The summer of stress – how to cope with fear and uncertainty in a pandemic | Life and style
On one of the worst days of the lockdown, Kat says, she ended up “in the corner of the room sobbing. My workload was through the roof and I couldn’t do anything with the children because I couldn’t take a minute away from it. And they were upset because they were missing their school friends and not wanting to sit and do maths. It all got a bit too much.”
She works in customer services and had been doing her full-time job from home, as well as trying to home-school her two children, while her husband, a gardener, kept working (she also has a chronic pain condition, made worse by stress). There were several times, she says, when she would turn off her phone and go into the kitchen for a cry.
For Valeri, there have been multiple anxieties. She is 26 weeks pregnant and saw a midwife for the first time only last week. Meanwhile, she has been home schooling her daughter and stepdaughter, having been let go from the recruitment job that she had just started (she was not eligible to be furloughed). “Financially, it’s been a huge strain,” she says. “I had planned to move house and have a proper maternity leave and I’ve not got the option any more. Trying to find a new job while heavily pregnant, it’s just been a bit of a scary time.”
It is now more than three months since the UK went into lockdown and, although some restrictions have been eased, many people still feel a high level of anxiety. Week after week of stress, and an uncertain future, have left many of us feeling frazzled and spent. “Stress is a normal response. It can be helpful and improve our performance,” says Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya, a consultant psychiatrist. “Where the stress response is prolonged, that’s where it can become problematic – and that’s what, for some people, is occurring.”
There have been different phases to the pandemic, he says. “The initial phase for some people was real opportunity, a sense of hope – the volunteering, connecting with neighbours and friends, this collective spirit. It was a honeymoon phase. We’re now in this curve of disillusionment. And we’ve had other major events during that period – all the issues around racism, the anger that’s fomenting within society, distrust of public figures.”
Dr Roberta Babb, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, agrees that there has been a shift in feeling. “At the beginning, there was a huge flurry of activity where we made everything happen. People were energised, even though they were stressed and anxious. I think that, around June, a lot of people realised that this idea of a temporary lockdown was feeling quite long-term and half the year had gone.” With the killing of George Floyd in the US and the protests that followed, she says: “On top of that, there was a lot of emotional stress, anxiety and pain.”
People are on edge – you can see it in supermarket queues and on the road as traffic gets heavier. It is there in the disapproval shown to pub-goers or beach visitors and on Twitter. Your anger may be triggered by the words “Barnard Castle” or even “banana bread”. You may be furious about the government’s handling of the crisis – and fearful about mass unemployment, what another wave of infection would mean for your family’s health and whether your children will ever catch up at school. You should be angry about big issues such as the climate emergency and racism. Do you even have the energy left to worry about a looming no-deal Brexit?
Although the pandemic has heightened inequalities, with some people more exposed than others to, say, financial stress, we are going through a collective trauma. “We tend to think of trauma as major life events, even life threatening, that may occur to an individual,” says Obuaya, “but this is trauma that affects a whole society. But it’s harder to define because it doesn’t have a specific end – I think it’s the uncertainty around this that is most challenging to people.”
For Valeri, it feels like “a constant ‘What now?’ battle. How am I going to be able to manage financially? How am I going to be able to get a job where I can work through my maternity leave? And also the impact that it potentially will have on my daughter: what will it be like going back into a school environment? Has she fallen behind?” As someone who is used to independence, she found shielding because of her pregnancy difficult. “Being pregnant is an exciting time normally and it’s been the complete opposite,” she says. “I don’t feel depressed, but I have days when I don’t want to do anything.”
Alex, a lecturer, is familiar with feeling a lack of motivation. He and his wife split the day in two – one works while the other looks after their two young children, then they swap. Although he says he has not been pressured by his university, it has still been “very stressful” to juggle everything.
“Around a month ago, we felt like we hit a wall,” he says. “I’ve been more despairing of things than I would be normally. Not seeing any sort of end to the situation at one point was quite demoralising. It’s just that feeling when you’re doing everything at 50% or less than you would like to, that feeling of guilt and failure. For me, it’s more around feeling guilty about not doing everything I could to make sure the kids are OK.” He has managed to keep on top of work, but has had to abandon most of his research. He says there is not the time or mental space to think, “which is what I would like to be able to do, in order to do the kind of work I do”.
Another academic, Hayley, also splits the day in two, sharing the care of her two-year-old with her husband. “Both of us are trying to fit in a minimum of seven hours a day at the desk,” she says. Once their daughter is in bed, “we’ll work again until 9pm or 10pm; my husband sometimes works until midnight. Then we’re up again at 6am. That’s been every day now since mid-March.” She has noticed “a weird underlying stress all the time – the guilt that you’re not doing anything really well, even if you’re trying really hard. The house is a tip. We had to decide there were some things we weren’t going to worry about. Our garden fence fell down and it’s still down.”
“I swing from ‘I’ve got this’ to ‘I’ve not got this at all’,” says Hayley. “Some days it’s fine and other days it’s overwhelming.” But even on the good days, she says: “If anything happens – if a work deadline shifts, or one us has a bad meeting, or the weather’s awful – we’ve not got any bandwidth to suck that up.” She stresses she knows others are worse off – she and her husband still have jobs, at full pay – “but then I’m also reading about people who have started learning Chinese and got a beach body and I think: ‘How have they had the time?’ I’m exhausted, just drained, so I go to bed and it starts again.”
With employees not wanting to be seen as slacking while at home, or fearing for their jobs, Siobhan Murray, a psychotherapist and the author of The Burnout Solution, has seen people “being more productive, working till 10pm or 11pm and not knowing how to switch off”. Increased alcohol consumption is common, she says. She is also seeing anxiety caused by the relaxing of lockdown. “There’s fear around stepping back into what we’re being told is the ‘new normal’, but there’s nothing normal about it and there’s even more uncertainty. There’s more self-regulation – to wash hands, wear a mask, socially distance – but people are getting judgmental of others who aren’t doing that and it’s causing anger and irritation.”
This is something Dr Poul Rohleder, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, has also noticed. “There is some anxiety about coming out of lockdown and that’s about your attitude to risk and not knowing what the risks are, but also about re-engaging with the world again.” Although he points out that, for some, home “is not a safe or anxiety-free place”, for others, lockdown “alleviated stress and anxiety because everyday engagement with aspects of life – travelling, going to work, relationships – in themselves cause anxiety or stress”.
When the government shifted the message in England from “stay at home” to “stay alert”, that also shifted the responsibility, says Babb. We are now forced to make our own risk assessments without much clear information, which is cognitively draining, but also, she says, “emotionally stressful because it comes with responsibility”. We are also a more fragmented society because of increased home-working and spending much less time with friends and family, she points out, “and there’s a lot of loss and a huge grief response”.
For black people, there has been not only the additional stress of being disproportionately negatively affected by Covid-19, but the renewed focus on racism. “It’s a real sense that the world is even more dangerous,” Babb says. “How do we mobilise, effect change, get our voices heard? And you’re having to do this during the most dangerous time we’ve had to manage in our lives. You’re having to assess personal risk versus a community cause. You’ve got medical uncertainties, political uncertainty, police brutality, racial inequality and people’s personal racial trauma. It’s a complicated, multifaceted experience that will have a lasting impact.”
In times of stress and anxiety, she says, “the first thing is to acknowledge your feelings. We’re very good at trying to squash them down, but they have a habit of leaking out. It’s about being compassionate and recognising you’re feeling something for a reason and trying to understand why.”
Obuaya recommends trying to accept “that this is the reality of the situation we’re in. We don’t have fixed timelines and it’s important to appreciate that this is going to be a drawn-out process.” But to maintain a degree of control, focus short-term. “Think in periods of days and weeks and try to control things that you can – sleep, exercise and nutrition.” He also advises limiting the number of doom-laden news stories you are exposed to. Maintaining social connections is vital, but he recommends ensuring “those sorts of conversations have a fun and lightness to them, so we’re not just asking people how they are and whether they’re ill”.
In the face of a threat, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released – the fight, flight or freeze response. “In any situation where that response system continues to remain on alert, your breathing will remain rapid, your heart rate and blood pressure potentially will remain high and the counterbalancing system doesn’t kick in,” says Obuaya. “That is not good in the long run.” One of the things that helps, he says, is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, “or the rest and digest response, which has the opposite effect – it slows down the breathing, it slows down the pumping of blood around the body”. Activities such as meditation and yoga “can be really effective”.
Murray advises creating boundaries. Worried by the prospect of a social gathering? “Say: ‘Thanks very much for the invitation, but I’m not that comfortable with that.’” Communicate your needs on a daily basis, she says. This is especially important when juggling childcare and work, which has fallen disproportionately on women. And lower your expectations. “What’s going to work for you, rather than put more pressure on you?”
A routine can be helpful to bring a sense of predictability, says Rohleder. And with days all blending into one, make an effort to differentiate between leisure time and work time, in the way your commute used to. “We need some sort of ritual to claim our evenings and weekends again,” he says.
Watch how you talk to yourself, says Babb. “We often talk about: ‘We should be able to manage it,’ and that’s an unhelpful thinking trap. By using the words should, need or ought, it makes us feel guilty because the implication is we’ve failed.” Instead, she says, it can be more useful to say: “It would be helpful if …”
We can all find ways that help. For Valeri, that has been talking a lot to friends and family, doing yoga and going for walks. Her Christianity also helps: “Listening to gospel music and hymns. And the fact that I’m bringing life into the world – I have no choice but to keep positive.”
Kat has carved out time to set herself small art projects every few days. She limited social media because, she says, “I was seeing a lot of people who seemed to be coping well and it made me feel worse”. She tries not to think about the constant “what ifs?”, but “sometimes you do have days when it hits you that this isn’t a normal situation”.
Isn’t it hard not to feel gloomy right now? “It is a completely appropriate response,” says Babb. “We are in a really difficult time and there is no clear end.” But we can balance negativity, she says. “Think about what you feel grateful for or what you’ve achieved,” she says, adding that it could be as small as getting up and having a shower. “It’s helpful to remember that we are resilient, which is not just the ability to cope, but the ability to adapt. And we are adapting.”