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COVID-19 – Why it’s okay to not be okay

This is not a blog post. It’s a letter to you. This is going to be a bit different to my usual content. Normally I might choose an injury or pain-related topic or theme. However, at this moment in time it is impossible not to address the circumstances we are all enduring as a global society right now. The last month has been intense. The next few weeks are going to be tough in the UK – particularly for NHS front line and key workers in the UK. We are all having to adapt to our new living and (where applicable) working arrangements. The initial prospect of being able to wear our pyjama bottoms during conference calls and spend more time with our loved ones at home initially appeared to be quite exciting. Who doesn’t want to start the working day at 11am, after all? However, for some of us (me included) this has proven to be a very difficult time to be productive. If you fall into this category, I want to reassure you that it’s okay to not be okay.

… it’s okay to not be okay.

Often in the clinic, and in blog and social media posts, I might recommend for you to add new exercises to your routine. I might hold you accountable to follow through with training goals. I might set expectations that are ‘results driven’. But today I am here to recommend something quite different. In all elements of a movement practice we need to take into account the principles of ‘Overload’ and ‘Under-load’. It is important to consider that these principles not only apply to physical structures in the body. They also apply to our cognitive function and mental health. In physical training and exercise programmes we try to strike the right balance in our training to make sure we work hard enough to improve our performance. We also make sure we don’t work beyond our limits – this prevents us form becoming injured. It is important, more now than ever, to apply these principles to how we treat our mental health – particularly, the physiological responses to threats (or stress).

Pain experiences are generated by the nervous system in response to perceived damage and threats in our environment. In the clinic, we focus heavily on regulating the nervous system to manage pain. We might use ice or warm compresses, joint mobilisations and passive movement to manage our pain experience. This reduces the magnitude of disproportionate responses to threats. I think it’s important to acknowledge that our nervous system is wired to respond to perceived threats in our environment, and there are many variables to consider (i.e.: work, family, living arrangement, finances, health status). It is no overstatement to say that the current COVID-19 outbreak is a very real threat to our health and even our lives and those our loved ones. It is a perfectly normal to notice physiological responses to threat. If you have noticed a change in your physical or mental health in the last few weeks and days it is important to recognise this. Even if you are functioning well in your usual activities, but you just ‘feel different’ this is okay and is a normal response.

So, with this in mind, my purpose here is to prescribe you with the following advice…

Prioritise the things that make you feel better. If you need sleep – sleep. Don’t feel bad about it. You don’t need to beat yourself up about being ‘under-productive’. If you’re not making progress with your work or goals at home and need to spend some time planning and organising your thoughts, then shift your attention to planning. Take an hour. Take an afternoon. Take a day. Take your time.

If you need to move or have a total lack of energy, then just start with something small. Try to choose something you enjoy. If you don’t like running, don’t run. If you prefer to just hang out on the floor with a foam roller, or take a walk around the block, then do that… Movement should be soothing and helpful. Movement doesn’t need to be vigorous if it makes you feel anxious. Practice gratitude – pat yourself on the back for showing up. Even if it’s just a quick stretch.

…if anyone is thinking about you, or communicating with you at all, then they probably really care about you.

You don’t need to commit to massive goals. If you’re worrying about what other people think of you – don’t. Truly – everyone is so wrapped up in survival mode right now that they aren’t focusing on your perceived ‘shortcomings’. In fact, if anyone is thinking about you, or communicating with you at all, then they probably really care about you. Even if their expressions of interest and concern might seem more annoying than helpful, this is something to embrace!

Having said that, don’t feel obliged to respond to every message straight away. Or even at all. Honour your privacy. Communicate with the people you care about. Reach out to people who have your best interests. Avoid engaging with people who make you feel negatively, even if you like them. It’s okay. On another note, it can feel really nice to focus on helping others when we feel kind of crappy about ourselves. Have you been on a walk lately and been greeted with a “Hello” or “Lovely day for a walk” remark recently? I have and it ALWAYS makes me feel happy and fuzzy. If you can summon it, put on your walking shoes, muster a smile and see what good vibes are sent your way…

I can attest to these recommendations, because this is a long-term approach that I implement when I have spells of anxiety and depression. Last weekend I found myself on a downward spiral – anxiety was starting to creep in. I realised that there were so many things increasing my stress levels. However, I recognised that this gave me lots of options to reduce my stress and anxiety too. Here are the measures I took – perhaps you can find some inspiration:

  • I immediately stopped watching sci-fi and post-apocalyptic TV shows about Pandemics, Zombies and aliens with my boyfriend, Phill. I just left him to it.
  • I immediately restricted my consumption of any and all News to the once daily press conferences held by the government.
  • I left the open-plan living space or listened to music through headphones when he was playing Call of Duty.
  • We ordered a Bluetooth Playstation Headset so that I could walk around the house without hearing gunfire, zombies, aliens, grenades, screaming or helicopters. It arrived 5 days later.
  • I arranged a virtual appointment with my Counsellor.
  • I set a regular time for a walk.
  • I muted ‘WhatsApp’ group chats that increased my stress levels.
  • I immediately took a holiday from coffee – game changer (I’m back on 1-2 small cups a day).
  • I called my Mum.
  • I held WhatsApp chats with my best friends and siblings.
  • I stopped to smell the flowers and I lay down on the grass on my back at the park (much to Phill’s embarrassment) during my walk to connect with nature.
  • I set up a workspace as far away from my boyfriend as I could to minimise noise and disruption to either of us.
  • I decided I would create art on a daily basis and share it with my friends and family.

These are adaptations of my tried and tested methods from over the years. Do you have any recommendations to add to this list? I’d love to know how you lift your spirits and ease anxiety in uncertain times.

If you’d like some inspiration for some FREE online self-care resources then take a look at one of my recent blog posts: My Top 5 FREE Online ‘Self-Care’ Resources – including the new Move Well online class: ‘Gentle Movement – Wake Up Sessions on Monday mornings at 7am!

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