Lockdown Long Haul: The psychology of how to keep going... and going... and going

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Alice Hall
·7 min read
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Lockdown has started to feel like a long haul journey
Lockdown has started to feel like a long haul journey

One of the lessons we're all learning in this lockdown is that time goes by oh... so... slowly when we're not having fun.

Maybe it's the January weather, or the bleak news cycle; all we know is that this time around, things somehow feel slower. Even though the end to the pandemic is probably closer than ever before (although when that comes, and how it looks, is open to debate), there's a feeling in the air and on WhatsApp groups that lockdown is going to last for a long time yet. However well the vaccine roll-out is going, the light in the tunnel is still weeks – or months – away.

This week, parents around the country winced as ministers refused to say whether schools would reopen in early March. And we know how the pattern goes with lockdown. Although Boris Johnson has promised a review of restrictions in the next few weeks, it’s now thought that Good Friday could be the earliest possible date to ease the current lockdown.

Perhaps one user on Twitter summed it up best:

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So, lockdown feels like it's here for the long haul even though we're – hopefully – three quarters of the way through. We have asked the experts for their top tips on how to cope...

1. Accept the situation is out of your control

It's time to face the facts: none of us (bar maybe Chris Whitty) have any control over when lockdown will end. Accepting this is an important step towards coming to terms with the long haul, says environmental psychologist Lee Chambers.

“We need to remember that what we're living through is unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. It’s entirely unpredictable. Although it's hard, we need to realise that this might go on for a lot longer than we thought it would,” he says.

With many people under enormous pressures – whether it's homeschooling, furlough or financial problems – accepting a situation is a lot easier said than done. When working with athletes, sports psychologists Josephine Perry uses acceptance and commitment theory: a method which encourages people to understand their values, rather than resisting the change that is happening in their lives. She says the theory can be a helpful approach for people who are struggling to come to terms with another lockdown.

“A really simple way to practice this is to look through the old photos on your phone. After some scrolling, you will be able to get an idea of what matters to you in your life: maybe it's your dog, or your family,” she says. “Once you have identified your values, do something in the next 24 hours which shows you living it.” An example would be closing your laptop, and spending an hour of undisturbed time with your children.

“Understanding what matters to you most can help you to accept a situation that is already there. By appreciating your values, you may be able to approach it differently.”

2. Avoid doomscrolling...

In case you haven't encountered this term during lockdown, it can be described neatly by the following situation, which you surely have. You switch on the television at 5pm to watch the daily press briefing. You see that the death toll has once again risen. Your heart sinks. Before you know it you have wasted three hours scrolling Twitter and news websites looking at negative headlines. By the end, you feel 10 times worse than when you started.

“In the same minute, you could read a headline about the latest round of vaccines, and another one about how infection rates are going through the roof. Before long, it starts to feel like the world is ending,” says Chambers. In a global pandemic, it’s unrealistic to unplug completely from the news. As a compromise, you could carve out chunks of time throughout the day that are dedicated to scrolling. For example, give yourself 20 minutes to catch up on Twitter, Instagram, and the news, then put your phone down or exit the apps for a few hours. You can return to them later for another 15 minutes, and so on.

3. ...and be wary of social media

As Chambers sees it, too much positivity can be detrimental to our mental well being – particularly when we're dealing with an unpredictable situation. “If you are inundated with positive quotes, it can make you lose grip on the reality of the situation," he says. Perry agrees, adding that while the first lockdown was “novel” – think back to all those banana breads and sourdough – this one is about being kind to ourselves.

“We scroll on social media because we crave information; if we've got information, it makes us feel more secure and a bit more controlled. The problem with doomscrolling is that we end up comparing our lives to everybody else – and people usually don’t put the full story on social media,” she says.

Chambers explains that breathwork is one of the best ways to bring yourself out of an anxiety spiral. He recommends the following technique: inhale for five seconds; hold for two seconds; exhale for seven seconds; repeat five times.

“This should help to destimulate your sympathetic nervous system, and reignite your senses to bring you back to the present moment,” he says.

4. Set yourself small goals

Perry explains that there are three different types of goals which athletes work towards: performance goals, outcome goals, and process goals.

“Given the current lockdown situation, the only thing we can work towards is a process goal, which is the actions and behaviours you would put in place to achieve something,” she says. Some examples of process goals include doing a fast treadmill session every week, or eating five fruit and vegetables a day.

“It’s easy for people to plan things when they know the boundaries that they’re working towards. But these smaller types of goals can still help us to feel like we are moving towards something when the deadlines keep being moved,” she says.

However, it’s important to recognise that not everybody has the time – or energy – to achieve countless goals. If you’re struggling to get started, she recommend trying the ACE method: A for achievement (however small – yes, tidying the children’s bedrooms count); C for communication – so speaking to someone outside your bubble; and E for enjoyment – doing something that aligns with your passions. You should aim to do one of each everyday.

“By focusing on the small things that you can control, you will feel much more centered, and able to manage a situation,” she says.

5. Be grateful

In the midst of a global pandemic, gratitude feels near impossible. But several studies have shown that feeling grateful lowers your levels of anxiety and depression, and increases the quality of your sleep.

A gratitude journal is often seen as the best way to practice this. However, Perry explains that this method may not work for everyone. “Often, the people who struggle most with anxiety are perfectionists; they're used to putting their all into everything and suddenly they have to sit back and follow the rules. Many won’t bother completing a gratitude journal if they know they can’t do it properly.”

Instead, she suggests saying one thing that you are grateful for before bed: “It can be as simple as a hug someone gave you, or a nice cup of tea.”

Read more on Lockdown Long Haul

Tips for surviving the never-ending home-school slog

How to keep exercising – even when you have ‘pandemic fatigue’