World mental health day takes place on Saturday 10th October which is an annual event aiming to promote the importance of mental health in our lives, raise awareness of mental health issues, and improve supports for those who experience mental health problems. Mental health is an essential component of our overall health. Put simply, it relates to how well that we are functioning at a thinking, emotional, and behavioural level. Because we are emotional beings, the quality of our mental health is at times vulnerable to being negatively impacted by the range of stressors, losses and traumas that can occur in life. There are many different types of mental health issues and variations of mental distress that people can experience, and mental health issues affect everyone differently in terms of their onset, symptoms, and duration. In recent times, significant improvements have been made in relation to mental health care: we have come a long way from relying on institutionalised care to support those experiencing mental health issues. Psychosocial models of healthcare like counselling and psychology which offer talk therapies, along with more community-based mental health services, have changed the way mental health care is accessed and delivered, and importantly, broadened the range of supports available for people experiencing mental health issues. As a result of mental health promotion by those in government, healthcare, and the media, it also seems that society is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of mental health. However, more improvement is needed at a societal level regarding mental health as there are still many society-related issues which continue to have a negative impact on our attitudes towards mental health, and concerningly on the lives of those who experience mental distress. One such issue is the problem of mental health stigma. Mental health stigma refers to the commonly held negative beliefs and reactions that people have about those who experience mental health issues and is the topic of discussion in this month’s post.
There is still a lot of stigma in society about mental health. For instance, we are still more inclined to talk to each other about our physical health problems than we are about our mental health problems. And for many people, personal experience of a mental health issue is often worsened by an accompanying sense of embarrassment and shame. While mental health stigma has many origins, by virtue of our behaviours and attitudes, there are many ways that as a society we help to reinforce it. For instance, the language we often use in everyday conversations when referring to experiences of mental distress is not always supportive or empowering for those who might be feeling unwell. Additionally, the tendency to make unfounded assumptions about those experiencing mental distress, and to deliberately avoid them in a social context, are behaviours that are still common in society. This type stigmatisation towards those with mental health issues is problematic for several reasons: research shows that it has a negative impact on people’s decisions to seek support when they are distressed, that it can lead to their disengagement from treatment services and even impede recovery. There is also evidence suggesting that the witnessing of negative public attitudes about mental health problems can lead to the formation of an internalised stigma in those who experience mental health issues. At its worst, the societal stigmatisation of those with mental health issues leads to an unhelpful us and them attitude, which, in turn, increases the social exclusion and worryingly, the isolation of those experiencing mental health conditions.
Mental health issues do not discriminate between people; statistics show that one in every four of us could experience a mental health issue at some stage during our lifetime. So, while those responsible for mental health promotion have a duty to continue addressing the problem of mental health stigma, as a society, we all have an important individual role to play in reducing stigma. We can do this by continuing to humanise our understanding towards mental distress, and by making some important behavioural and attitudinal changes. For example, when trying to understand why people become unwell, there are some important things to consider. Firstly, no one can be in a state of complete wellness all the time – we are naturally impacted by life as it happens, and we are individually affected by stressors and life events, meaning that no two people show the same response to the one event. Secondly, we can never know for sure what another person might have experienced in their life, what they are going through, what they are really feeling, what it is like to be in their head, or to walk in their shoes. So, rather than viewing people’s experiences of emotional perturbance or mental distress as a weakness or a psychological failure, we must appreciate that such are human experiences. In addition, when a person feels anxious, sad, depressed, distressed, or suicidal, they are particularly sensitive to the reactions of others. So, in terms of our behaviour, we can become more mindful of the everyday language we use when referring to others’ experiences of distress, and by giving some thought as to how we might respond to someone who is feeling unwell: trying to fix another person’s problems or life situation is unrealistic, but talking with them, taking time to really listen to them and to try and understand how they are feeling, can go a long way towards making the person feel supported, understood and importantly, less isolated. In terms of attitude, we can make more of an effort to look beyond peoples’ diagnoses and their symptoms, and to see them as a whole person; acknowledging that those with mental health conditions have a lot to contribute to the lives of their families, friends, neighbours, colleagues, to their jobs and to society.
None of us like to hear stories of people becoming emotionally or mentally unwell. Unfortunately, these experiences do happen to people, but it is important to keep in mind that many people recover their emotional and mental health. So again, in terms of our behaviours and attitudes, we can listen out for stories of recovery that are shared by those who have lived experiences of coping with emotional and mental distress. While it is important that we continue talking about mental health issues, it is equally important that we also talk about mental health recovery, as the concept of recovery gives people who are feeling unwell hope, which is perhaps one of the most valuable emotions and survival resources that we have in life. Although small, if done collectively, these changes could help to reduce the societal stigma that still surrounds mental health and mental distress. With less stigma, people might be more inclined to talk to each other about their mental health issues, seek help and engage with professionals and support services when they feel unwell, and importantly, feel more optimistic about their chances of recovering from periods of emotional and mental distress.
There is an emotional aspect to us as human beings: emotions are the feelings we have about the various things we experience in our lives. When we enjoy something, or when we are in a good mood, or when things are going well, we tend to experience emotions that are positive like contentment, satisfaction, happiness, excitement, joy, optimism, hope, and pride. These types of emotions are pleasurable to experience; igniting an energy within us that is positive. In contrast, there are emotions we experience which are difficult and psychologically demanding in their presence: negative emotions like sadness, fear, anxiety, frustration, anger and guilt are unpleasant to experience and are tiring in terms of the psychological and physical energy they consume. This month’s post will look at some of the reasons why we experience negative emotions and will discuss some ways to manage these types of emotions.
There are numerous factors that contribute to the onset of negative emotions. Sometimes, they occur for obvious reasons: feelings of loneliness and sadness are normal following the death of a loved one. Experiencing a traumatic event can naturally lead to feelings of unease, fear, anxiety, and sadness for people. Things like attending a job interview, delivering a speech or presentation, sitting an exam, or awaiting the results of a health test, are all experiences which can trigger a sense of nervousness for people. Taking on something different – starting a new job, taking on a new role in work, going to college, becoming a parent, or the carer of someone who is ill – are experiences which take us out of our comfort zones and can trigger a range of emotions, including doubt and anxiety. Being mistreated or threatened by someone is likely to cause most of us to feel upset, frustrated, or angry. However, the exact cause of our emotional distress is occasionally unclear; sometimes we cannot pinpoint exactly why we are feeling the way we are feeling. Regarding this, it is important to understand that our neurology plays a significant role in our experience of negative emotions: although we don’t have to contend with the multitude of threats to our survival that our ancestors faced thousands of years ago, we still have the same alarm system inside our brain which is designed to alert us to danger. Our brains work hard on a constant basis to detect and monitor any possible threat to our safety and survival. This means, that by virtue of our evolutionary brain, the onset of difficult emotions – especially those like fear, anxiety, frustration and even anger – are often our brain’s way of trying to protect us from a perceived or imagined threat. Emotions are also intricately linked to our thoughts; if we are having a lot of worrisome and negative thoughts, it is likely that our body will respond to this by producing a range of difficult emotions. Our thoughts, however, are not always conscious: we have streams of unconscious thoughts – thoughts which we are not always aware of – which also may contribute to the onset of difficult emotions. In addition, personality factors could play a role in the onset of negative emotions: some people may have a higher negativity bias and a much lower positivity bias, which, in turn, may leave them more disposed to experiencing frequent episodes of negative emotions.
Sometimes negative emotions can become extremely intense in their presence; being in the grip of a strong emotion like sadness, anxiety, or fear can be overwhelming. When these emotions occur often, they can progress into longer emotional episodes, where the feelings last for hours, days or weeks. When this happens, because of their intensity, the automatic response from most of us is to try and eliminate these types of emotions or emotional episodes. When negative emotions kick off though, it is hard, if not impossible, to turn them off. And because life presents us with many challenges, it is unrealistic that we can go through life without experiencing occasional periods of emotional perturbance. Dealing with negative emotions then is more about learning how to manage them, rather than trying to eliminate them. Because we are human, rather than robotic, learning to manage difficult emotions is an ongoing, lifelong process. It is a process though that is worthwhile: learning to withstand and manage experiences of negative emotions can help us to increase our mental toughness and resilience.
When trying to manage negative emotions, the key thing is to try and prevent the emotion from taking you over; to not become hijacked by its intensity. With some practice and understanding, here are a few things that might help you to become better at managing difficult emotions.
Negative emotions are part of being human: None of us enjoy being in the grip of difficult emotions, and ideally, if we could choose to not experience them, we would avoid them entirely. However, one of the first steps towards becoming better at managing and living with periods of negative emotions is to appreciate that they are part and parcel of being human: rather than being a malfunction of the self, or a blemish on one’s psyche, emotions, including those like sadness, guilt, fear, anxiety, frustration, or anger, while unpleasant to experience, are normal characteristics of being human.
Describing the emotion: The way that we verbalise our emotions can play a role in helping us manage them. For instance, some psychologists suggest that the tendency to completely identify oneself with their negative emotions can increase the intensity and lifespan of the emotion. For example, when most of us are feeling anxious, we are likely to say something to ourselves like ‘I am anxious’. Alternatively though, you could phrase it differently and state something like ‘I am experiencing some anxiety’. By using the latter description, you are not identifying yourself exclusively with the emotion: instead, you are acknowledging that the emotion is a part of your current experience, but that it does not represent all of you.
Writing about the emotion: Writing about emotions can be a useful exercise. Writing helps to place the emotion outside of oneself for a while and can provide some relief from its intensity.
Increasing positive emotions: There is mounting evidence from psychological research which suggests that to protect our mental wellness in life, we need to maintain a healthy balance between negative and positive emotions. Positive emotions like contentment, satisfaction, happiness, excitement, joy, optimism, and hope are vitally important for our wellbeing, and research studies have shown that even when people are going through tough times, they can still experience these emotions. However, this does not happen automatically: it involves effort. We must make a conscious intention, especially during difficult times, to remain open and receptive to anything in our lives that is good. So, on an everyday basis, this means you need to remind yourself to acknowledge and feel any moments or emotions you experience which are pleasurable, or that give you any sense of pride, achievement, satisfaction, contentment, excitement, joy, hope or optimism.
Since it arrived, Covid-19 continues to change our lives in many ways. Many of these changes are difficult for us to get used to. Today’s post will discuss the importance of being able to adapt to change as we go through life, including some of the changes that are accompanying Covid-19.
As human beings, we like familiarity. We become accustomed to how things are, to doing things at a certain time, and in a certain way. However, life is more unpredictable than predictable: anything can go wrong at any time and our plans, our expectations, our hopes, and our sense of how things are, can suddenly become interrupted by life events. The loss of someone close, the loss of an important relationship, a job, or a certain role that we have been carrying out, or the loss of our health, especially the loss of mobility or independence, are events which, when they happen, immediately alter life as we have previously known it. Because of its serious and ongoing threat to public health, Covid-19 is also a major life event. As a result, we are encountering lots of changes in our lives: the way we go about our work, our education, conduct our business, our shopping, and how we now participate in social, sporting and leisure activities, are being dramatically altered because of Covid-19. In short, doing anything that involves close and face-to-face interaction between individuals requires a lot more thought and planning than before. While there is promising news regarding the emergence of a vaccine for Covid-19, many scientists are stressing that it could be some time before an effective and suitable vaccination for this condition is available. Considering that we cannot rid the planet of this disease, it is likely that the lifestyle changes, imposed by Covid-19, will feature in our lives for some time to come.
Adapting to a Covid-19 changing world is not easy. Keeping social distance from each other, especially when we are queuing, or when in the company of those whom we are fond of, is not easy. Wearing facemasks in public venues and having to interact with service providers and each other through face shields and plastic screens are sights and experiences, that until recently, many of us would have associated with scenes from a science fiction movie. Planning how we enter, manoeuvre in, and exit indoor public spaces has made things like commuting, shopping, working, conducting business, eating out, and socialising, a more restricted and less spontaneous experience than before. There are many hardworking individuals, couples, and families, who are understandably disappointed that their plans to holiday abroad are cancelled or are being marred by the requirements of countries such as our own to quarantine upon their return from international travel. It is understandable that many of us might be feeling frustrated by these restrictions and changes to our lifestyles. However, life in general is full of change; nothing stays the same forever, and because we are experiencing a recurring threat to our physical health, integrating these changes into our lives, albeit them difficult, is important.
In general, adapting to change as we go through life is essential. It is a trait that previous thinkers associated with survival: the 19th century biologist, natural historian, and explorer, Charles Darwin, suggested that it is not necessarily the strongest of the species that survives, nor the one that is most intelligent, but the one that is the most adaptable to change. However, as human beings, we sometimes work hard to resist change. There are genuine reasons why we sometimes do this: big changes – the loss of a loved one, a relationship, a job, a career, an income, an important possession, or the loss of one’s health – are events that usually trigger difficult emotions like sadness, uncertainty, fear and anxiety for people. Because of this, it makes sense that we sometimes try to resist the changes that are happening in our lives. In the long run though, resistance to change – particularly to the changes like those above – does not serve us well. By resisting what is – what has or is happening – we create a lot of extra stress for ourselves; resisting the truth, notwithstanding how painful it is, eventually robs us of our precious psychological and physical energy and is a behaviour that can keep us stuck in the past.
There is no magic pill that we can take to help us adjust to the big and unexpected changes that happen in life. But there are some things we can do which might help us to become better at adapting to such experiences. When something challenging and unexpected happens, we can try and see ourselves in the round: remaining mindful that, whilst big and unexpected changes are often difficult to accept, we are collectively part of all living organisms and natural forces on the planet and in the universe, all of which are subject to constant change; everything, as acknowledged by science and philosophy, is in a state of impermanence as opposed to permanence. So, in this context, notwithstanding how wounded we might sometimes feel, life seems to expect us to be brave and to try and adapt to changes as they happen. And without doing so, we may not gain the necessary psychological growth that we need.
We can also work on cultivating a more flexible mindset towards change. For instance, our thoughts, and even the language that we use, can be an influential factor in our ability to successfully manage the big changes in life. There is the saying 'that if you think you can’t, then you can’t, and if you think you can, then you can'. The point here is that by being more flexible with our thinking and our attitude, we can possibly open ourselves up towards the prospects of managing the changes that we might encounter in life. The many changes we are experiencing because of Covid-19 are undoubtedly difficult for people. But, as I have suggested before, it is worth keeping them in perspective. Because the virus is continuing to spread amongst the world’s population and, thus, putting the lives of many vulnerable people at risk, these lifestyle changes are inevitable and have an important purpose: they are in place to reduce virus transmission, and to try and protect as many people as possible from becoming ill. So in this context, our adaption to these changes and restrictions is undoubtedly an important survival skill.
This Webpage originally started last April as a column discussing things people could do to support their emotional and mental health during the Covid-19 health pandemic. While it will continue to discuss some of the emotional and psychological impacts of Covid-19, going forward, it will focus mainly on topics specifically related to emotional and mental health, and mental health promotion. It will be a monthly column: published on the first Thursday of each month.
In terms of fatalities, hospital admissions, and the rate of virus transmission, fortunately, the situation with Covid-19 continues to improve. However, it has been a pressurising time on peoples’ emotional and mental health: in recent months, we have been exposed to unprecedented volumes of stress and uncertainty, which in turn, has triggered a lot of worrisome thoughts for many people. As a result, this weeks’ post is about understanding and managing negative thoughts.
Our minds are fascinating, mysterious and complex entities. They help us to understand and process information and language, and they enable us to do many other important things like remembering, concentrating, problem solving and decision making. One constant activity of the mind is the production of thought: each day, from we awaken and until we fall asleep, our minds produce many thoughts. Thinking is influenced by several factors – many of which are still fully unknown to us. However, some obvious factors include our brain processes, sensory experiences, our environment, our personalities, the personalities of those in our proximity, our physiology, and our emotions. While thinking is an aspect of personhood that we are still learning about, some scientists have suggested that the average person has between 12,000 – 60,000 thoughts per day. This may seem exaggerated. But, if you stop for a moment and consider the amount of thoughts that you have had since you started reading this, then we can agree that our minds produce a lot of thoughts, even in just a few seconds. Even as we converse with other people, we are thinking – not just about what we are saying, hearing, and doing, but also about random stuff, often unrelated to the present situation we are in. Thinking, therefore, is a regular and essential thing we all do. But sometimes, particularly when we are stressed or feeling anxious, or when we are facing adversity, our thoughts can become more negative and lead to the formation of negative thinking patterns. This can cause a lot of additional stress for people. Understanding more about negative thoughts, and how they impact on our mood and wellbeing, is important.
Negative thoughts – thoughts that are tainted with doubt, worry, anxiety, pessimism, and self-criticism – are generally unhelpful for our mood and our wellbeing. In terms of their content and impact, they are dispiriting – emitting a heavy and negative energy in our bodies. They can also block instinctive and creative thoughts from arising, darken our outlook, darken our mood, and in some cases, trigger episodes of low mood, depression, and anxiety. Yet, these types of thoughts are not uncommon: some scientists claim that even when we are in fair form, up to 80 percent of our thoughts are unhelpful or negative. This is probably because of our brain structure: despite no longer living in caves and not having to seek daily refuge from the threat of prehistoric mammals, by virtue of our evolutionary brain, our minds are predominately hardwired to pay more attention to any perceived threats they detect. In psychology, this is known as the negativity bias. And often, due to factors like the presence of difficult emotions, tiredness, or when experiencing uncertainty, we can fall into the trap of overidentifying with our negative thoughts – mistakenly interpreting them as facts. This can encourage our minds to run riot: producing a constant stream of unhelpful, negative, and catastrophic-type thoughts, which in turn, can create the experience of feeling overwhelmed and imprisoned by the mind.
While we do not have complete control over the amount of negative thoughts our minds produce, we do have control over how we choose to respond to such thoughts. Certain ways of responding to negative thoughts can, overtime, give us a lot more control over their impact on our mood and on our wellbeing. Here are two things which might be helpful in terms of responding to negative thoughts:
Perspective: In terms of thoughts, our minds take on the role of responding to everything that we are exposed to, and considering modern-day life, we are exposed to an incalculable range of stimuli. Therefore, it is important to put the role of the thinker, especially the negative thinker, into perspective: meaning, that negative thoughts, no matter how scary they might seem, are just thoughts; they are not facts, and more often than not, they do not turn out to be accurate predictions in terms of what actually happens to us in the future.
Disputing: If unchallenged, our minds can become
accustomed to discharging a torrent of negative thoughts when our brain senses something
unpleasant like a drop in mood or the presence of a difficult emotion. Luckily
though, we can voluntarily produce thoughts: we can create thoughts that are
more supportive, rational, and helpful to our situation. One effective way of
responding to negative thoughts, and to prevent them from causing us further stress,
is to become skilled at disputing them. For example, when you experience a
negative or unhelpful thought, you can begin to challenge yourself to consider
what factual evidence do you really have to support such a thought? If you do
this often, it will eventually help you to see just how untrue and unfounded that
most of your negative thoughts actually are. It is also worth asking yourself
what is likely to happen if you continue to interpret your negative thoughts as
facts; Will it contribute to the successful, or to the self-defeating you? The answer
is probably the latter. Whereas, developing a habit of gently, but consistently,
challenging and disputing your negative thoughts is more likely to leave you
less governed by your mind during times of stress and uncertainty.
If practised regularly, these strategies may help with becoming more skilled at preventing oneself from over identifying with their thoughts and thus, become less controlled by the mind during time of stress and uncertainty.
Many lives have been lost because of Covid-19. To date 1,695 people in Ireland have died from a Coronavirus-related health condition. As a result, there are lots of families and individuals bereaved by Covid-19. The death of a loved one in a hospital, a nursing home or residential care home due to Covid-19 have been particularly difficult experiences for the bereaved; because of the necessary restrictions which have been in place since the onset of this pandemic, most of the bereaved were unable to be with their loved ones when they were dying. Understandably, this has been a very distressing experience for many people. In addition, events surrounding deaths unrelated to Covid-19 have also been difficult: in most situations, the bereaved have been unable to go ahead with important rituals like having a wake or reposing the deceased in a funeral home. Travel restrictions, cocooning and social distancing have made the organisation of funeral ceremonies and burials difficult to arrange, and in many cases, impossible to attend. Also, a lot of people outside of the loss – extended family members, close friends, neighbours, and work colleagues – may not have had an opportunity to express their condolences with the bereaved. The death of a loved one is always a difficult experience for those closest to the deceased. Because of Covid-19 though, bereavements in recent months have been particularly difficult experiences for people.
From the outset of this pandemic, the elderly and those with certain underlying health conditions have been most at risk from developing complications and dying from the virus. Being human though, many people will have hoped that their elderly or physically vulnerable family member would not get the virus, or that if they did acquire it, they would hopefully survive it. Unfortunately, and despite the best treatments available, many elderly people and those with underlying health conditions lost their lives to the virus. In some instances, there are families who have lost both of their elderly parents to the virus. As we have also learned, some people outside of the identified risk categories – including young people – have also died from the virus. Sudden and unexpected deaths are always more difficult to deal with. And those who have recently lost a loved one because of Covid-19 are probably left with a lot of unanswered questions and concerns about the deceased’s death. Such, coupled with things like not being able to be with a loved one when they died, not being able to wake the deceased, not being able to be with the rest of the family in times of loss, or not being able to give the deceased a normal funeral or burial ceremony, should not be underestimated; they are factors that will have probably made the recent death of a loved one a more complicated experience of loss for many people.
Grief is the experience that occurs for people after a death, and while it affects everyone differently, there are some common symptoms and experiences that accompany it. Some of these include shock, disbelief, denial, loneliness, numbness, emptiness, anxiety, fear, sadness, depression, and anger. While there are psychological theories which attempt to explain grief, grieving and mourning the loss of a loved one is a normal human experience and process people go through when they lose someone important. Grief is not a linear process, there is no standardised way to grieve, and no exact timeline for grieving – the painful realisation of the loss can hit people in waves for a long time after the death. If you have experienced a bereavement because of Covid-19, or if someone important to you has recently died, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Kindness and self-acceptance: The death of someone close can easily trigger difficult emotions and experiences like emptiness, sadness, fear, and anxiety. These emotions can be difficult to tolerate; making us feel unhappy, frustrated, critical and even rejective towards ourselves. However, they are symptomatic of grief and loss and it is important to try and be kind and accepting of yourself, especially during times of loss and heartache.
Time: The loss of a loved one or someone that we were close to is a significant and life-changing event. It can shatter our previous beliefs about life. Adjusting to life without a loved one is a big task to face and is a process which takes time. Therefore, it is important to be patient with oneself in the aftermath of a death and to give yourself time to grieve and come to terms with the loss at your own pace.
Talking: Missing a loved one can leave us feeling incredibly lonely. Talking to others, particularly with family members or good friends about our grief and how we are feeling is important; while it may not cure the pain that we feel when we are bereaved, it can help to alleviate some of its intensity and remind us that we are not alone in our experience of loss.
Keeping a connection with the deceased: The sudden absence of a person is one of the most painful aspects of bereavement; when someone important dies, a void is created in our lives. To cope with this, some people develop rituals to keep a connection to their deceased loved one. There are various ways people do this. For instance, some people might occasionally conduct conversations in their head with the bereaved: telling them that they are always missed, that they are remembered and that they are still loved. There are some people who find comfort in regularly lighting a candle for the deceased, or by praying for them. Others find solace by visiting and looking after the deceased’s grave, while some people like to habitually remember the good times that they had with their deceased loved one. There are also people who keep a journal where they write about the deceased. Because grief is such a uniquely individual experience, different people find different ways of maintaining a connection with the deceased. Doing so can be helpful for the bereaved; research shows that keeping a connection with the deceased can become an important coping mechanism which, overtime, can help the bereaved to adapt to the loss of someone important. It also helps to keep the deceased’s presence alive in our hearts and in our minds.
Resources: The Irish Hospice Foundation is a national charity dedicated to supporting and educating the public on matters related to loss and bereavement. They have some useful factsheets that offer clear and educative information about the various types of loss and bereavements people experience. These can be accessed via: https://hospicefoundation.ie/bereavement-2-2/bereavement-resources/bereavement-leaflets/. They also recently launched a new freephone bereavement support line – 1800 80 70 77 – which operates Monday to Friday between 10 am – 1pm.
Professional support: Many people will cope with bereavement and manage their grief by themselves. However, there are times when professional support is needed after a death: if you are finding it very difficult to cope with your loss, and if you are constantly overwhelmed by your grief, then it could we worthwhile availing of professional support like counselling. Counselling can be a helpful support for people who are experiencing complicated grief; it can be particularly beneficial for helping people to cope with the difficult, painful, and sometimes overwhelming emotions that can accompany a bereavement. The Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy have a county-by-county directory of accredited counsellors and psychotherapists. This can be accessed via: www.iacp.ie.
In the last few months, our physical health has been threatened and our movements have been markedly restricted by Covid-19. However, in many countries, including Ireland, there are now promising signs that the rate of virus transmission is reducing, and that hospitalisations and deaths, related to the virus, are also decreasing. As a result, we are now entering into a phased period of restriction-easing and the gradual opening of our society and economy. For some people, these planned phases of restriction-easing and opening will be welcomed with a sense of relief: interpreted by many as a sign of hope that we are on the road to eventually being able to return to sufficient levels of civil, social, educative and economic functioning again. Yet, in spite of this, we are also being reminded by those in government and in charge of public health that Covid-19 still presents a significant threat to human health; the virus has not been eradicated and there is the possibility that at some stage in the future, we might experience a surge in new cases or a second wave of the virus. Hence for others, the easing of restrictions and opening of the economy and society may trigger many concerns. Therefore, it is probable that there will be mixed feelings amongst people about the fact that parts of our society and economy are starting to reopen and function again. So, as we start returning to aspects of normality, it is likely that we will need to be patient, tolerant, courageous, and hopeful.
Not everyone may feel ready for restriction-easing and re-opening. Those who have unfortunately lost a loved one to the virus, or those who are at risk of developing a complicated strain of the virus, may feel that we are starting the return to normality too soon. In contrast, people who are worried about their financial income, their job, or their businesses, are possibly welcoming the restriction-easing and re-opening with relief. Some of those who have been cocooning and shielding for the last few months are probably keen to get out and about again and reclaim their independence. There are also people who are awaiting the commencement of treatments for non Covid-19 health conditions, like cancer, who are keen for things to return to normal so that their medical treatments can commence. Accompanying the restriction-easing and re-opening are the current debates about things like facemasks and social distancing. Some people will wear facemasks, while others will not. While not yet a recommendation here, World Health Organisation suggestions on one metre social distancing being sufficient will probably be welcomed by those operating food and leisure businesses but could trigger anxiety for others who are very worried about contracting or transmitting the virus. As we proceed with restriction-easing and re-opening, it is likely that there will be many differences among people in terms of their individual needs, expectations, concerns, opinions, and actions – the above examples are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Thus, it will be a challenging time for people: everyone will be approaching the situation from a different perspective and we will need to try and be patient and tolerant with each other as we each try our best to go with each planned phase.
Despite our differences and concerns, one commonality we all share is that we want the virus to continue dissipating and disappear from our lives: we want it to go away, to no longer threaten our health and wellbeing, and we want to be able get back to fully living our lives and pursuing our interests again. The proposed phases of restriction-easing and re-opening are based on available data and knowledge about Covid19; they are an expert-guided but cautious phase of procedures to help us gradually return to normal functioning. Yet, in terms of its exact trajectory and future impact on our lives, there is a lot about Covid-19 which remains unclear. And ultimately, we are all in uncharted territory – territory that contains more uncertainty than certitude. Hence, going ahead with these planned phases of restriction-easing and re-opening present many risks. But, at the best of times, life is never free of risk: sometimes things don’t work out the way that we expect them to, or something unforeseen or bad happens. So in truth, life requires us to exercise courage and take risks on a regular basis. And emergence from any kind of adversity or crisis requires courage: if people do not eventually try to re-engage with life again after a setback, they run the risk of staying stuck and preventing themselves from experiencing necessary psychological growth. Therefore, life will probably expect a lot of courage from us all as we try our individual best to return to whatever aspects of normality that gradually become available again.
It would be much easier at present if we had access to a crystal ball which could predict the future: telling us exactly what will happen next regarding Covid-19. However, we do not have such a thing and there is no definite way of knowing how things will play out in terms of opening our society and economy in the current presence of this virus. Only time will tell. However, we can be hopeful. Hope is important: it is a necessitude for this life and it is something that has helped us as a species to survive and come through many adversities, losses, and tragedies for thousands of years. Hopefulness is linked to optimism, and it could be an important ingredient that steers us away from giving up, or from taking an unhealthy retreat into ourselves, following a crisis. Let us also remember that efforts made can be worthwhile; adherence to restrictions in the last few months seem to have made a significant difference in terms of reducing rates of infection and saving many lives. So, keeping this in mind, adopting a common-sense approach and continuing to exercise all the healthcare guidelines on Covid-19 could continue to make a significant difference in managing this virus as we take the risk of opening up our society and economy again.
As we all are aware, Covid-19 has brought us many challenges which we have had to endure and rise to. While it appears that the collective effort to safeguard as many people as possible from infection, reduce pressure on our hospitals and lessen the transmission of the virus are making a difference in terms of weakening the virus, in taking these essential steps we have acquired many curbs to our civil, social, work, and financial needs. Understandably, these constraints have impacted heavily on national and individual mood. Despite our incredible resilience and patience, times are challenging, and we are only human; moments of frustration, trepidation, feeling down or fed up with one’s current life situation are to be expected. Moreover, not experiencing some degree of unease or discontent about the current situation would be unusual. Covid-19 and its accompanying problems are a stark reminder of how unpredictable and acutely challenging life is: life is rarely easy, and anything can happen or go wrong for anyone at any time. As a result, it is important that we develop regular self-care strategies that we can draw upon during times of loss or adversity which will help to protect our emotional and mental health. Though self-care strategies differ for everyone, one stalwart that can be beneficial for our mood when we are experiencing discontentment is nature; connecting with the diversity of plant, insect and animal life that exists within the surrounds of our homes, villages, towns and cities, and within our rivers, lakes, oceans and mountains, can provide us with moments of pleasure and solace when we are troubled.
We are enveloped by nature, although in normal
times, with the busyness of modern-day life, we can go through days, weeks,
years, and even a lifetime without paying attention to it. Yet, there is
something fascinating and profoundly nurturing about nature. And there is growing
scientific evidence that spending time outdoors in green spaces; gardens,
parks, forests, and mountains, or blue spaces; along rivers, lakes, or
coastlines, has significant health benefits. Studies have shown that being outdoors
in these natural environments can bolster peoples’ moods and help to sustain
their wellbeing. In some instances, GP’s are recommending what’s known as the
green and blue prescription to their patients: in certain situations, some
people who visit their GP complaining of stress, anxiety, and depression, are
being advised to deliberately spend more time outdoors among nature. There are
also some mental health professionals such as counsellors and psychologists who,
in normal times, work exclusively with their clients outdoors: organising the delivery
of therapy sessions outside in natural landscapes. This type of therapy is
In terms of an antidepressant, being outdoors among nature can offer us many soothing and pleasurable sensory experiences. For instance, nature automatically exposes us to a range of scents and aromas such as the smell of freshly cut grass, flowers and the blossoms on shrubs, hedgerows, and trees. Nature also exposes us to a range of different sounds like the birdsong, the sound of busy insects, the sound of animals and the sound of shrubs, trees and forests swaying in the wind. When we are nearby a river, a lake, or the sea, we are exposed to the unique sounds which these different bodies of water make. There is something very calming about the sound of water as it flows through a stream or a river, and there is something fresh and truly invigorating by sound of water lapping up on a lake, or the sound of waves from the ocean as they splash over a beach. It is possible that all these different sensory experiences which we encounter outdoors in nature act as a positive distraction from our busy minds; helping to take us out of our busy heads and bring our attention into the present moment. Spending time in nature is time well spent – it can help us to reconnect with ourselves and relax an over-stressed nervous system. Connecting with nature can also remind us that we are participating in something that is much larger than ourselves. It can help us to remember that life on planet earth is not exclusively about us – we are just one of many other life forms within the entire ecosystem.
So during these unusual times, do not forget to notice and enjoy nature. It is worth spending some time at whatever green or blue spaces that you currently have access to. And while you are there, allow the simplicity and diversity of these natural environments to momentarily ground you and to help with slowing down and even pausing the mental chatter that can ensue in a busy and preoccupied mind.
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