By KIERAN FINNANE
In the strange new world we find ourselves in, for many of us our habitual routines have gone out the window.
Our face-to-face social lives, outside of our homes, have shrunk to contact with just one other person at a time! And in any case we are supposed to stay at home as much as we can.
We also cannot be sure when it’s all going to end.
I asked Louise Samways, a local clinical and health psychologist with a national reputation, for her tips on how to maintain our inner well-being during this time.
Inner can’t be divorced from outer, of course. And exercise is a must. She pointed out the good fortune we have in Alice Springs to have parks and bushland quite close to where we live.
Whether it is going for a walk or a run outside (while maintaining physical distancing) and / or other exercise we do at home, it should be built into our routines.
For children especially, they need physical activity (“gross body movement”) of some sort every 20 minutes to half an hour: “This is more obvious in children, but it’s important for adults as well,” says Ms Samways.
She is wary of a “middle class baseline” that is assumed for a lot of the public advice on how to adapt and cope. There are, for instance, a lot of assumptions about people’s access to the internet and their ability to afford that access.
She tries not to make those assumptions here.
She is also well aware of the varied makeup of households. Some people live alone, some with children and /or partners, other may be in shared or multi-generational households.
Whatever the case, one of most important things people can do is build structure and routine into their days and weeks.
“Getting up at the same time every morning, whether you’ve got a job or haven’t got a job, is really important,” she says.
“Because then you get the light onto the retina which goes to your pineal gland and that starts your body clock.
“In turn your body clock starts a whole series of rhythms that goes through the day and cues the production particularly of things like serotonin and dopamine which are very important in terms of helping you manage your level of arousal and mood.”
When arousal goes up, you can’t think properly and this is a time when we need clarity in our thinking.
Many of us are frightened and that is entirely to be expected, says Ms Samways.
“Fear is a survival response to a real threat.”
It is not the same as being anxious, which is when our arousal goes up to an inappropriate level considering the degree of threat.
Messaging and rules from authorities that can be confusing and are constantly changing contribute to anxiety. In part this is the nature of the beast, but the authorities could do better. This will be the subject of a separate article.
Staying with building our own structure and routine, having meals at regular times is also important. Meals can be part of what we look forward to, pacing them across each day.
Our weeks also need this.
We might want to decide what we are going to have for dinner on each night of the week: “Creating rituals is incredibly powerful and food can play a big part in this.”
So each time Monday comes around and we’re enjoying its regular curry or pizza, we’ll know in our bodies another week has gone by.
Ms Samways also suggests allocating days for our regular tasks like washing and shopping.
Over the week, a favourite television show might be something we look forward to.
Some nights we could choose to play games – or read, listen to the radio, pursue our hobbies – rather than watch TV .
There might be certain days of the week when we check in with family or friends, by phone (or if we have them, using Face Time or Skype or similar).
These are things that almost everyone can do regardless of income.
Turning to our emotions, people need to acknowledge to themselves that there will be times when they feel overwhelmed, that they are experiencing feelings they don’t know what to do with: “If you can identify those feelings, it’s a lot easier to contain them and to decide what you can do about them,” says Ms Samways.
There are many words to describe our feelings, but most people use only three or four. We can try to drill down to find the right one.
Are we feeling frustrated, irritated, annoyed?
Are we feeling lonely, isolated, alone?
These feelings are not the same. Each one requires a different tack to deal with it.
(In her book the 12 Secrets of Health and Happiness, Penguin, 1997, Ms Samways lists a vocabulary for emotions over three pages. This book is available for free download; the vocabulary is on pp 278-281.)
If we are caring for children, they might say, for instance, “I feel I want to burst.” That tells us pretty clearly, they want to do something physical. It’s time to get up and get active.
We can also try to help children broaden their vocabulary for describing their feelings.
Identifying the feeling accurately allows it to be more contained and then we can think about what would help us deal with it.
Feeling anger and frustration over what we are hearing on the news is one of biggest risks when we are feeling confined or helpless.
“People can turn on each other in what is called lateral violence, whether it’s emotional or physical,” says Ms Samways. “We need to recognise that we are angry and ask ourselves, ‘Who am I really angry with?’”
Is it really the kids not cleaning up their toys? Or is it that we are in this situation, we have lost our job, we’re stuck in the Centrelink maze, our business has fallen over, we are overwhelmed, and not supported?
If it’s really the latter, one thing we can do, Ms Samways suggests, is to get on the phone to our local or federal member and express what’s upsetting us.: “That kind of feedback is going to be incredibly powerful for where we go to from here as a society.”
Another thing is to be kind to someone else: “It increases oxytocin in our brains, creating a sense of safety and calm in not only the receiver, but also the person who gives.”
This can include giving recognition to someone else’s efforts: “We need five positive messages to every one negative message to keep us well!”
Most of us find it difficult to not be able to see a clear end in sight to the situation we are suddenly in. The six months being constantly referred to in the federal government’s messaging seems like a tremendously long time, especially for the young.
Can we make staging posts for ourselves? I ask Ms Samways.
Some of us may be able to say, in two weeks’ time we will do this or have accomplished that. Projects that have been put off in our previously busier lives might be candidates – gardening, painting the house, knitting a beanie, trying new recipes, for example
Or we may say to ourselves, when the restrictions are lifted, this is what we’ll do – have a wow of party when we all get together, go see grandma or grandpa, think about what we’ll do when we see them, go to our favourite cafe again, play sport again.
However, she is mindful that this too can depend on the resources we have: “There is massive inequality across the country and especially in Alice Springs.”
Maybe that is also something we can think about, how in the future we can shape a society in which everyone shares its benefits more equally.
NEXT: Public messaging – “it’s like grabbing hold of fairy floss, it sticks to you, you can’t get its shape, you can’t deal with it” – and the cure.