Now is the time to be kind to yourself

Much has been written on the impact of the global Covid pandemic on mental health. Whether you were already struggling with overwhelming feelings or are generally stable, there is no denying that we have all experienced a profound shift in how we understand our place in our world over the past year. From the shock of first learning of Covid, to trying to avoid catching it, to learning who has succumbed to it, we have been changed. How do we accommodate this new normal and still fully live?

Watching exhausted medics in Italy failing to keep desperately unwell people alive on our screens last Spring woke us up to the horrific reality of this deadly new disease. Since then, most of us have only had a mild version and have recovered after a fortnight in bed. But with the UK death figure now at over 120,000, many of us have now lost loved ones and are at various stages of grieving. Others have survived the disease but are left with a debilitating form of long Covid, still unable to function as they once did. The long-term physical impact of the disease is obviously still being discovered.

Whether we have contracted Covid or not, we have all had to face – or actively deny - our mortality and the fear that death holds. Whether or not you have a faith that offers you comfort and reassurance of an afterlife, knowing that an invisible deadly disease is spreading through our communities is a difficult new reality to live with.

As the government has sought to overcome this new virus and the variants, we have found our lives dramatically changed, with liberties eroded, and our daily lives diminished. Many have lost jobs or livelihoods, others fear losing theirs, and all have been denied much human contact and normality, from the gathering of family and friends, spontaneous encounters, meals out, schools, pubs, gyms, hairdressers, shopping, cinemas, theatres, art galleries, museums, live sport, travel, holidays, etc.

The impact on families and our contact with loved ones has been extreme: both not enough and too much. Many have not seen their elderly parents, their adult children or grandchildren in months. Others are forced into juggling jobs with home-schooling younger children without sufficient resources. Most describe their days as a combination of stressful, boring and lonely. These are indeed difficult times.

Following the mass take-up of various new vaccines, we may be encouraged by the Prime Minister’s recent announcements that restrictions will gradually be lifted over the next 100 days until midsummer’s day when, if all the data continue to support his plan, we will finally be released from the harshest of the Covid restrictions.

But there remains much for us to process.

How can we take good care of ourselves under these trying circumstances? I could repeat the wise words in circulation inviting us to enjoy nature, connect well with loved ones, exercise more, eat well and structure our day, be mindful of our senses and our feelings, take up journaling, or try our hand at a new skill or hobby. But we can’t all learn Japanese or take up marathon-running under these circumstances. If the list feels more like an additional burden than a resource, I suggest focusing on only what appeals to you on it.

The most resonant advice I have heard is to simply acknowledge how difficult this season is and practise being kind to yourself. Coping with all the extraordinary additional challenges you currently face will be easier if you can adopt a generous, forgiving and actively onside attitude towards yourself, as you might towards a cherished friend.

Go on, have a go!

March 2021

Therapy in polarised times

Over the past twenty years of offering therapy, I have been surprised by the growing intensity of feeling around debates that often don’t impact us directly. I respect that strong feelings are aroused and social justice is important. But do you remember when we might have said, ‘I don’t agree with you, but I can see where you’re coming from’? I haven’t heard that lately: not online nor in real life. Social media is accused of providing a powerful echo chamber that reinforces our views, prejudices and blind-spots, while we fixate on blaming those we oppose who have another way of selecting and interpreting their evidence.

The Oxford Union used to challenge debate participants to argue the opposite of their personal position to hone skills and fully understand the other’s perspective. Is no-one interested in understanding the other today? Levels of rage, hostility and threat appear unprecedented. What would our public discourse be like if, instead of contributing to the existing hostile cancel culture, we each chose to listen with curiosity, to treat opponents with respect and even value real differences among us; and if we held civil conversations with those who take a different view? What if the over-simplified, well-rehearsed narratives in circulation are not the only options?

I have read venomous prose on all sides in recent society-wide debates ranging from identity to international politics, as if debaters' lives were under genuine threat. I fully appreciate that most views are sincerely held and many are coherent and reasonable. But if, in the heat of online debates especially, offence is taken and we resort to contemptuously caricaturing our opponents, don't we begin to lose sight of our common humanity? Does this no longer matter?

When the chips are down, doesn't character matter more than opinion? Not trendy perhaps, but I'd rather be out-argued than rude. We always have the choice how we respond. Why not show curiosity, respect and kindness, even to those we fundamentally disagree with? I have never understood why this is so frequently seen as a sign of weakness.

I believe anyone healthy can grow and change, given the right conditions. If we truly want to.

How about you?

February 2021

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