These are strange times indeed. Perhaps you, like me are stuck at home, working on your computer. I’m home because I’m on annual leave that I’d booked months ago to crack on with writing my next book. My husband is in the next room working from home indefinitely as London shuts down. Next week, I’ll be back in my NHS job. Being a child psychiatrist, I’m not on the front line, but doing my part ‘Keeping calm, washing hands and carrying on’. For now, we are continuing our usual service save that all our appointments will be conducted via phone or video conferencing. If there is one thing about the NHS it is that the staff are dedicated and we will do all we can to support our patients, either on the front line with corona-virus or trying to maintain as many normal services as we are able.
Children handle uncertainty and change differently. Big Sis has been dancing about with glee that school is cancelled, not at all downcast about a cancelled school trip to France, and outrightly refusing returning to school even if a place becomes available due to her mother being an NHS employee. Lil Bro has been subdued and downcast at the prospect of change, the cancellation of a class assembly and not being able to see his friends in person. All this, meanwhile grandma is self-isolating with a temperature >38 degrees C for the past 5 days.
Is it possible to stay sane? Here are a few tips:
Stay sociable. Social distancing doesn’t mean cutting all contact with friends and family. The telephone, texting, FaceTime and all manner of ways to remain connected still exist. Perhaps Big Sis’s nonchalant reaction to self-isolation is because she has her own smartphone and is part of generation digital who see no difference between personal and digital contact. We older generation can perhaps learn from our kids that we are lucky that we have tech and I’ve had more contact with my university gal pals this week than any other via WhatsApp. To be honest, we all lead such busy lives that we only saw each other once every 6 months anyway even before enforced isolation. It is also perhaps our social duty to stay connected digitally with our friends and family so that others know that we are doing OK, and we are not contributing to other people’s anxiety. You may find that they need a virtual shoulder to cry on or that their jokes still make you laugh however geographically far apart you are.
Stay active. Whether it be yoga, weights or a run in the park (keeping 2m away from others), staying active is as good for the mind as it is for the body. Plenty of home exercise videos and internet workouts are available.
Practice managing uncertainty. These are uncertain times, and for many of us that are used to being in control, managing uncertainty can be difficult and a source of anxiety. Start with a deep breath. We will all require to manage uncertainty at times in our lives and practising to manage it is a good thing. Most people that struggle to manage uncertainty do so because they fear that they are responsible for outcomes and will not be able to cope. They constantly worry whether they have enough loo roll, whether they should or shouldn’t use ibuprofen, whether their elderly parents have strayed outside. Rather than to go around in circles of panic worry, it may help to think through the worries and problem solve each scenario. Would it be the end of the world if you ran out of loo roll? In many countries loo roll doesn’t even exist and the good old hand suffices (I should know). Since we are all trapped in our homes and hopefully have access to running water, the world won’t cave in if we run out of loo roll. Take each day at a time and try to evaluate the facts rationally. The risk of serious ill health to most people, even in the older age group are still low. In the worst case scenario, if we or our relatives are severely affected (it will of course inevitably happen to some of us), there is nothing that we could reasonably have done to alter the course of events and worrying excessively adds to not relieves problems. If worries are financial and imminent, research government and business websites and see what support there is available for you.
Re-set your priorities. It’s not often that we get a break from our hectic lives. Being stuck at home for a while can be seen as a positive enforced break from the tread-mill. Use this time productively to think about your life’s journey and where you are going. In times of crisis, what really matters to you (health, family and friends) become sharpened – remember this feeling and perhaps take this opportunity to re-set priorities.
Spend quality time with your family. OK, we are all going to be forced to spend more time with our families. Social media is rife with despair about having to spend time with spouses and families, and indeed divorce rates have increased in some areas with enforced working from home policies. But taking time to reconnect with family members is positive. Although I was initially annoyed that the other half had eaten all my working from home snacks on day one, it is nice to have a coffee and lunch break with my husband rather than colleagues, and next week when the kids will join us, I have promised breaks for board games, indoor picnics and for Lil Bro and I to finish building the hydraulic robot arm project that we started at Christmas.
Help out those around you. We were posted a leaflet through the door from the local volunteer corps. It’s heartwarming that in any crisis, there are amazing people in the world that step forward to help others. People are rallying around to support those in the community around them, whether by donating time, resources or money there is so much do-gooding that can be observed. Lil Bro and I packed a care package that his school was collecting for the local Age Concern care home. Taking part in helping the community and those more vulnerable has benefits for mental health and can take your mind off the uncertainty that we all face. Not all of us are able to offer everything, but we can all offer something, even if it is just to make sure that you order take-out from a local restaurant business that may go under without your support.
Look for silver linings. When all this is over, for this too shall pass, there will be some silver linings. Pollution levels will have dropped and the air will be cleaner. We as a population will see that it is possible to change our life-styles and priorities: reduce air-travel, work from home for better work-life balance, and invest in the NHS to name a few changes, which may have long term benefits.
Self-Help. Prof Roz Shafran a lovely colleague at UCL is currently doing research on the quality of mental health advice on social media platforms such as Mumsnet. The initial data is pretty good, so good self-help is out there, both for a virtual hug and for decent information.
An excellent book for helping children with anxiety is this one:
Overcoming Your Child’s Fears and Worries, by Cathy Cresswell.
Other internet resources include:
Podcast to help explain Coronavirus to children with Autism by my excellent colleague Marianna Murin