Read: Clinical Psychologist Jacqui Maguire - finding calm during uncertainty

Jacqui Maguire is a registered clinical psychologist. For the past five years Jacqui managed a corporate wellbeing company, partnering with clients to create actionable strategies for stronger, more resilient organisations. She now manages a small private portfolio, and is a mental health and wellbeing thought leader. Jacqui is a sought after speaker, contributing regularly to national media and conferences.

I had pegged 2020 as my year of reprieve. A challenge free year to consolidate, focus on my family, and have more fun. Heck, after the last 12 months I had earned that. A COVID-19 lockdown wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I cried as the Prime Minister made her address to the nation, “stay home to save lives”. What is this world we are living in? How will this impact us all?

The way in which New Zealanders respond and adapt to the COVID-19 lockdown will wildly vary. Some may be overjoyed by the ability to bunker down and Netflix and chill (cue undergraduate students). Others will likely grapple with daily obstacles: working and homeschooling simultaneously, separation from significant people, removed access to leisure activities, financial strain and uncertainty, reduced productivity.  For a smaller cohort, significant distress causing a more lasting impact on their mental health may occur.

Life experiences, age, genetics, environment, life context, temperament, pre-existing health conditions and response to uncertainty are all factors that contribute to this variance.  Our mental health is also fluid, meaning people may find themselves coping better on some days than others. Even coping better in some moments than others. Regardless of where you currently sit on the spectrum, or the particular challenges you are facing, we will all benefit from prioritising our wellbeing.

 
Here are six strategies to support your wellbeing during challenge and uncertainty:

Do the basics

There are a number of popularised and effective strategies to foster positive wellbeing. Exercising daily, eating nutritious food, maintaining good sleep hygiene, relaxation and mindfulness, getting into nature. These strategies are your wellbeing foundation, and utilised regularly will help provide you with a good buffer.

Retain as much normalcy as possible

Routine, familiarity and consistency provide a sense of comfort and enable aspects of our regular life to continue. This is important for our mental health, as “normal” signals safe to our brain. It also helps keep COVID-19 contained, so it is ‘part of’ rather than ‘all’ of our existence. 
- Get up and go to sleep at your regular time 
- ‘Dress for work'
- Retain your normal household chores: cooking, cleaning, staying on top of the washing 
- Keep in contact with family and friends. Facetime them where possible

Plan

Be prepared. Having a well-thought-out plan supports us to actively cope better in tough moments. It also retains your focus on what’s controllable. Plan how you will practically navigate the lockdown period and how do you want to feel through it. This may include ensuring your supplies are well-stocked, creating a support network tree or establishing  household projects. Determine how you can adapt some of your regular health and fitness regimes to a lockdown-friendly version. Separate the house into ‘work and relaxation zones’ to help switch off at the end of the day.  For those with children this may include scheduling home-school shifts between parents, designing daily timetables or reward systems. Plan activities that boost positive emotion and will help you feel connected, positive, in control and calm through lockdown. Research shows that frequent positive emotion activates our parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation system), boosts our immune system and expand our thinking.

Watch your thoughts

During uncertain times our thoughts can become negative and frequent. It’s important to hold the big picture and balance our thinking. (“We are in lockdown to support the health of our nation”; “this will end soon and I know I can get through it”; “the economy will recover in time”). If constant worry is a particular challenge for you, it can help to schedule daily worry timeNoting your worries as they pop into your mind is also an effective strategy. If you have ‘worst case scenario’ or ‘catastrophic thinking’, it can be useful to focus on one moment at a time, “I’m just going to focus on getting through the afternoon.”

Boundary media use (regular and social)

Being informed can help people feel calmer and more prepared. Being too informed, or consumed, can lead to overwhelm and distress. Be consciously aware of the quantity of COVID-19 information you are tuning in to. It can be helpful to set up routines around this “I am going to watch the 1pm daily update and the six o’clock news only”. Putting limits on household conversations is also important.

Be gentle on yourself

It is vital we provide ourselves some wiggle room within our usual expectations at the moment. Flexibility and slack in the system can help ease internal pressure. A good question is “what’s the worse that will happen?”. For example, “What’s the worse that will happen if the house is messy” or “what’s the worse that will happen if the kids have an extra 30 minutes screen time”. The government has urged us to be kind to others, remember to be kind to yourself.

Protecting our physical health from COVID-19 is the nation’s first responsibility during this period. Caring for our mental health must come second; to help buffer us from the impact of uncertainty, isolation, life challenges and stress.

With quiet reflection I have come to the realisation that in a convoluted way, four weeks in isolation may provide my family with that long awaited reprieve. A unique opportunity to press the pause button, connect and get creative on the fun front. All whilst supporting us to stay safe. This period will no doubt have ups and downs, and some of us will be facing more uncertainty than others. Yet I do believe that as a nation we can survive this. With the right habits and mindset in place, we could even find ourselves emerging with new found strength and meaning.

Good luck, Kia Kaha.

 
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