support.

Finally, don’t underestimate your own resilience. When faced with very difficult situations, we frequently surprise ourselves, by rising to the challenge. A very sociable friend of mine, who lives alone, became extremely distraught when the need to socially isolate was announced. Since then, we’ve been in touch with her regularly on zoom and she’s constantly enthusing about things she’s been doing at home. She’s completely forgotten how nervous she was at the beginning.

These are all steps we can take when things feel like they’re getting out of control. But we mustn’t forget there are lots of things we can do to build our resilience, so that we’re less likely to become stressed or anxious in the first place.

Building your resilience

Do things that bring laughter. Laughter is up there with nutrition and exercise in terms of its wellbeing benefits – it relaxes the body, boosts the immune system and triggers endorphins, the “feel good chemicals.” Research from Norway found that people who laugh a lot, live longer too.

Take regular beaks during the working day. Taking a break around every 90 minutes is ideal because this links into something called our ultradian rhythms. These are 90-minute cycles we go through each day, during which, our concentration moves from higher to lower levels. Taking breaks in this way not only boosts our wellbeing – it makes us more productive too.

Make sure you have strong support networks in and outside of work. As we’ve already seen, social connection is vital, though it’s the quality of the connections that counts, not the number.

Ensure you get a minimum of seven hours’ sleep. Anything less than that regularly is harmful to your health. Good sleep will allow you to feel refreshed and function at your best.

Practise meditation. This is a great way to build resilience and the availability of mindfulness apps means it’s easy to practice from home.

Keep good work-life balance. This is especially important when you’re working from home, when it can be difficult to shut down.

Look after your physical health. Exercise is as vital to good mental health as it is to physical wellbeing.

Spend time in green space. If you don’t live in the countryside then parks are great. There’s a whole new field called biophilia, which is based on research that shows the huge wellbeing benefits of being in open, green space.

Lastly, make sure to get some me-time. This is particularly important for people who have young children at home. It’s sometimes easier said than done but is important to carve out time to do things that are important to you.

These suggestions are all proven to build resilience, though they won’t necessarily all benefit everyone. Work out which ones work best for you.

The Bank Workers Charity website contains a range of material and interactive tools to support good mental health.

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About me
Paul Barrett is an occupational psychologist with over 25 years’ experience in employee mental and physical health. Head of Wellbeing for the Bank Workers Charity, Paul is an established commentator on wellbeing in the workplace and writes for HRZone, The Work Foundation and Good Day at Work. Follow Paul on Twitter or LinkedIn.
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Mental Wellbeing

Beating COVID-19 stress