At the start of lockdown, everyone was eagerly waiting to be “free”. But now, many people are still not fully excited about restrictions lifting. Felicity Harley spoke with clinical psychologist Lynn Jenkins about how we can all get out the post-iso rut.
Here I was waiting patiently for the big hurrah. A nationwide party, Instagram-worthy of course, with shimmering “Woot woot, we made it” banners, scary red and icky green COVID-coloured balloons, fairy bread for the kids, and copious champagne for the rest of us.
On morning TV, we’d see PM Scott Morrison swagger to his oh-so-familiar Parliament House lectern, take a deep breath and shoot it out his party blower, then proclaim, “Lockdown has lifted, let the street parties begin!”
Right now, I’m only cheering when the kids go to school. (Kidding. Kinda.) In fact, I catch myself throughout the day feeling rather glum. With lockdown lifting, what I thought would be a watershed moment of hip-hip-hooray joy has been somewhat disappointing.
Sure, I’m pumped to see friends and sip coffee in a cafe and have my terrifying talons snipped, but I’m stuck in a rut with this new normal. Life feels flat, exhausting, painful and devoid of hope right now.
In the first three seconds of every morning, a foreboding sense of dread kicks in – a nipping, a nagging – that won’t go away. Don’t get me wrong, life is sweet and I am happy and grateful and #blessed – we can walk outside unharmed, we have food on our tables, and shelter over our heads.
It’s just that the glimmer of sunnier days has gone and COVID has sucked me dry of that glorious anticipation for gold star fun. You know that tickle of excitement about future plans, your next career move, a day out at the footy, running a fun run with friends – it’s vanished faster than you can say pandemic.
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Iso’s been a mixed lolly bag
One thing I know for sure, it’s absolutely normal to feel crap right now. Lockdown’s been a mixed lolly bag for most of us, packed with tasty jubes and sour worms, and no-one has been immune to the pandemic’s swift and scary riptide. Whether you’ve lost your job, had your income sliced in half, been saddled with homeschooling or spent much of iso alone, our collective wellbeing has taken a massive hit. But it’s also this: an innate part of humankind is to look to the future with hope and optimism – it’s what gets us through tough times – and right now there’s not much of that kicking around.
Life is still so uncertain, society still wobbly in many ways. We’re bloody exhausted and fearful and stressed about what the future holds. We’re spending more on alcohol and online gambling – quick fixes to make us feel better, but ultimately make us feel worse. There’s a lot of guilt flying around, too, for those hanging onto their jobs, working more for less. And for others unemployed or stood-down, there’s downright despair.
The pandemic has hit our mental health for six. On May 15, the Federal Government announced an investment of $48.1 million for a National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan. Greg Hunt, Minister for Health, said at the time: “The Government recognises that many Australians are experiencing fear, anxiety, loneliness, financial and family stress as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures needed to contain it.”
Hell, we need it.
Out of your ‘safe zone’
I asked Lynn Jenkins, a clinical psychologist and mindfulness educator, what she makes of this stuck-in-a-rut business. She reassured me that it’s completely normal to want to cling to the feeling of a rut rather than sit with the uncertainty of post-iso life.
“Another aspect is the way our brain is wired to be biased toward the most negative, most painful, most fearful, most embarrassing. It is a legacy of our actual physical survival days,” she told me. “We need to take notice of what can hurt us so we can learn for next time, and a reluctance to go out could be part of this. Our brains have had messages that being around people could cause us to be sick, that going out of our ‘safety zone’ brings a possible element of danger. An ‘element’ is all our brain needs to guide us toward caution.”
Thank you brain – that’s so very kind of you.
It’s time to break the cycle
So, how do we break this cycle? Bring back that tingle of excitement? Hope for the future?
Said Jenkins: “Basically, we need to teach our brain that getting on with life is now familiar again. We do this by simply doing it and allowing time to pass; to allow the now ‘unfamiliar’ to become ‘familiar’. We know that our brain responds to two things: the words and pictures we send it. So, to help we can be careful about how we are thinking about things as we venture out again. Choose a flavour of ‘all is good and I can get on with life again’.”
Heard of “flow”? It refers to your state of mind when you’re 100 per cent consumed and deeply engaged in an activity. A new study Flow in the time of COVID-19: Findings from China, of 5115 participants living in Wuhan who practised flow during the pandemic reported a significant difference to their overall wellbeing.
Being in the zone helps you feel productive and calm, and that you’re connected to something bigger than yourself. It gives you a chop-out – interrupts your mind from jumping from doomy thought to gloomy thought. It also renews your sense of purpose.
Lastly, let me share a nifty trick I started just last week which has already made me feel chirpier and more hopeful. We all know that gratitude and wellbeing are inextricably linked, but as far as I’m concerned, gratitude really works when you feel it. So, instead of a daily gratitude list, at night I jot down specific things I’ve loved about the day like lying on the grass with my kids and my morning coffee.
Some days it’s one thing, others it’s five. By retrospectively calling out the unexpected joys in my slower-paced, simplified life, it’s reminded me to make the most of what I have right now. It’s helped me redefine my purpose, too, as that’s what effortlessly connects who you really are with what you want out of life and your future. It’s renewed my optimism and enjoyment in the day to come, rather than worrying, or daydreaming, about this time next year.
One day at a time, indeed. I’ll let off a party popper to celebrate that…
Felicity Harley’s Balance & Other B.S is out now. Follow her on Instagram for more.
More essential coronavirus reading:
Read up on what the government lockdown means for you, understand why Aussie doctors are up arms, be aware of the ‘hidden symptom’ of COVID-19 carriers, prepare yourself for the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic, get your sweat on at home with these free online workouts before reviving your over-washed hands with this DIY balm, and then console yourself with these unexpected joys.