Resilience and Recovery during CV19 in Victoria

As a psychotherapist writing about and witnessing the emotional and human toll of CV19 in Victoria, I have been asked my thoughts on “resilience”. Helen Clark co-chair of the WHO’s Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, recently stated that the recovery may be delayed by up to two and a half years.

To sustain positivity and resilience during this time seems a huge ask. This is not going to be a “think positive” situation for many people, and It seems disrespectful to ask people who are struggling to be resilient right now. Honouring and dignifying their real suffering and distress seems more appropriate at this moment.

However as a psychotherapist specializing in helping people recover from complex trauma and PTSD, I do know that there is a lot people can do to nurture, soothe and support themselves, and to enable resilience and recovery even from the most complex of situations over time. Some of the suggestions below may be surprising.

First: become more “selfish”. The very first thing to collapse when people are highly stressed is self- care. Many people tell themselves “I’ll take better care of myself when I’m less tired, stressed, busy, anxious or depressed. I will drink more water, eat healthier food, do some exercise then”. Unfortunately, this does not work- though many of us have tried it. Instead, the stress or symptoms typically get worse over time if we are not somewhat “selfish”. This applies to those working at the front line of this crisis, but equally to others who are feeling the stress of being locked down or cut off from usual supports. So go on, try being more selfish and do self-care even if you don’t really “feel like it”. Remember the oxygen mask drill on the plane and take care of yourself first.

Second: Avoid too much avoidance, get real. Studies have shown that avoiding uncomfortable feelings or situations builds up and makes things worse over time. A healthier approach would be to take a leaf from the sixties and “keep it real man”. When friends or family call to see how you are, be real with them. Don’t wallow in self-pity, just be as honest and straightforward about how you are really going as the relationship allows. If the relationship doesn’t allow much authenticity, maybe it’s time for an upgrade? Or speak to those one or two that you really trust? Or even seek out a new tribe to belong to?  You have time during lockdown to research this!

Third: You only have to get through one day at a time Yes, I know this is stolen from AA, but it works during CV19 too… I don’t think they would mind us borrowing this solid gold idea.

Fourth: Build more scaffolding, structure or resources into your life. Scaffolding can be people, creative outlets, pets, nature, studying something, having more time off, or having a timetable. Scaffolding can also simply be your body or posture, think of Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on experiments with lengthening the spine for two minutes. Think about what you need to get out of Groundhog Day, to feel stronger, more resourced or braver. Everyone needs more scaffolding when times are tough.

The mind-body connection

Image from The Developing Child, Harvard, 2020

Fifth: Avoid too much stimulation/distraction with screens. The brain and nervous system need to “rest and digest” every day, otherwise cortisol levels keep rising in the body throughout the day and peak at night, disrupting sleep quality. Screens also emit the wrong sort of light visually into our brain and decrease the natural production of Melatonin which makes us sleepy. Try to avoid screens for at least two hours before bed, reading a book is ok, and listening to things like the Calm App sleep stories has helped many a poor sleeper get better sleep.

I hope these ideas point toward how we can better care for and protect ourselves during these trying times in Victoria. Remember, the suffering is real. Let’s not minimise what we are going through together right now, but be tender, respectful and caring toward ourselves and others in the midst of the great fight of our lifetime.

Changing Patterns and Habits

Neuroplasticity can help solve a lot of problems, but it can also create problems! Some patterns or habits of thinking, feeling or responding can start off as helpful but because of  stress and neuroplasticity become rigid, harder to change, or simply less helpful over time. Patterns or habits such as overworking, avoiding certain things, irritability, or always putting the needs of others before your own can become “set in stone”. Because these patterns have happened thousands of times, they may feel like “this is the truth “or “this is who I am”.

 

But all patterns and habits are neuroplastic and so can be softened, changed, or even eliminated if that is what we want. To modify any habit, we need commitment, but with persistence we will ultimately be successful!

Let’s start by identifying some common mental patterns and habits that may start off innocently but take on a life of their own and cause problems:

Common mental habits or patterns:

  • worry or rumination
  • problem solving orientation, including problems that haven’t occurred yet
  • wishing things were different
  • idealising others or yourself
  • needing to control how others see you
  • rigid or black and white dogmatic thinking
  • unexamined beliefs eg
    • believing things because you were told them as a child (introjects)
    • believing things because you wanted them to be true (magical thinking)
    • believing things because someone you liked or looked up to believed it
  • catastrophizing
  • automatic advice giving
  • allowing the mind to be busy all the time
  • avoidance eg spending excessive time in a fantasy world or day dreaming
  • harsh self-attack or self-criticism
  • perfectionism
  • fuzzy or magical thinking instead of clear thinking when faced with problems
  • justifying or defending habits that aren’t good for you!
  • other mental patterns or habits not listed above, that in some way cause pain, stuckness or distress to yourself or others.

Reflections:

Looking at the list of mental patterns, do any stand out for you?

What sort of commitment or small steps would it take to soften or change this pattern?

How long would you have to persist with new patterns for them to become established?

I would love to hear from you if you are trying to change habits or patterns now.