Een gids voor geestelijke gezondheid voor het overleven van het coronavirusjuni 7, 2020
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Reader, this has not been my first lockdown. Twenty years ago, when I had just stepped into my 20s, I was under lengthy quarantine due to a very personal health crisis: I had developed agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder where sufferers find it difficult to leave their homes.
I was a socially active graduate, just starting to think about moving out of the house I shared with my mother and stepfather, when suddenly I began fainting in public. Soon just being in an enclosed public place – cinemas, train stations, shops – meant nausea and vertigo would overwhelm me, often to the point of unconsciousness. So I stopped leaving the house.
By the time I discovered that these were actually panic attacks, my symptoms had me housebound – and I would remain that way for four years.
During that time I began psychotherapy and committed to a long-term programme of gradual desensitisation therapy to overcome the panic attacks. To succeed, my doctor warned me, I’d need to deliberately place myself in the path of an oncoming panic attack, do my best not to fall over or faint, and repeat the exercise daily until I reconquered the outside world. Having effectively just had a nervous breakdown, I was in no position to do this, so I was under strict orders to rest, and to put real work into my own recuperation.
Thanks to the psychotherapy, which effectively rewired my brain, I can now leave my home, commute and travel internationally without issue (or at least, I could before lockdown). But consciously investing in my own well-being is what got me through four years of quarantine and high tension – and what I learnt then has come in handy during these past three months, as someone living with an anxiety disorder during a pandemic, not to mention having two small children, a marriage and a career. Here are the lessons I learnt – I hope they’ll be useful to you too.
First and foremost, remember you’re a finite resource
The social-media legend, ‘It’s OK not to be productive’ has been popular since quarantine began, but is not particularly helpful. Pandemic anxiety has affected us all, and many of us still have to earn a living, pay bills, feed our kids and so on.
Far more useful, I think, is the concept of ‘usable hours’ – a working philosophy espoused by many people who, like me, are living with chronic illness. I first learnt about it when I was agoraphobic, and whenever I apply it, my quality of life improves.
Here’s how it works: a healthy person may have, say, 10-15 usable hours in any one day – these would typically be used up by work, commuting, housework, exercise and so on. Chronically ill people can have far fewer (for some, even making a phone call may require recuperative rest), so they may find it helpful to assign their usable hours to only the most pressing priorities.
With so many of us suddenly bereaved, furloughed or dealing with new or existing mental-health issues – it would help us all to be vigilant of our energy levels and priorities.
Prioritise feeding your own well-being, before it becomes depleted
Think of your productivity in transactional terms – for everything that ‘takes’ from you (whether that’s work, or the new anxiety around supermarket shopping), you’ll need to refill the well several times over. Prioritising sleep and nutrition will help, but don’t write off your own idiosyncratic retreats – like a particular film, a certain sandwich filling, or even going to bed at 3pm with a block of cheese and your favourite duvet (yes, I have a favourite duvet). If it helps you in your less able moments, it’s valid.
Stay in touch
Keep a channel open with your GP. I struggle with guilt about ‘overburdening’ the NHS, but the truth is your GP isn’t there just to treat Covid-19 patients, and it’s less burdensome to stay on top of your own health – mental or physical – than to let things escalate to an emergency (although of course often this can’t be helped). Keep a brief daily log of your own well-being, and automate everything you can – from setting up weekly grocery deliveries if they’re available to you, to automatically refilling any repeat prescriptions (ask your local pharmacy for more information). If you can, schedule a walk with a (responsibly distanced) friend – the rhythm, routine and social release will help.
Take things one step at a time
On my worst days of agoraphobia, I would drag a brush through my hair, clean my teeth, stick my head out of the window – because I’d made a ‘minimum effort’ list so that, specifically on those days, I’d feel I had achieved something. Now I have kids, I’ve adapted my ‘bad days’ list so that, if I’m with my children, we read one book, have one halfhour of outside time, and one person-to-person chat without anyone looking at a screen. I have similar minimal plans for taking one step to further my work, housework or selfcare. It really does make a difference.
When in doubt, go out (or to bed)
This may sound counter-intuitive for someone with agoraphobia, but while crowded areas made me panicky, I found being in the open air was less triggering. Back then, my seclusion was underwritten by a constant, pernicious low-level anxiety – that I think many of us experience today under lockdown – and sometimes it would overwhelm me. In these moments, I’d lace up my trainers and fling myself out of the front door before I could talk myself out of it. I found that being outdoors, even briefly, would momentarily distract me from my anxiety, and by matching my mental restlessness with physical activity, I could expunge it. On the rare occasions this didn’t work, I’d conclude that I was probably overtired – in which case the only sensible course of action would be to go back to bed. When possible, at 3pm – with a block of cheese and my favourite c.
Robyn Wilder’s book ‘Reason’s to Be Fearful’ (Ebury Press) is out next year
Have you had a similar experience with your mental health? What did you do to help you manage? Tell us in the comments section below.