Help for Heroes: A Field Guide to Self Care
Many experts are saying that what we are experiencing now in this pandemic is a collective trauma. Some people are experiencing trauma first-hand, whether through work on the frontline, you or someone you know being ill, or losing someone to the virus.
The rest of us are witnessing a major global traumatic event. We may be feeling empathy for those suffering, feeling guilt and sadness, the grieving emotions, feeling afraid and anxious about loss or dying or losing our jobs, fear that our lives and those we care about will be affected irrevocably.
The effect of vicarious trauma is not to be underestimated: plenty of studies show that witnessing or listening to trauma, or having a family member experience a trauma, can produce post traumatic symptoms in others. A traumatic event can trigger past traumas and produce the same feelings that you haven’t felt for years.
We are all deeply connected; we are all in this together.
If you feel fine, by the way, that’s good. You probably won’t need to read this unless it is to support someone close to you who is suffering.
So, what do you do if you are dealing with overwhelming feelings in isolation, without anyone to turn to?
Help for Heroes, Military Veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, have drawn up a comprehensive guide for NHS workers on how to cope with traumatic stress. I read through the guide and truly believe it would work for anyone suffering with anxiety and stress in this time.
Help for Heroes: A Field Guide to Self Care
Our Field Guide to Self-Care is for the men and women working tirelessly in our hospitals right now. We hope that it’s a useful resource for our healthcare heroes, and for anyone else who may be feeling stressed or anxious during these difficult times.
This field guide is divided into Body, Emotions and Mind. Click on each section and download the workbooks: they are beautifully laid out and easy to read. There are useful videos, too and lots of breathing exercises, which are one of the easiest ways to self-soothe when feeling panicked.
Try this Soothing Rhythm Breathing Exercise.
I would try this anyway; stressed or not. It will come in handy for helping others if they are worried or helping yourself when suddenly overwhelmed.
There is something connecting about sharing our resources and understanding what everyone else might be going through. And something truly uplifting in people reaching out and offering support.
If you struggle with your mind at the best of times, it may be particularly challenging now.
We’ve all had to make a massive adjustment in the past week in order to stem the tide of the coronavirus. We will all respond differently, processing in our unique ways. There are lots of challenges and our response to some of them will transform us: let’s hope so. We can’t continue the way we have been. We will also mourn our lives before the lockdown; from small, every-day rituals (meeting a friend for a coffee) to more troubling losses (jobs, support such as carers or childcare).
Rather than tell you what to think or do, I can share the ways I have been adjusting to the lockdown and hope to connect with you in our shared strange new world.
My response to crisis is generally to go into a spin, doing practical things like setting up my home-working situation, reaching out to everyone I know online, and going grocery shopping while trying not to panic buy. (I keep thinking of the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – DON’T PANIC! in alarming red letters. Perhaps that’s a book we should all be reading now).
At some point, I listened to a meditation that warned against getting caught up in the idea of being productive.
This is the old way of being, it’s partly why we are in this mess – always consuming and producing for no purpose other than to feed my ego and quiet old wounds. Of course, we do it to pay bills and survive, but it’s not the only way. People throughout time have found different ways of living; it takes effort, creativity, big thinking and courage. And time, which is something we now have.
Right now is the time to pause and take stock: I want to come out of this ideally alive and well, but also newly resourced, equipped to live more sustainably and compassionately and connected to the wider world – and today, this is not just an ideal, but a life and death reality.
Why do I have to feel useful? Why can’t I just ‘be’? What am I avoiding? Fear, of course. Helplessness, uncertainty, disconnection. Yet these are very real things and we live with them every day, let alone in a pandemic.
I have always been drawn to existentialist and phenomenological philosophies that put forward the theory that the only reality is our experience. Your reality is different from mine, but it is no less true. When I try to experience your experience, I always do it from my own point of view, muddied with my own experiences. I can put my experiences aside to an extent and listen to yours, imagine myself in your shoes. When doing that, when taking time to be with you, I can often feel some deeper connection that makes me feel less alone. This is storytelling; this is counselling; this is friendship and love.
I’m not talking about your beliefs – that you are unworthy and have to produce good work in order to have value (although I can relate to that), or that you are the greatest person that ever lived (Trump) – but about your experience right now in the present moment. Where are you? What can you see, smell, touch and taste? What does your body feel like? What are the feelings inside you that arise? What are the memories and thoughts, the sensations, the imaginings? What have you learned from your life that matters or helps you right now in this moment? Who inspires you?
There are some great and very accessible spiritual teachers – such as Eckhart Tolle - who tell us that what we feel and see is all there is: past and future don’t exist. We only have now. And now. And now.
I couldn’t live every minute of every day like this – I love distractions, books, films, conversations too much, even more so right now. But if I feel my anxiety peak and start worrying about the future, which I cannot possibly predict, or if I need to think calmly about a problem, I can stop, breathe and tell myself:
“Everything is okay in my world right now”.
And if you are reading this, then you are okay, too.
These are things I have turned to this week – some you may like, some not:
Hurry Slowly – A podcast by Jocelyn K. Glei – she’s really smart and wise herself, and talks to other creative, clever people.
Calm – have a free resource page for guided meditations.
Down Dog - the Yoga app is offering freebies. But you can also do yoga classes on You Tube.
Russell Brand on You Tube – he has a touch of the wannabe celebrity prophet, but he is a good mix of the brilliant and humorous and kind – he has lots to say about this situation that you can take or leave, but will not bore you.
Station Eleven – I don’t know anyone who wants to read this book about a flu epidemic (I wonder why...) but for some reason, I can’t get enough of it. Maybe I’ll regret it later. Amazon, for all their faults, are delivering essential items only, but you can still download on Kindle.
I will keep posting and sharing ideas and inspiration from other people - my best resource right now.
The key to managing your anxiety is understanding it. This is something we can explore in therapy, as anxiety comes in many forms and is unique to individuals. But there are things you can do to manage your anxiety at home.
Anxiety is often a sign that we don't feel safe or secure in our lives. It is important to know if this is happening now (ie you are in an abusive relationship) or if it is left over from the past and has been triggered by a recent loss or stress factor. This is very common - we are wired to protect ourselves from future harm and danger - and does not mean you are going mad.
If it is the latter, you can help reassure yourself that you are safe here in the present moment.
You can learn, or re-learn, to self-soothe at any age through repetitive practice and reading. Here are some simple things I recommend you try each day.
Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life - Jon Kabbat-Zinn
Rewire your Anxious Brain – Catherine Pittman
Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig
First We Make the Beast Beautiful – Sarah Wilson