So, presuming the vote in the House of Commons tomorrow backs it, we are going into lockdown in England again. The edges of this lockdown are a little more blurred than was the case so there are more questions than previously about exactly what it means for each of us. The questions can get out of control, running ahead at a million miles an hour. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Against this backdrop, it seems very apt that this is International Stress Awareness Week.
The first thing to recognise is it’s completely normal to feel stressed, or anxious, right now. It’s a very healthy reaction to the level of risk and uncertainty we are having to live with.
It’s worth noting each us will feel most stressed by different aspects of the world we’re living in. There will probably be some common themes but if I asked 1,000 people, I’d get a range of answers. It’s because everyone’s perception of a situation is governed by their own life experience. Accepting and understanding these differences between people matters. If I don’t, I’ll assume that what’s stressing me right now will stress you. What’s more, because of my physiological response to stress I am much less likely to notice or respond to you. Just as destructively, I might assume what doesn’t stress me won’t stress you. Seeing the world only through my own eyes in this way means I could shame you. Imagine the impact of someone saying to you ‘Don’t be silly; that’s not stressful.’
As a psychotherapist, I see people tackling stress and anxiety with coping strategies designed to distract them. In the moment these can be really effective. Mindfulness or distracting yourself with a jigsaw or painting by numbers, for example, can work really well in the here and now. One of my big distractors is work so on Sunday, while the uncertainty was buzzing around, I sat at my desk for a while and finished planning an online workshop. I also made leek and courgette soup, cleared a bed in the garden and had a bonfire. Getting things done makes a big difference for me. It soothes me.
The problem is all that activity didn’t get rid of the stressor. It never does. Sooner or later the stress always comes back. I was listening to a podcast this week – Relational Implicit – in which the interviewee, David Allen, made the point very neatly. He said: “If somebody’s following you around, stabbing you in the shoulder with a penknife, I can give you an opiate, so it doesn’t hurt that much. but I think we need to work on getting rid of the guy stabbing you with the penknife.”
In the interview David Allen argued it takes long term psychotherapy to get rid of the man with the penknife. I agree with him but what if the man with the penknife is coronavirus? I can’t deliver a vaccine. I can’t make life normal again. So, are coping strategies are all I have right now?
I don’t think so. I am someone who, despite appearances, can find people pretty scary. My go to strategy when I feel really stressed or overwhelmed has been to separate myself, often psychologically more than physically, from others. But humans are inherently relational, so the strategy doesn’t boost my wellbeing. In the long term it does the reverse. It’s taken me a lot of hard work, but I have learnt to reach out to people I trust.
But that takes time, so one of the most valuable things I can do for my wellbeing right now is slow right down and notice myself. ‘Leaning in’ to the stress or anxiety can seem really counterintuitive but it works. Observing my physical response is powerful. I gently explore the sensations and ask myself about my experience. What language would I use to describe my experience? What is really going on? Then with kindness, and I emphasise WITH KINDNESS, I give space to whatever feelings begin to emerge. It’s a deep-rooted fear of these feelings that often stops people from engaging with their stress, driving them instead to deploy all the coping strategies they can find. I regularly hear people say if they let the emotion in, it will never end. They ‘ll be consumed, overwhelmed. The truth though, is every emotion has a beginning middle and end and once the end comes, you’re very likely to feel calm.
Here, at the beginning of another lockdown, why not do something different. Don’t just cope with the stress. Take the first steps towards addressing the root cause. It could be the perfect opportunity to get rid of the man with the penknife.