Claire is an EdD student at the School of Education, interested in researching the experiences of counselling students in HE training. She is a HE lecturer for a counselling degree training programme in the UK, has worked in mental health for 20 years and is interested in the use of compassion and mindfulness in therapy.
To be betwixt and between a global pandemic and ‘normal’ life undoubtedly has the potential to greatly impact on daily life and our mental health.
How interesting and difficult it has been to observe the mental health journey of others whilst navigating my own during this last year! Most of us have been coerced into a period of self-reflection on what does and does not help us keep mentally well and coping. It has been the best of times and the worst of times and the end is not in sight just yet.
Here are a few themes that have come out of my observations of working with clients, students and my own research and experiences this year and a suggestion of what we can do to help our mental health during the pandemic.
Certainty and uncertainty remain common dichotomies in our human experience and reflect a dilemma for all of us; do we want to know our future threats or can we be happy with not knowing? Generally, we are more likely to want to know how bad a situation is so we can have some control, but this can be hard to tolerate (Satici, et al 2020).
The intolerance of uncertainty reflects the tendency for some to fear the unknown intensely (Fergus, 2013). This often underpins anxiety in some individuals but has been propelled into many of our experiences this year. As a coping strategy and to reduce distress we then often engage in avoidance-driven behaviours.
None of us know with certainty how long current restrictions will last, whether we will be well or how we will be impacted. This uncertainty can lead us to trying to gain certainty or control in other areas; which might explain the toilet roll panic-buying phenomenon!
We can’t control the pandemic, but we often shift our control to other areas such as excessive worry or reassurance seeking, news scrolling or repeated online shopping. Of course, some behaviours can be helpful such as vegetable growing, exercise or baking for example, but some can take their toll on our wellbeing. Who hasn’t found themselves doom-scrolling on the internet at midnight?
Similarly, we seem to be hard-wired to turn away from discomfort rather than towards; a useful protection mechanism but can store up problems for use down the line. Hayes et al (1996) define the reluctance to experience certain negative emotions and feelings as experiential avoidance.
During the pandemic I have observed in myself and others times where I have avoided listening to the news or addressing difficult feelings or experiences in an attempt to keep myself well.
Although this behaviour can be beneficial in the short-term, learning strategies to ‘face’ and accept difficult emotions and experiences can help up to build our resilience and psychological flexibility.
For further information, here is a useful short video that explains experiential avoidance in more detail: https://youtu.be/C-ZuqeyxULM
Something to focus on
So, what can we do to look after our mental wellbeing and of those around us? Can we turn to discomfort in a way that is manageable and useful?
There are many strategies of course and different things work for different people; I’m sure we have all become acutely aware of the things we miss and value that we would like to be able to do but are unable at present.
One useful tool is Paul Gilbert’s (2013) evolutionary model of human motivational systems which provides a lens through which to view our thoughts, feelings and behaviours and offers some guidance of where we can place our focus.
According to the model, we can easily oscillate between our threat and drive systems with the soothing system getting very little look in. It is understandable to imagine that our threat systems are activated at present, and for good reason.
Being in the threat system however, can be uncomfortable and unhelpful so in the short term we can often look to ‘do’ something to quell the discomfort.
We might be ‘driven’ to redecorate the living room for example or build that vegetable patch in the garden, I know I did both during lockdown 1.0!
However, as productive as these pursuits are, according to Gilbert, both the threat and drive system activate the sympathetic nervous system leaving us in a high state of alert.
So according to this model, in order to achieve a balance in life, it is also important to activate the soothe system, which enables us to slow down, rest and renew and regain some of our functions and perspective.
There are a few ways that we can activate this soothing system including being kind to ourselves and other, mindfulness and being grounded in the here and now.
One such technique I have found particularly helpful over the last year and I often recommend to clients and students is a technique called 5,4,3,2,1. This is a relatively simple grounding exercise you can do wherever you are and uses the five senses to become present in the here and now.
This technique and the other theories mentioned of course aren’t going to change the world right now but perhaps even in small ways they might just help us to re-centre ourselves for a few moments, to provide some space and much needed soothing whilst everything else is going on around us.
To have a go at activating your soothing system, here is a link to a demonstration of soothing rhythm breathing: https://youtu.be/QsGek_AEDJI
Fergus, T. A. (2013) A comparison of three self-report measures of intolerance of uncertainty: An examination of structure and incremental explanatory power in a community sample. Psychological Assessment, 25(4), 1322–1331.
Gilbert, P. (2013) The compassionate mind. Robinson.
Hayes, S. C., Wilson, K. W., Gifford, E. V., Follette, V. M., and Strosahl, K. (1996) Experiential avoidance and behavioral disorders: a functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment. J. Consul. Clin. Psychol. 64, 1152–1168.
Satici, B., Saricali, M., Ahmet, S. & Griffiths. M.D. (2020) Intolerance of Uncertainty and Mental Wellbeing: Serial Mediation by Rumination and Fear of Covid-19, International journal of mental health and addiction, 1-12, pp. 1–12.