Just as a clean, tidy home makes us feel serene and in control, an uncluttered mind can create a sense of clarity and calmness.
Owing to the pandemic, however, uncertainty, isolation and economic hardship, as well as the grief felt by so many, have filled the corners of our minds with unresolved and often difficult feelings.
“We can equate the pandemic to a collective societal trauma,” says Jane Caro, associate director of the Mental Health Foundation and a practising psychotherapist. “It’s been incredibly difficult living through it, but coming out of it can present new challenges.”
Those with pre-existing difficulties are likely to have been more sensitive during lockdown, but even those who are usually fairly robust may have found the situation testing. For some people this may be the first time in their lives they have experienced difficulties like low mood, stress or anxiety, and that in itself can be quite shocking, says Jane.
Thankfully, the changing season itself is a palliative, and nature is the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week (10 to 16 May), led by the Mental Health Foundation. Along with spending time outside in natural surroundings, getting enough rest, eating a healthy diet and exercising are all proven ways to foster mental as well as physical wellbeing.
How to deal with anxiety: expert advice
So what else can we do? Everyone’s experience is very different but we spoke to the experts have the below suggestions.
Stay in the present
Uncertainty clutters the mind because we spend a lot of time trying to predict things, says Catherine Loveday, professor of cognitive and clinical neuroscience at the University of Westminster.
“We’re probably more aware of the past, but it’s a natural and instinctive trait to consciously inhabit our future, because it guides our thinking all the time,” she says. “This applies to the most basic details of life. Travelling home, for example, you might think ‘I’m going to go that way to get some milk’ because in your mind you’ve walked home and thought about making a cup of tea!”
We spend a lot of time inhabiting this future landscape, says Catherine. “It’s automatic to time-travel backwards and forwards and it’s not until something changes that we realise how much we do that,” she says. “If you have a job loss or a bereavement, suddenly not just your picture of the future has changed, but the facts have changed, too.
With loss, you can’t pick up the phone to that person or celebrate their birthday. With a redundancy you can’t go back to the office or plan things around your salary. Instead, you continually say to yourself, ‘I can’t do that any more.’ Our inability to inhabit the future we pictured can leave us feeling we are driving into fog, which is very anxiety-provoking.”
Those are dramatic examples, but the same applies in small ways, too, when we are faced with uncertainties.
The antidote is to make a conscious effort to remain present in the moment. This enables us to switch off from time-travel and gives us a break from that anxiety. Engaging in tasks that require all our attention and absorb us stills the mind and helps clear that mental clutter.
What works is highly individual, but it can be as simple as reading a great book, trying a new recipe, engaging in art or craft, a house or garden project, walking, especially somewhere new, or exercising.
We tend to worry about loved ones more than ourselves but, although it’s a cliché, the airline safety instruction to put on your own oxygen mask first before you help anyone else holds true, says Jane.
“While women are culturally encouraged to be the carer, many are also wage earners, with other responsibilities as well,” she says. “We can’t run on empty, and putting on our own oxygen masks and attending to self-care is not selfish. If you’re as okay as you can be, it’s better for everyone.”
Positivity can also become a double-edged sword. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging sadness we may feel over what’s going on for us. We’re so aware, quite rightly, of the sheer level of loss and death, we can end up dismissing our own disappointments,” says Jane.
“But there isn’t a hierarchy of loss. All of us feel the extreme distress of others, but that doesn’t mean that what’s going on for an individual isn’t important. Don’t put yourself down just because you were thinking about the wedding you were looking forward to,” she advises.
“Come back to the principle of what you can control and what is out of your control. Try to replace thinking about things six months in the future – that you can’t do anything about – with something small and short term you can control. This creates a sense of empowerment.”
Wake up your brain
If you feel weeks of lockdown have made you more forgetful, you’re not alone, and although most of this is anecdotal, one study* backs this up, says Professor Loveday. So why does spending more time at home have this effect?
“If we have a bigger “life space” there’s more novelty, which means the brain is more alert,” she explains. “The smaller the space, the less stimulation and newness. The brain thinks, ‘nothing much to do here,’ so it switches off.”
When we take in information, our brains also absorb cues that act to jog the memory later. Cues of all kinds can spark a memory, but during lockdown our ‘life space’ became more limited, so the variety of cues was more limited, too.
“Moving around activates a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is important for memory,” explains Professor Loveday. “Even just standing up wakes your brain up, but navigating new spaces is the most stimulating action.”
For those continuing to live in quite a small space, doing gentle exercise will have the same effect, and changing your environment even slightly, for example a new picture or different photos or plants, has a powerful impact. (This is not helpful for those affected by dementia, however, as change can be confusing for them.)
Learning new things also wakes up your brain after the Groundhog Day feeling of lockdown. “Think what you enjoyed doing as a child, because that’s when we are most truly ourselves, and use that to stimulate your mind,” suggests Linda Blair, clinical psychologist and author. “The key is to do whatever that is three times a day.
So, for example, if you loved being outside as a child, perhaps learn to identify clouds and read about using them to predict the weather. Then, if possible, repeat that new learning three times in conversations, a message or picture on your phone, or write about it in a journal.
Alternatively, go outside and identify a new plant or tree and again repeat this three times in different ways so it sticks with you. When I was young, I loved writing stories, so now I aim to learn new words. Using them three times in conversation or written down means they become part of my vocabulary.”
Manage working from home
Our homes are increasingly our workplaces, which saves money and time, but means more ‘sameness’ and less exercise. Plus, we’ve lost the stimulation of the sights and sounds on our commute and a contrasting work environment.
“I wear different clothes for work and the weekend, otherwise it all merges into one,’ says Jane Caro. “You can create a transition from work to downtime just by changing clothes. Maybe it’s an item that signifies work, like a jacket, which you can take off at the end of the working day.
Don’t get stuck on a particular solution though,” she cautions. “Check in with your own energy and what you feel is right.”
You could also experiment with where exactly you sit to work, especially if it provides a different view. We used to talk about work/life balance but now ‘work/life merge’ is the risk. Putting your laptop away out of sight at the end of the day can really help to lift the spirits and switch off mentally.
Take positive action
Doing something, even in a very small way, makes you feel less helpless and hopeless when faced with problems out of your control, says Dr Margaret Heffernan, professor of practice at the University of Bath and a former CEO.
She draws a similarity between feelings engendered by the pandemic and climate change: “They weigh on us and create exhaustion, which can become quite paralysing because we feel we can’t do anything.”
Volunteering answers a need to ‘do something’ but Margaret acknowledges: “It is often much harder to volunteer than you think, partly because charities have necessary bureaucracies to protect the vulnerable, so patience is required.”
Another option is to volunteer in a more informal way within your community, suggests Margaret, who organised a delivery service for her neighbouring farm shop during lockdown.
Even just researching opportunities, maybe through the parish council, library or residents’ association websites, can make us feel like we’re doing something positive.
Seek out help
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and your day-to-day life or relationships are being affected, or you’re having difficult feelings that keep returning, speak to your GP, says Rosie Weatherley, information content manager at mental health charity Mind.
“A key symptom of depression is something we call ‘anhedonia’, no longer finding enjoyment in things that used to give us pleasure,’ explains Hannah Fosker, a psychiatrist at the Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust, who cautions that guilt can also play a part.
“Feeling guilty for struggling because others have it far worse can end up becoming both a precipitating and a perpetuating part of a depressive episode. We can’t always control what we think or feel, so there should not be guilt attributed to it.
What is within our control is how we act. I am always pleased to see people being proactive in seeking help. Your GP can discuss talking therapy or medication and there is a wealth of support online.”
Set your boundaries
The next stage, where we look to reassemble our lives, may bring challenges, too, according to Hannah.
“We’ll all have to renegotiate with ourselves and our loved ones about where our boundaries lie in terms of what we feel safe to do and what can benefit our mental health,” she says.
“Addressing this with friends and family who are keen to reconnect can be challenging and, equally, perhaps someone you want to see is concerned about the risks of immediately arranging something. Ultimately, we all need to respect each other’s approaches to this.”
Tips to help clear your mind
Psychotherapist Jane Caro suggests these de-stress tactics:
WRITE IT DOWN
Get it out of your head and on to paper, whether as a list or journal, to stop things whirring round in your head. You’re not forgetting about that problem or thought, but parking it gives you permission to take a break.
DIARY UNRESOLVED ISSUES
Allocating a time, a few days ahead, to deal with a problem will allow you to take a break. In the intervening time, something often shifts and it can be resolved.
USE YOUR SENSES
Coming into the here and now by using all five senses is a useful technique. Be aware of what you can feel, the weight of your body on the chair, listening to the sounds around you and so on. Connecting with your environment is a powerful calming mechanism.
CHECK IN WITH YOUR BODY
We all hold tension in ways we’re not aware of. Notice jaw clenching, hunched shoulders, neck pain, or tightness in the face or forehead.
The charity Mind has lots of valuable advice on its website.
Self-guided help and talking therapies are available on the NHS. Talk to your GP and search the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies service (IAPT) on the NHS website.