On March 3rd 2020, I tweeted “Am I the only introvert who is secretly looking forward to the possibility of self-isolation?”, and at the time I couldn’t imagine anything better than a government sanctioned opportunity to be antisocial. I find social interaction a challenge at the best of times, so any opportunity to be where others are not, I embrace wholeheartedly. That said, it hasn’t turned out to be quite the gift that I thought it would be.
Everyone has their own story, and compared to many I have been exceptionally fortunate. Even so, overnight I found that my work and income had stopped; my 18 year old had been left in limbo between college and an unknown and uncertain future; and my husband, who also works in aviation, was ‘grounded’. On the day this all happened, I sat in the garden and felt completely numb, mindlessly scrolling through the news media to find a glimmer of hope to suggest that this would all pass in a few weeks and we could get back to normal − making a difference in the best industry in the world.
As time has gone on I have been amazed at how some people appear, at least on social media posts, to have adapted to the constraints that lockdown, the virus and the economic situation have thrown at them: they have regrouped, grabbed opportunities, and appear to be thriving. But as I sat at home wondering whether it was socially acceptable to wear the same hoodie every day for a week and eat cake for breakfast, I began to realise that not everyone (i.e. me) was coping with the changes quite as well.
As a psychologist, I can tell you why things are happening to you and to me, emotionally and physically, during these times of uncertainty – and what to do to help yourself and others. As a flawed (normal) human being, with a history of anxiety and depression, I can also tell you that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, no golden bullet, no wonder cure. But I thought I’d share some of the things I have learned from both science and experience, and hopefully one or two of them will resonate.
We know that about 1 in 4 people experience mental health problems each year. We can all feel anxious, sad or stressed at certain times in our lives. But when those feelings go on for a long time or get worse, or when they affect our home and work life, then it is important, however daunting it might feel, that we face up to the situation (both the underlying causes and the physical, mental and behavioural symptoms) and start to take some action. Doing nothing usually makes the problem worse. Not all problems can be resolved immediately or on our own but ignoring or avoiding dealing with issues will only delay things in the short term and can ultimately cause further problems in the future.
The emotional and economic impact of COVID-19 will have a long-term effect on everyone, but a lot of the feelings associated with stressful situations can be self-generated, and how we perceive life will impact how we deal with events. Recognising that we need to manage our emotional response to stress in our lives is important.
Emotions give us a subjective lens through which we view the world. It is, however, just our perspective and we have to remember that nobody else views the world in exactly the same way that we do. Emotions are not only how we feel but also how we process and respond to those feelings.
We are not robots and our emotional or mental state or mood will change: from moment to moment, day to day, depending on what is going on in our lives, how we are feeling and what challenges or obstacles we face at that time.
Whilst we cannot always easily resolve all the stressful situations that we will face, there are ways to make a difference to how you feel about them by changing your thinking, your behaviour and your lifestyle.
Change your thinking
• Try to face up to whatever is causing the problem rather than avoiding it or trying to distract yourself. Describe to yourself what the issue is, not how it makes you feel. What is it that you need to change, and what are the first steps towards that.
• Admit to yourself that you may need help – it is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Stress is our body's normal reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure, and even superheroes need a bit of help from time to time.
• Your mind may constantly bombard you with negative thoughts but you can learn to reframe them. Simply say ‘thank you’ to your mind and consider replacing an unhelpful thought with something positive and useful. Challenge your assumptions: is it really the end of the world or are you just having a bad day? What is the best way for you to change your situation? Life-changing events can and will happen in our lives. We cannot stop them from occurring, but we can decide how we respond to them.
• When you find your mind going round and round like a washing machine, take a moment to pause, and breathe. Acknowledge that you’re having thoughts and feelings and try to take a step back and see them for what they are – simply thoughts and feelings. You can just let them sail by like leaves on a stream or cars on the road without engaging with them. It takes practice but keep trying.
• Bring your mind back to the present as often as you can. Breathe. Take some time to notice your surroundings, using all your senses.
• Be kind to yourself. Whatever emotions you are experiencing are perfectly normal – whether it’s fear or anger, anxiety or apathy. You can’t stop them from occurring but you can decide whether they are helpful in dealing with the situation you’re in. If not, acknowledge them and let them move on by.
• Consider what you have to be grateful for and identify some of the positive things in your life, even if they are small.
• Stop comparing yourself to others – it really isn’t helpful AT ALL. Everyone has their own problems – nobody has this nailed even if their social media posts suggest otherwise. We all respond to things differently and that’s OK.
• If the world or your brain is going too fast, remember to pause, breathe, think, then act.
Change your behaviour
• Once you have mentally faced up to a situation, you need to take positive action. What can you do in the short, medium and long-term to resolve the issue and reduce the stress or anxiety you are experiencing? What can you do right now to make a difference to your life or to the lives of others?
• Get organised, manage your time and take control over what you can. Whether it is your finances, work arrangements or your own health. Identify what you can do to make the change. Accept what you cannot change and change what you can.
• Talk to people: your friends, family, colleagues, manager − whoever is in the best position to be able to understand and address your concerns. Ask for help – there are more people than ever who truly want to help at this time.
• Listen to the way you talk to others about your situation. Often, we can get caught up in a spiral of negativity and can actually make ourselves feel worse. Try to use factual rather than emotional language where you can.
• Behave in a way that will encourage the behaviour you want to see in others. Be a positive role model.
• Be kind to others and don’t judge. Remember that people are doing what makes sense to them. You never know what other people are experiencing. It can often explain otherwise illogical behaviour.
Change your lifestyle
• Eat as healthily as you can, cutting back on junk food and increasing the amount of plant-based foods. Remember, 5 portions of fruit and veg a day and lots of water!
• Cut down alcohol, nicotine and caffeine consumption.
• Take up regular exercise that suits you, whether it is running, playing a sport, or walking in nature. Get your heart pumping and move.
• Look for opportunities to relax such as yoga or meditation, taking a nap, reading a book, having a bath or walking the dog. Whatever helps you unwind.
• Good sleep is essential. Try to ensure you are getting the right quantity and quality of sleep.
• Make sure you stay connected with friends, family and your community. Look for opportunities to give back and help others.
Now, more than ever, we need to be looking after our wellbeing. Our minds and bodies, our emotional and physical health, are interdependent with one influencing the wellbeing of the other. Let’s take the time to look after ourselves – and others – with kindness, compassion and positive action. And remember, if it all gets too much, pause, breathe, think, act. With Aviation Action we are building a caring, trusting community to help us feel comfortable in opening up and asking for help. Sometimes you just have to be brave and take the first step.
The Flight Safety Foundation has recently published An Aviation Professional’s Guide to Wellbeing which has some more excellent advice on how to look after yourself, whilst acknowledging your impact on others. Please take some time to read it and if you have any questions, I know the authors would welcome them so do get in touch. And if you need help in knowing where best to start, get in contact with Aviation Action.