I’ll be blogging my way through the Coronavirus period, with a focus on the psychological impacts and how to keep yourself and the people you care about safe and mentally healthy.
Look after yourself peeps..
Dr Gareth Furber
I’ll start with a few basic observations.
- The happiest people I’ve seen over the past week have always been clutching a freshly purchased packet of toilet paper.
- I’m loving the new social distancing guidelines. The likelihood of me receiving an unwanted surprise hug are virtually 0%.
- Having one’s social connections mediated primarily through apps like Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams means that I am pretty convinced that the next time I see my colleagues and friends in real life, they will actually be all grainy and rendered in 480p (a joke for those who live photo and video resolutions).
- If you stack a corn chip on a potato chip, you get a really strange tasting chip hybrid. I’m not sure it will take off.
With those important announcements out of the way, I’ll focus on the actual topic of this blog post.
So today I am co-facilitating a workshop on Professional Resilience with the Horizon Awards team.
I get to play the ‘knowledgeable psychologist’, which is a role I love playing, regardless of whether I am actually knowledgeable or not [most evidence would suggest I am a dimwit].
In the process of structuring the workshop, the main facilitator (Ursula – who is lovely by the way) developed a set of questions that she would ask me during the workshop, a way of expanding on the topics presented but with a focus on how I apply these principles in my own life, with a focus on how I am applying them at the moment, in the context of the Coronavirus.
They were bloody good questions and they really got me thinking, to the point that I actually sat down and wrote my answers down so I could articulate my responses better.
I thought I’d share them here because they address two topics of current relevance: resilience and mindfulness.
What have you noticed about how you respond to unexpected change, challenge or adversity?
I’m a creature of habit, so I don’t tend to respond hugely well to change. I get grumpy and difficult to deal with. Change, challenge or adversity pretty much always elicit in me strong initial emotional reactions (often anger) and physical symptoms (signs of stress). I am not a good person to be around during these transitions.
However once that passes, and it pretty much always does, I tend to go into problem-solving mode. I stubbornly try to bend reality to my liking through taking action of some sort. For some challenges that works well. For example, I’ve been able to develop a new routine for working from home and quickly familiarise myself with some new technologies. You feel empowered when this happens because you are seeking and implementing solutions.
In recent years, I’ve got a bit better at working out which challenges can be problem-solved versus which just need to be processed. For example, changes to my routine as a result of Coronavirus are something I can control. However, the anxiety about the impacts of Coronavirus on broader society is something I just need to process. I can’t alter the course of Coronavirus, except for following the public guidelines on hygiene and social distancing.
Instead I now use therapy to process challenges that can’t be easily solved. In therapy, your task is often to find a way of shifting your perspective, updating your model of the world, changing how you think about something. You don’t change the situation so much as change how you think about it.
Has your resilience changed overtime?
In my mid 30’s illness of my own and of someone I care about forced me to start planning for the future in terms of finances, my health, my overall wellbeing and my career.
It kinda woke me up to the fact that I would be confronted with significant challenges, events out of my control and that it was my responsibility, as best I could, to put things in place to be ready as I could be for those challenges. I couldn’t expect things to just go my way anymore.
So I started deliberately implementing things in my life to look after those areas, managing finances, improving fitness, meditation, therapy, improving diet, sleep routine, reading more. I think they’ve made me more resilient overall.
Those things have served me well in my adaptation to the current challenges.
How do you build resilience?
There are lots of ways to answer this question, but a perspective that has been helpful for me has been the following:
Imagine your future self and the various things that person is going to go through – successes, failures, losses, opportunities, challenges.
Then try to put in place things now that will give that future version of yourself the best chance of being able to deal with or take advantage of those situations.
- Look after your physical and mental health
- Build knowledge and ability and skills in different areas: become competent
- Invest in good quality relationships with friends, family and colleagues
- Build financial security, which as a student isn’t so much about wealth, but financial knowledge and confidence
- Search for activities and situations and people that bring a sense of meaning and purpose to your life
Those investments you make in your future self will also benefit your current self.
How do you help others build resilience? Particularly in a workplace setting?
Try to notice what your colleagues/peers are working towards and if you think you can (and with their permission) help them make those things happen.
You’ll signal to them that they matter, that their efforts are noticed and that what they are trying to build is worthy. You’ll help them manifest their goals and values and give them a sense of agency, that they have some ability to bring what they want to life. You’ll also make them feel as though they belong.
Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean doing their work for them. It means being supportive of their work and goals. Helping them confront and overcome the challenges they face as part of their job.
If you invest in helping others achieve their goals, they will be far more likely to step up and help when you hit a difficult or challenging time.
What does mindfulness mean to you?
The ability to notice and selectively attend to all aspects of your experience, and not become defined by any one single experience. Realise that your experience at any given point in time is made up of what you can see, hear, smell, touch, sense, taste, feel, think and remember. No single one of these completely defines you. We tend to overidentify with our thoughts and feelings (‘I think and feel like I am an idiot, therefore I must be an idiot’). Being mindful means being open to, but not judging of, all the different aspects of experience.
You have your own mindfulness practice, what does that look like?
I use an app called Waking Up by Sam Harris. I use that app to do a daily 20 minute meditation in the morning (most days at least). That app also contains audio lessons on different topics and talks with other meditation teachers that help you put your meditation practice in context: spiritually, intellectually, in the context of your everyday life.
I’ve continued my daily meditations during the Coronavirus lockdown, combined with a morning walk.
How should people get started with mindfulness practice?
Grab one of the many apps (Smiling Mind, Headspace, Calm, 10% Happier). Set aside a 30 minute window of time each day where you can be undisturbed and try it for a couple of weeks. Switch apps if you don’t like the one you chose. There are many to choose from. Treat it as an experiment. Try different times of the day, different locations, different teachers.
If there is a course nearby happening that you can attend, consider signing up. You can find free online mindfulness courses like this one.
I think a critical component of establishing a regular mindfulness meditation practice is having a teacher or guide, either through an app or course. I think it is hugely beneficial to learn from those who use mindfulness practice in their own life.
Now keep in mind, if you give it a good go for a month or two and just don’t feel any real benefit or connection to it, then let it go without guilt. You can always return to try it again another time and there are other wellbeing practices that you can experiment with in your life. But if you do find some aspect of it intriguing, keep going.
Now is a particularly good time to take up a new wellbeing practice, certainly something that involves sitting still and looking internally. Then again, we might all be feeling a little stir crazy from sitting with our thoughts so much. Mindfulness meditation might help you develop a better relationship with your thoughts.
Alternative: The other approach, which I’ve found that people like is just trying to add small moments of mindfulness throughout the day. For example, some students like to take a minute as they sit down to study to notice their thoughts and feelings. Some people like to try to notice the first bite of each of their meals. Some like to take a moment to appreciate the sun on their skin during a walk. Try to punctuate the day with brief moments of paying close attention to your senses: breath, sounds, sights, tastes, smells, touch, physical sensations.
What should you do when what is happening to you is beyond normal resilience and coping? When it might be burnout or a mental health concern?
The analogy I’ll use here is one of injuring yourself.
If the injury is minor, you’ll probably be able to attend to it yourself: a bandaid, some ointment, rest etc.
If the injury is a little more serious, you might need a helping hand from a colleague, friend or family member.
If the injury is a little more severe, you may need to go see a doctor.
Finally if the injury is pretty bad, you’ll need emergency assistance.
With the exception of people who are stubbornly committed to never seeing a doctor, most of us don’t question the fact that sometimes we’ll be injured in a way that requires assistance. I’ve dislocated my shoulder 4 times, and there is no doubt that it needed medical attention in all 4 cases.
Now the same logic applies to when we sustain a psychological or emotional injury: something that happens to us that overwhelms us.
First ask yourself – ‘Can I find a way to cope with this myself?’
If no, who do I need to call on? – a friend, a family member, a colleague. Someone from whom I can get a listening ear, understanding and perspective.
If it is serious, seek professional help. Try to match the professional to the problem itself. Often a GP is a good starting point for a lot of situations that are mental health in nature. GPs can act as a conduit to other professionals or organisations that might help: psychologists, psychiatrists, NGO.
And finally if it is an emotional crisis, seek emergency assistance – a service like Lifeline.
Don’t feel shame or embarassment in seeking help for a psychological injury. It is built into who we are as a species that we problem-solve socially and collectively. It is not a sign of weakness to seek help from others, it is part of why our species has been so successful.
As you come to terms with the implications of the Coronavirus on your life, ask yourself if you’re equipped to make the necessary adaptations yourself or whether you might need help from family, friends, colleagues or professionals to do so. One of the positives to come out of the Coronavirus lockdown is people drawing on each other to get through.