We are living in unprecedented times (for anyone reading this later I am referring to the COVID-19 pandemic) and yet a lot of the information I’m seeing out in the world right now seems to be telling us we should all be getting on with things as usual or even enjoying this time as a nice little break! Anyone advocating that doesn’t know anything about the human mind, or how we process trauma. It is definitely ok not to be ok right now.
I’m speaking of course as a mental health professional, but also as a human because I noticed something this week – I’ve not been ok either. My muscles are tenser than normal, I’m having more vivid dreams and my temper is definitely shorter. Basically I am experiencing symptoms of being in a prolonged period of uncertainty which causes my mind and body to be on high alert trying to figure out how to survive. For me the main thing that led me here is that I wasn’t following my own advice that I advocate so often to my clients. I hadn’t been listening to myself.
I have spent the last month since lockdown began trying to work out new ways of working online, worrying about the health of friends and family, and helping my clients to take care of themselves. All of my focus has been outwards, with nothing focussed on checking in on myself or asking myself how I was coping. Basically I was living in a bit of a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ time! Luckily for me, I have spent enough time in the past learning to listen to and understand myself, that it wasn’t long before my own emotions raised themselves high enough above the parapet that I began to listen.
In hearing my own emotions I was able to understand what it was that I was feeling, and therefore gain clues about what I needed to feel better. This is something I talk about a lot in sessions – Feelings point towards needs. If you listen to your feelings, you will be able to identify your unmet needs (and then choose how to meet them to feel better).
My needs were simple. Whilst I had spent a lot of time making sure that I was still able to exercise, get fresh air and connect with loved ones safely, I hadn’t noticed something that the lock down had removed from me – time alone. In normal times my partner and I work very different schedules which means that I am used to lots of time in the week where I’m alone – time where I don’t have to think about anyone but me. But now my partner is furloughed and I am working from home, time alone is not so easy to come by, and in not recognising the need I had made no attempt to make space for myself.
With knowledge comes power. Having identified my need to be alone I set about making changes – instead of walking the dog together (something that is a rare treat in normal times), we are now walking her separately, which allows me both to be alone outside (with the dog), and alone at home (whilst the dog is out with my partner) every day. I have also deliberately begun to take myself away during the day, either to read a book in another room, or as we’re lucky enough to have a garden, sitting outside in the sun between sessions. Having spent a week like this I now feel a hundred times better than I did a week ago, and this is all thanks to just paying attention inwardly.
It’s all well and good my suggesting that you just need to check in with yourself but if you’re not already doing it, then learning to do so can feel a bit odd. A lot of us were brought up told to focus on the needs of others and changing that can feel very odd indeed. But as the saying goes ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’ so looking after yourself is necessary in order to be able to look after others! To help you to develop this skill, I’ve put together a check list of ways that you can begin to check in with yourself here:
Ways you can try to check in with yourself:
1. THERAPY. Ok so I’m going to start with an obvious one (given who’s writing this). One of the best ways to check in with yourself is to do so in a dedicated time and space, with someone focussed completely on you: therapy. It’s easy to put yourself to one side, so having a booked appointment with another person works to force you into really looking inwards and speaking out loud what’s on your mind. Our thoughts aren’t fully formed until we express them, and so having to explain to someone else how you feel actually helps you to understand those feelings for yourself too.
2. WRITING. Another great way to check in with yourself is through journaling. I don’t mean beautifully written musings on life, the universe and everything, but more of a brain dump – writing everything that’s in your mind in order to exorcise it and help you to untangle what matters from what doesn’t. Again this utilises the idea that in order to really fully form our thoughts we need to get them out of our head – in having to make thoughts into coherent sentences we are connecting to our inner world and becoming aware of it. If you write regularly you should begin to see patterns or repeating ideas which can help you to identify the things that are most important to you, and that the first step towards making a plan.
3. LISTEN. Feelings point towards needs. If we can hear our feelings, we can identify our needs. This really is the crux of life – if you can master this, then you will no longer feel swept along by it, as you will know what you need to be able to take charge. So take some time to listen to yourself. This might be through meditation, or just taking time out to sit with yourself without distraction. It might be for 5 minutes or 3 hours, but the important thing is that you aren’t distracted by the needs of others, and that you just listen to whatever thoughts & feelings arise. These will always be clues to your needs.
4. LEARN FROM YOUR ACTIONS. Notice your coping strategies. We all have them, and they always point towards an unmet need. Perhaps you eat more, or crave certain foods when you're stressed, perhaps the opposite is true and you forget to eat when you have a lot on your emotional plate. Maybe you reward yourself with a drink after a hard day, or have one to celebrate a success. Maybe you focus your attentions on the needs of others when you need yourself the most. Whatever you do to deal with your feelings (both positive or negative) will likely be a pattern of coping that you have had for a long time. By identifying your coping strategies you can identify your triggers (the things that put stress on you), and so find the things in your life that you want more or less of, giving you the power to change your life accordingly.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to check in, but they’re starting points to help you to begin to identify what works for you. In normal life we get into patterns which mean we stop paying attention – ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. But right now the world is broken and we’re all stressed being forced into new routines. So be kind to yourself and understand that if you’re not ok right now that’s for good reason. But maybe you can make things feel a little better anyway.