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How to deal with extended uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic

In a recent episode of Gogglebox, viewers watched as the usually upbeat Sophie Sandiford grew teary-eyed at the thought of potentially losing her job as a window dresser during this lockdown as all non-essential shops shut down.

Whether or not you’ve lost your job or stand to lose your job, it’s easy to identify with Sophie’s distress.

As the months have gone on, the uncertainty surrounding our employment, our homes (if we’re newly struggling to pay the rent), our relationships and how the future looks set to play out has taken a toll.

We spoke to experts about what this extended uncertainty could mean for our mental health and how best to deal with it. 

Dave Smithson, a spokesperson from Anxiety UK (a national registered charity which aims to help those affected by anxiety, stress and anxiety-based depression) told us that we are all designed to avoid uncertainty because it creates a lot of negative emotions.

He suggests that fear and anxiety often come as a package deal: ’The more things are uncertain, the more we’re going to fear, and the more we fear things, the more we are anxious. 

‘Looking ahead and thinking about how life might be after the pandemic may feel comforting, but thinking too much about the future can also increase our anxious thoughts.’

AnxietyJosh (also known as Joshua Fletcher, a psychotherapist and the author of Anxiety: Practical about Panic) suggests that we shouldn’t get too concerned about dealing with uncertainty on a day-by-day basis. 

He tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Humans thousands of years ago lived in an almost entirely uncertain climate, where being on edge, stressed and hypervigilant was really helpful and required to stay alive; we would have to always keep our eyes peeled for predators or warring tribe members. 

#We live in uncertain times now, but I would encourage people that they have more than enough resources to tolerate the anxiety that occurs as we move through it. I’ve worked with people who have experienced anxiety for years and they have been fine.’

We asked Joshua, Dave and a host of other mental health experts for their tips for trying to combat the anxiety that can come with an uncertain future.

Set yourself a routine

Psychotherapists Nik and Eva Speakman are the authors of Conquering Anxiety: Stop worrying, beat stress and feel happy again and the second season of their podcast Making The Change is out now.

Nik and Eva suggest that keeping busy could be the trick to weathering the new lockdown.

‘The phrase, ‘the devil will find work for idle hands’ is something we should consider during times of uncertainty,’ they tell us.

‘Keeping busy, having a routine and focusing on clear goals will help prevent defaulting to what is going wrong.  It will also help provide a sense of purpose and achievement.’

Don’t engage with worst-case scenarios

AnxietyJosh explains that it’s important to be aware of the human mind’s natural attraction to worst case scenarios.

In other words, feelings aren’t the same as facts.

‘Uncertainty always presents a spectrum of possibilities, ranging from the ideal to the catastrophic in any given scenario,’ Josh explains.

‘I advise people to be mindful of the fact that, when we are stressed, anxious and struggling, we are always drawn to the catastrophe on this spectrum of possibilities; our view and rationality is skewed by the emotion of fear and the anxious response. 

‘If we become anxious, or already are anxious, our anxious brain is only interested in worst-case scenarios of a given situation. 

‘Anyone who has ever googled their symptoms of an illness will relate to this! 

‘The anxious brain is supposed to do this, because this is the brain suggesting all the “dangers” to us, just like for our ancestors many moons ago. 

‘However, as this function of our brains is often redundant in modern times, I advise people to give themselves permission not to engage with these catastrophic suggestions, as they’re often not helpful or needed. 

‘Ultimately, it is ok not to engage with catastrophic thinking during what is already a difficult time. 

‘Instead, work on self-care, create balance for yourself by first defining what balance means for you.’

Get a hobby

Help with Anxiety author Ged Jenkins-Omar recommends refocusing your mind away from yourself.

‘With lots of our liberties restricted this year and the dark winter nights now upon us, it is important to find enjoyment in our days and evenings,’ says Ged.

‘Finding a new hobby or developing your existing ones can give you something to focus on and can offer you some relief from an otherwise stressful world. 

‘Whether that’s writing, painting, making figures or Christmas presents, collecting items, researching the past, building or constructing something, self-care, cooking, baking or something else. 

”Not only are hobbies enjoyable but they can also help to refocus your anxious mind away from worrying as you concentrate on the task in hand. 

Furthermore, completing tasks can also fill us with a sense of joy and provide us with a natural reward of feeling good. 

‘So, it might be time to get that ordering that craft set, dusting off the cookbook or getting that yoga mat out.’

Maintain your support network

Anxiety UK suggests other people are key when uncertainty is protracted.

‘Talking to a loved one, a close friend or a colleague can make a real difference,’ a spokesperson said.  

‘Talking to people and sharing your thoughts and feelings with others in similar situations can be really supportive. 

‘They understand what you’re going through and what you’re dealing with because they’re in the same boat.’

The Speakmans second this advice: ‘Loneliness can negatively affect our mental health and therefore keeping sociable in any capacity is particularly important right now.  

‘There are numerous community groups all over the UK to help keep people connected, as well as the Mind charity’s Side By Side online community.’

Be kind to yourself

Caroline Harper is a senior registered mental health nurse with over 10 years of experience in both the NHS and the private sector. 

She suggests it’s more than okay to feel uneasy at this current time and emphasises that acknowledging this feeling in an uncertain time can be very helpful. 

‘Accepting that we are finding things strange or anxiety provoking is good and much better than placing additional pressure on ourselves to be okay and performing well in all areas,’ she explains.

‘Think about what you would say to a friend if they were struggling, then give yourself the same compassion.’ 

Get physical

Before you get down, get up and at it.

According to the Speakmans, physical exercise helps improve your memory and brain function, protects against ill health, helps you sleep and helps to reduce anxiety and depression. 

So if you’re finding uncertainty excruciating, just getting moving, whether that’s by doing a YouTube workout, throwing yourself about your room to your favourite songs or going for a jog, could take the edge off.

Approach the news with care

At such an eventful time, it’s can be hard to tear yourself away from the news. 

But many of the experts we approached advised consuming news with care.

The Speakmans suggested that overconsumption of negative news could make you more negative in the long run.

‘Imagine exercising a muscle,’ they say. ‘The more you exercise it, the bigger and more pronounced the muscle becomes.  

‘This metaphor also applies to listening to negative news. Therefore keep it to reliable sources and only once or twice a day and not on repeat, which will only add to feelings of being overwhelmed.’

Caroline stresses that although we need to know what is happening, we don’t have to see it continuously on a loop.

Ged suggests that if you find yourself having an awful day, ‘turn off the news, turn off social media and watch or read something that makes you laugh.’

Need support? Contact the Samaritans

For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.

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  • Posted on November 16, 2020