Today is the one year anniversary of the UK lockdown following the emergence of the COVID pandemic. The past year has brought us all sorts of challenges and experiences and on the year anniversary we have been thinking about how we can now learn to live with the impact from COVID. Many of us have already been helped by the tips in this brilliant article about how to ‘FACE COVID’ by Dr Russ Harris, Psychotherapist. This current blog has been inspired by Russ's article and outlines the ways in which COVID has affected us all over the past year, how we can acknowledge this, be kind to ourselves and learn how to live with the impact of what has been a very difficult year. We have used the acronym ‘L.I.V.I.N.G. W.I.T.H. C.O.V.I.D.’ to outline the points that can be helpful to remember:
· L = Loss
· I = Insight
· V = Validation
· I = Impact
· N = Normalising
· G = Grief
· W = Walking in nature
· I = Inspiration
· T = Therapeutic Activity
· H = Health & Wellbeing
· C = Community & Connection
· O = Outlook & ‘Optimism’
· V = Values
· I = Integration
· D = Determination
We have all experienced losses this past year. Some people have had the heartbreak of losing loved ones to COVID, some people had the devastating loss of their jobs and livelihoods, some people have lost their health. We all lost our choices, our physical connection with others, our planned experiences, our routines. Children lost their schools and playing with their friends, young adults lost out on enjoying their time starting uni and college, we lost being able to visit friends and relatives, many lost out on travelling, we all lost out on hugs, we lost out on freedom. Such losses can have a significant impact on our health and wellbeing.
Many of these losses are shared stories, many which have been devastatingly hard to deal with. We need to remind ourselves and have the insight that having such experiences and adjusting to them can be difficult and to recognise the struggle that this often brings. It can be helpful to remind ourselves that other people’s worlds may be crumbling even if ours is not. Or if we feel like we are drowning in our own world, when it is a good time to reach out and ask for help.
All of our experiences are exactly that, our own experiences. There is no right or wrong way to have experienced or dealt with the past year or how we are coping just now. When life is difficult we often get messages to ‘think positively!’, ‘just smile!’, ‘keep calm and carry on!’ but this so called ‘toxic positivity’ can often send the message that the persons experience is not a real one, not a valid one, not an important one. This invalidation can be very difficult to hear so it is important to understand that ALL experiences are valid to that individual, no matter how different or bigger or smaller they may be compared to our own experiences. Some people have also reflected that they have had quite a positive lockdown experience and can then feel guilty about this. Validation of all experiences is one of the key things to being compassionate, kind and honest to ourselves and others and it can often make very difficult experiences more bearable.
We cannot deny the impact that COVID has had on the world. It has impacted our sense of normality, of safety, of risk, our health, our relationships, our education, our work, our routines, our lives. It would be easy to see all of the impact as negative but many people have also noticed the impact on them in a positive way. Our new and changed world in this past year has impacted many of us reaching out to our communities more often, adapting to new ways of connecting (who had even heard of Zoom before this??), to connecting to things that are important to us, to learning new skills, to reevaluting how we want our lives to be. The impact of COVID, both positive and negative, is important to tune into, listen to and reflect upon.
Many people have struggled in various ways over the past year. Often people believe that they ‘should’ be able to cope, that they shouldn’t be affected, that they shouldn’t feel worried, stressed and anxious, that their mood shouldn’t be low. But we have faced a global pandemic, and we are still in it. No one predicted this would happen, no one has experienced this before in our lifetime. We are designed as humans to notice, remember and predict threat and risk so our responses to what are essentially extremely unusual circumstances are very normal reactions and this is really important to remember!
Many people have lost loved ones due to COVID. Many have also lost loved ones due to the indirect impact from COVID. Many have lost income, businesses, livelihoods, freedom and future plans. It is very important to validate such experiences and allow ourselves to grieve. Losses, even out-with a pandemic, can be difficult to deal with. It can therefore be so much harder to grieve and adjust to loss when we don’t have our usual supports and coping strategies around us. So allow yourself that extra time and space to grieve, to reach out to others, to be kind to yourself.
WALKING IN NATURE
As we move forward with learning to live with COVID there are some things that we can connect with that have been shown to be helpful. Walking in and surrounding ourselves with nature is one example which can have immense benefits. It helps us connect with the outdoors, fresh air, and our (often beautiful) surroundings. We gain exercise, fitness and a sense of peacefulness. Connecting with nature has been shown to have significant benefits to both our physical and mental health. It is a great opportunity to just notice our surroundings, to be mindful of what is around us and to connect with the present moment.
We can take inspiration from nature and from others as we move forward and learn to live with COVID. There have been many inspirational stories online and in the news about what people have done in the past year (Captain Tom Moore being one amazing example!), about helping others, about learning new skills, about how people have adapted to difficult circumstances. These can be inspiring but can also feel quite difficult to read if we then feel pressure to do the same or are not feeling inspired at all! Inspiration doesn’t have to mean creating or doing something huge and utterly amazing, it could be something like reading a book, doing a drawing with your children, going for a walk, baking a cake, anything that might stimulate you! You may even be inspired to take stock of how life was pre-pandemic and re-assess what is truly important to you.
Activities that help us tune into a variety of feelings such as peace, excitement, openness, safety, invigoration, calm and so on can often be very therapeutic. Many people feel so much better after doing things, from going for a walk, reading a book, speaking to a friend, getting a haircut (from the 5th April in Scotland!!!), to sitting in the sun, to planting to flowers and so on. What can feel therapeutic for one person may be very different for others so as the world starts to open up again it’s important to think of what could help you, for yourself. Sometimes people may also need a bit more of a helping hand in which case seeking a professional therapist can be helpful if you are finding the impact from the past year all just too much.
HEALTH & WELLBEING
COVID has impacted many people’s health and wellbeing, both physically and mentally. Many people have had very difficult experiences from having COVID itself, have had traumatic experiences from being patients in hospital, have had extremely stressful working conditions as keyworkers, have faced difficulties in their mental health due to family members being ill or dying, from losing their jobs, from being furloughed. Many are now living with the aftereffects of COVID and may be experiencing the daily impact that Long COVID can bring or having difficult traumatic memories of the past year. As the world gradually moves towards easing lockdowns and living with COVID, it is important to look after both your physical and mental health and wellbeing. Thankfully with more people now getting vaccinated the impact on health and serious illness has already started to reduce. It doesn’t need to be anything radical but things like having a balanced diet, drinking more water, exercising more, speaking to and connecting with friends and family can be helpful starting points.
COMMUNITY & CONNECTION
As humans, community and connection with others are key to our wellbeing. Our early ancestors would most likely not survive for long if expelled from the community. The COVID pandemic has been particularly challenging in that it has reduced our opportunity for social contact, which is hugely detrimental. Overcoming these difficulties and connecting with others in new ways has been vital in maintaining mental health. Many communities came together in new ways during the past year. Although there are mixed feelings about it, clapping for key workers last summer is a great example of how communities came together to show support for the NHS and keyworkers, but also to each other. Many people loved to just see other people in their community, to get a sense of going through a shared experience together. Continuing to engage with your community in any way (like offering to get your neighbours shopping, by having a chat over the fence, by helping with school and community projects etc) can often be helpful when learning to live with COVID.
OUTLOOK & ‘OPTIMISM’
The past year has been very difficult and it can be extremely hard to feel any optimism especially if your life has been particularly affected by COVID. So many people talk about ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’, the parties they will have, the hugs they will give and this can feel very optimistic for some people. But there are many others whose lives have changed forever, who may not want ‘to get back out there’ and optimism like this can be very hard to hear. So no matter your circumstances, be kind to yourself and focus on the little changes you can do each day, even if it’s just getting washed and dressed. With time, the outlook of the future may feel like it’s changing but for now it’s important to again validate what we have been through in our own unique lives.
Values are our hearts deepest desires, what brings us meaning and richness to our lives, what is truly important to us. Lockdown has made many of us tune in more to this and perhaps change our lives a little to reflect this. The values that people often say are hugely important to them are things like connection, love, compassion, adventure, freedom, choice, fun, community and so on. It is very easy to lose sight of our values as we get swept away with life so as we move out of lockdown maybe ask yourself what values are important to you? How much are you connecting with them? What could you do to bring them into your life more in order to experience more meaning as we go on living with COVID?
So much has happened in the past year that it would be easy to want to hide under a duvet and try to wipe it from our memories but it is important to validate what we have all been through and integrate that into our current lives. Life will always have its ups and downs, so being able to recognise, adapt, open up to and grow into all of our experiences can be helpful in the longer term rather than trying to run away from or push away all of the difficult experiences.
‘Living with COVID’ is very difficult, many of us no doubt all wish it hadn’t happened at all! Learning to live with COVID and moving forward involves a certain amount of determination. Determination to move forward and live our lives again, to connect with our values, to learn to adapt and to ride out the pandemic, not to fight how it has changed us but to grow to accept the impact and develop in new ways where we can. It’s a difficult path and many of us may be worried about the ups and downs in the future but we can notice these thoughts and our determination can help carry us through. It’s important that even in our determination we remember to be compassionate to ourselves, as well as others. Balancing determination and being gentle with ourselves can be helpful.
Perhaps the biggest challenge we face in these challenging times, is to learn more about ourselves and to use what we learn to improve our wellbeing whilst living with COVID.