Article By: Luke Foster, Psychologist
Just when we thought there was light at the end of the tunnel, COVID-19 has reared its ugly, hideous head again harder than ever it seems in Australia. Some States are copping it bad and our thoughts go out to everyone who is battling this pandemic.
There are many times in life when we think things are tracking positively and progressing in the right direction and then BOOM, we experience major set-backs, disappointment, change and uncertainty.
The hope for this article is to help you manage set-backs in life, whether that be not achieving a goal you set out to achieve, like a job promotion, buying your dream home by a certain age, fitness goals, setting up a lucrative business for example, or set-backs as a result of COVID-BLOODY-19. We will also reinforce some of the essential self-care strategies you can adopt in your day-to-day life, with a heavier emphasis on self-care during a pandemic.
In life, we might set goals for ourselves, in fact as the great Professor Jordan Peterson once said, “there is very little positive emotion without progression towards a goal”. Goals provide meaning and purpose in our lives; without meaning and purpose, life can be pretty darn miserable – “He/She who has a why to live can bear almost any how” (Nietzche).
Sometimes the process of progressing towards a goal goes really smoothly, but more often than not you will encounter significant challenges or obstacles along the way – demons (metaphorically speaking) will try their best to throw you off course.
How many times have you worked really hard to achieve a personal goal only to find yourself feeling defeated, hopeless, helpless, worthless because your plan got derailed following a significant set-back (that demon got the better of you)? I have no doubt the answer for ALL of you reading this is MANY, MANY times. How have you personally dealt with set-backs in the past? Some of you have probably managed things relatively well, some of you may have managed things poorly, some of you may have even experienced significant deterioration in your mental health as a result of your set-back.
Here are some strategies to help you manage a personal set-back and get back on track towards achieving your goal/s. Some of these strategies might appear a little abstract in relation to COVID-19, some might not even appear relevant, but try your best to apply them to your current circumstances. Following these strategies, I will dispense highly relevant self-care strategies to help you during a pandemic, so hear me out.
Set-backs go hand-in-hand with trying something challenging. Set-backs are almost certainly unavoidable, so it is important to expect them at some point in time and then accept them when they come along.
In a strange way, set-backs can be viewed as a positive thing – it means you are trying something difficult; you are extending yourself. Embrace your set-backs knowing that you’re striving to become a better version of yourself or achieve something that you truly value. Also realise that less than 20 percent of people successfully achieve their goal the first time around.
In relation to COVID-19, feeling stressed is an understandable response to something that is quite simply outside of your control. Expect to feel stressed and a little overwhelmed at times and accept it, knowing that you’re certainly not alone and that others share your feelings. When you check in with your family, mates, colleagues, speak openly with them about how you’re feeling and take note of how they are feeling too – it is highly probable that you are both in the same or a very similar boat.
Allow yourself time to experience disappointment
It’s a natural thing to feel disappointed if you weren’t hired for your dream job for example. Allow yourself time to acknowledge your feelings of disappointment, but don’t dwell too long on this feeling and certainly don’t throw the towel in. Try your best to redirect this emotional energy towards progress.
So, you didn’t get your dream job, accept this, reflect on where you may be able to improve next time and as quickly as you can move on to “now what am I going to do to put myself in a better position to get that dream job in the future”. “He/she who endures, conquers”.
Think tomorrow, not next month or next year
A sudden change can no doubt be difficult to work through. When you have too many things running through your mind, too many decisions to make, too much information to digest it can be overwhelming and feeling overwhelmed often leads to lack of action or stagnation because doing nothing seems easier in the moment than making big decisions.
Instead, ask yourself, “What can I do tomorrow to make progress”. Also remind yourself that in most instances, set-backs won’t last forever. Sure, it is still important to have a long-term vision or direction, but achieving small things on a day-to-day basis eventually leads to significant achievement. “How do you eat an elephant? One small bite at a time!” (please don’t take that literally, elephants are quickly becoming an endangered species).
With respect to COVID-19, try to dispel thoughts of “When is this going to end”, “What if this lasts forever” and focus on a daily or weekly routine – this is explored further in the self-care section below.
Call for help
This is certainly covered in more detail in the self-care section below, but the quickest way to get back on track is to call someone you trust and ask for help. Forget your pride and openly admit that you are having some difficulties. “You cannot heal what you don’t reveal”.
Ask for immediate assistance, whether you consider the issue to be small, medium or large. With help from a trusted ally, get back into a safe, secure environment where the risk of further difficulties is contained. If at first you don’t succeed (first you don’t succeed), dust yourself off and try again, you can dust yourself off and try again, try again (Aaliyah – Try again).
Self-care During a Pandemic:
Your regular routine may have been thrown out the window due to COVID-19. There is no doubting that this virus has led to huge changes in many of our daily lives. These changes might mean that usual routines such as school and work look entirely different. However, it is so important to try and re-establish/ plan and stick to a (probably very new) routine as routines can make us feel safe and secure, and help us to deal with stressful events and uncertainty. Routines help to provide us with a sense of control in a world that is seemingly spinning out of control. “Control the controllables”.
- Have set work and school times, mealtimes, bedtimes and housework. Put these in a calendar. By writing things in a calendar, it establishes a form of commitment and you are much more likely to achieve your goal/ routine.
- Make space for downtime or YOU time. If your whole routine and calendar is filled with stuff like eat breakfast, work from 9am-12pm, study, chores it can start to look pretty bloody uninspiring. Place into your calendar something that YOU enjoy doing or something that helps YOU to relax, unwind, de-stress. On top of your downtime activity, I certainly encourage you to break your work or school day into a maximum of 40-minute blocks and then have a 10-15 minute breather, or spend a few minutes tidying your bookshelf, your room or workspace? A tidy environment/ less chaotic environment has been shown to lead to a less chaotic mind – theorised (in an abstract way) by the famous psychologist Carl Jung and later reframed by famous psychologist Jordan Peterson.
Routine broken down for you:
- Try waking up at the same time each day;
- Eat regular meals (how often do you get to midday and think, “shit, I haven’t even eaten today?”)
- Try going to bed at the same time each night
- Take regular breaks/ periods of downtime, particularly downtime away from your screen.
- Do some form of exercise/ be active at some point during the day. For those of you who are only allowed out for 1 hour per day, embrace this 1 hour period. Perhaps even use it as a reward for achieving a goal or goals you may have set for yourself that day. Regardless, maximise that 1 hour period to be active in some form or another – do whatever form of exercise/ physical activity that works for YOU.
- Reach out to a friend each day (this will be expanded on in the next bullet point on social support).
A key component of strong mental health is social support, but what exactly does this mean? Really simply put, social support is a term used to describe interactions of people. Expanding on this, it is typically broken down into close relationships and social integration.
CLOSE RELATIONSHIPS: These are people who you can reliably turn to during times of need. The ones you would reach out to if you had a family emergency; call the doctor for you or even loan you some money if needed. Those who would sit by your side and listen if you were struggling with life’s challenges.
SOCIAL INTEGRATION: This means how much you interact with people as you move through your day. How many people you talk to – not just people you have close relationships with, but people in general. Do you talk to the person who makes your takeaway coffee in the morning? Do you talk to the person scanning your groceries at the grocery store? Do you speak with the Uber driver as you move from A to B?
As indicated in study after study, anecdotal report after anecdotal report, social support can be highly beneficial for your mental health. Sure, the ability to be social may be limited at the moment, but it can still exist – make a phone call, send a text message or email, WhatsApp, Skype, Google Hangout, Zoom etc etc etc.
Social interaction, in whatever form this occurs, has been shown to release a whole lot of feel good chemicals in the brain (e.g. oxytocin and dopamine) that foster trust, reduce stress, kill pain and induce pleasure.
Lastly, don’t forget to check in with people from time-to-time, particularly people you may be a little bit concerned about! You’d be surprised by how much joy your grandmother or grandfather might get from hearing your voice. It might seem minimal to you, but could be the highlight of their day or week.
One quick word of warning, please do be mindful of Zoom or videocall burnout. If you think you might be experiencing this, please check out the following article https://hbr.org/2020/04/how-to-combat-zoom-fatigue
Minimise exposure to too much media
Yes, it is important to stay well informed, but please only rely on information provided by trusted news sources, scientific resources and the opinions offered by qualified professionals (e.g. healthdirect.gov.au). If you enjoy the news and it’s not bringing you down – go ahead and watch the news. If you find yourself watching the news or consuming too much information about COVID-19 and it’s bringing you down, take a break and spend time on another activity that makes you feel good about yourself (plenty of these activities have been offered in this article already and the self-care article linked below).
It’s interesting what can happen when we consume too much negative information. You may have come to believe that the events depicted on the news (or social media) (e.g. terrorist attacks, child abductions, murders, shark attacks) are more common than they actually are. You might even think that such things are likely threats in your own life. You are particularly protective of yourself and the people in your life who you care about (this is an evolutionary thing, think caveman days and sabre toothed tigers) and not instinctively likely to put the awful events portrayed on the news into the context of the law of averages or the law of numbers. In other words, you may start to believe, in an irrational manner, that the awful events are very likely threats in your own life – “that could have been me”.
For example, the image of a grieving parent with a missing child is much more likely to grab our attention than the fact that millions upon millions of children played safely that very same day. Watching too much news can mess with our heads, so please be careful how much news you are consuming and reflect on how it is affecting your judgement about awful situations actually happening to you; they are almost certainly less likely to occur than you may start to think or are already thinking. That said, as it applies to COVID-19, please do follow the strict advice offered by the professionals and authorities.
Allow yourself to feel HAPPY and to SMILE
While there is no doubting that some really shitty things are going on in the world around us at the moment, that does not mean you aren’t allowed to feel happy.
It’s okay to smile and have a laugh even when there is chaos and misfortune surrounding us. The happier you are, the more capable you will be to make those around you happy also. If you are feeling happy on occasions, don’t feel guilty about this. In fact, embrace your happiness and do your best to spread your happy, positive vibes – NOT YOUR GERMS - and who knows, your happy, positive vibes potentially might outpace the spread of this goddamn COVID-19.
If things just seem to be getting worse and worse, seek professional support.
Sometimes things can get overwhelming, even if you’ve been practicing many of the suggestions in this article, there are instances where professional support could be life changing, potentially life-saving.
- For information related to COVID-19 visit the official Government Department of Health website at health.gov.au or www.healthdirect.gov.au
- If you are seeking mental health information or resources rely only on information pumped out by credible organisations. Visit beyondblue.org.au
- If you are seeking brief counselling or think you’ve reached crisis point (“I think I need help right now”) contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. Lifeline also offers online chat services if you’d feel more comfortable engaging with a professional online. Visit lifeline.org.au/crisischat (7pm-midnight AEDT. 7 nights).
- If you are experiencing financial hardship, particularly relevant to small business owners (but everyone who is stressed as a result of financial hardship) visit the National Debt Helpline at ndh.org.au or contact them on 1800 007 007.
- If you’re seeking longer term counselling the best place to go is still your trusted GP/ Doctor, either face-to-face or via telehealth (video or phone). Your GP can write you up this thing known as a mental health care plan and refer you to a psychologist who you can speak with face-to-face or via telehealth (video or phone). This mental health care plan entitles you to up to 10 Medicare rebated sessions per calendar year which means many of the costs associated with speaking to a psychologist will be covered by Medicare. Sometimes you might need to pay a small gap, but if this cost means the difference between feeling shit and feel better, it’s surely money well spent.
- If there is ever imminent threat to life, so self-harm, suicide, homicide DO NOT MUCK AROUND and call Triple Zero (000) for immediate assistance.
General self-care tips: Please check out the following page and attached document, and experiment with what works best for you https://livin.org/pages/get-help/#tips-and-tricks