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  • Writer's pictureDr Carol Newall

Reflections on a Pandemic

Being a clinical psychologist in a time of national economic crisis has several challenges as well as benefits. For one, our industry is robust if not thriving. More people are needing mental health support as we face extended isolation and uncertainty. On the other hand, clinical psychologists are also at the forefront of supporting others while also struggling with the same stressful life events such as homeschooling, loneliness, and a mounting workload across the private and public sector.

As a psychologist, we're privy to observing the lives of others but we're also analytical about our own state of wellbeing. I often find myself in a dual state of viewing stressors from a field perspective (quietly freaking out at the beginning of lockdown as I scramble to re-arrange my clinic hours and fit in homeschooling) and the observer (seeing myself from across the room freaking out and wondering why I'm not doing cognitive challenging).

Here are 5 things that I've learnt during the pandemic:

Worry and rumination creep up on you without notice

I nag at my clients to watch out for negative recyclic thinking - the kind of thinking that wears you out and makes something rather trivial in the bright sunshine of day much worse when isolated and in the dark. I caught it faster than most, I imagine, having trained and researched in this area. What surprised me was just how insidious it was in haunting the days when I was stressed and how long it went unnoticed. It is the beginning and foundation for so many mental health disorders.

Not having anything to do on weekends can be lovely

It was a relief not having to decline invitations to do things. I wish we could embrace the free time to potter around the garden, cycle around an empty field, and laze about on the weekend with a good book as an acceptable activity for a weekend. For instance, would it be okay to say: "I'm sorry, thank you for the invite but we can't make the BBQ unfortunately. We have an appointment pruning the roses and then lazing about reading this Saturday." Wouldn't that be lovely?

Anger is about trying to control the uncontrollable

The pandemic offered an insight into community anger and the media that fed on it. We sacrificed a great deal to keep COVID-19 under control and as a consequence, we also began to focus on policing each other's compliance with restrictions. Are there too many people gathered at my sports field? Why is this lady standing so close to me at the shops? They are not wearing masks properly! Yet, none of the 'policing' is in fact in our control to enforce. It only increases resentment and bitterness. Our mental health is better served by focusing on what we can control and do. I can focus on remembering my mask. I can focus on getting an air purifier for the office. Forget the rest. I've got a to-do list that is far more productive than being angry.

Observe the pattern of your response to lockdown

We've had 2x lockdowns in NSW. Multiple times in Victoria. Hopefully, you'll start to notice your pattern of responses across a lockdown. We've got the early panickers (that's me). We don't do so well at the beginning of lockdowns. Perhaps it's because we are small business owners or managers in charge of a large group of employees. Therefore, the workload is astronomical at the beginning when we have to pivot rapidly. However, we tend to do better towards the middle and end of lockdown. Then there are those who do very well at the beginning of lockdown. I've noticed that clients with OCD, social anxiety, and panic enjoy the beginning of lockdown because they must retreat to where they feel most comfortable - the home. They typically worsen coming out of lockdown. How does it benefit us to notice our patterns? It means you have time to prepare if and when the next lockdown occurs.

It's okay not to be okay: We're not all in this in the same way

Throughout the pandemic, the most common response I got when I asked people about their mental health was this: "I'm fine. Everyone is in the same boat." We compared ourselves to neighbours and figured that if they are not complaining, then we shouldn't complain. Unfortunately, we are not in the same boat. We inherited different genes. We have different life stories, some perhaps with more trauma than others. We have different spouses, some more supportive than others. We have different children, some more neurodiverse, irritable, and/or with poorer parent-child fit than others. It is okay to say: "this sucks. I'm taking myself off to a GP visit to see what kind of support I can get." That's about the wisest and bravest thing anyone can do to recognise and forgive ourselves for needing support.

In the next 6 months, mental health practitioners and researchers are gearing up for an increase in demand for services. For example, we know that depression spikes 6mths after a national crisis. It helps to notice any of the 5 take aways from the above and to get help early. Are you over-scheduled but feeling the weight of grief from our 3-4mths in lockdown? Are you angry all of the time but underneath all that is the feeling that things are out of control? Are you noticing that while you've been okay at home, the anxiety of being forced out of the home is causing you excessive stress? Do you find that the rumination and worry haven't left you, despite everyone being upbeat at getting out of lockdown?

Perhaps this is the time to seek out support. Visit your GP, have a chat. It is okay to ask, to check-in, and to not be okay.

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