WITH PSYCHOTHERAPIST & MENTAL HEALTH CONSULTANT, ZOË ASTON
Zoë Aston is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant. She runs a private practice off Harley Street (in normal circumstances) and consults for some of Londons top boutique brands including Barrys, Lululemon, Harrods and Rowbots. She is the creator of Your Mental Health Workout and you can find her on Instagram @yourmentalhealthworkout. She offers her thoughts and top tips on how to keep good mental health hygiene during this unusual time.
Having spent the last few weeks in lockdown, we have been forced to get used to the safety of own homes. We have felt lonely, sad, scared, relieved, lucky, angry and – maybe for the first time – had to face our feelings without our usual options for escapism. Going to the office, the gym, the spa or even sitting in the park for bit, have not been considered socially responsible things to do. Our holidays and parties have been cancelled, and a general sense of grief and loss has swept us up. Undeniably, Covid-19 is having an effect on our mental wellbeing as well as our physical health.
As the lock down continues and we start to think (and worry) about how we will find a new normal we must give our minds the opportunity to be in the best shape possible.
During lockdown, some of us have discovered things about ourselves we might never have, had we not been forced to socially isolate. Some clients I have worked with for years have made more progress than I could have hoped for, while others have found the restrictive nature of lockdown tragically unravelling years of therapeutic work.
The values and morals we live by have been challenged in both helpful and unhelpful ways. Our boundaries have been questioned, and our most intimate relationships, be that with ourselves or significant others, have become our only option to meet a variety of basic human needs that we are used to meeting by default.
For some people, the usual social anxiety triggers have been removed, inducing relief in the present as well as fear for the future – how will we cope when socialising is reintroduced? Some have found that stress reactions have changed; we have felt more rested, craved structure and are more reliant on our screens than ever before. There has been an increase in contamination fear and feelings of guilt, as this bizarre situation forces us to reassess our moral codes and find some sort of control. All the while we have been working away in our little communities to hold on to enough empathy and understanding to remain kind and helpful to others.
It’s incredibly difficult to navigate the rollercoaster of emotions we are experiencing on a daily basis so I have created my top three ‘mental health hygiene’ considerations to try and guide you through this time.
Zoe’s top tips for mental health hygiene
1) Reassess your boundaries.
We each live by a set of limits we decide for ourselves, it is part of how we become intimate with others and communicate who and how we are in any given moment. Your boundaries are malleable, they are not walls and are usually driven by your personal value code and informed by your emotional responses to internal and external events.
Lockdown has meant that many of us have had to reassess how much we can offer and accept in our intimate relationships, be that with our self or a significant other. At the start of lockdown most of us had plenty to give. We offered empathy and understanding as well as practical support to those who needed it. In week five, many find our empathy muscle a bit fatigued, our generosity challenged and our kindness wearing thin. It is OK to adjust your boundaries and set limits inline with where you are today. Yes, the world is suffering, but if a lack of capacity to hold your boundaries leaves you psychologically vulnerable there is nothing helpful you’ll be able to offer. Take a step back and assess the reality of the values you live by and where you need your boundaries to be, all things considered.
2) Guilt is not an option
Hands up if, over the past five weeks, you’ve noticed an onset of guilty feelings that you don’t usually experience? Due to the lack of exposure to social interaction, we are learning to validate ourselves from the inside – we have no choice. In a normal day (the old normal), most of us find some sort of external validation, whether that is through feeling needed and productive in the workplace, through other peoples affirmations, or simply a confirmation that we are OK from someone else’s point of view.
As social animals, we feel safe and reassured when other people are around to reflect us, therefore society is usually set up so that we don’t have to expend much effort in order to come into contact with others and experience these feelings. The loss of of socialisation has brought up challenging emotions that are often undesirable and one of the main ways we get away from them is to feel guilty instead.
Guilt allows you tell yourself a story about what is happening, it allows you to bargain with yourself and find some sort of control in a powerless situation. The easiest examples being food or work; have you found yourself having guilty feelings about what you have or have not eaten, or the work you have or have not done? Underneath that it is likely you’ll find challenging emotions such as anger, shame and sadness…it is those feelings that need to be worked with, the guilt is simply a story you tell yourself.
NB: It is worth saying that of course if you have behaved in a way that means it is appropriate to feel guilty, by all means go ahead. Apologise and move on by changing your behaviour. Guilt should be a contextual emotion not one you live with consistently.
3) Manage your screen time.
Screens have become our main source of contact, work, connection and communication with anyone other than ourselves and the people we might be isolating with. It is unreasonable to expect us to be able to go cold turkey from our screens in this day, age and situation.
However, screen addiction is a real thing and it impacts your perception of yourself and can have a profound effect on how you feel on a minute by minute basis. In the worse case scenario, when we are addicted to our screens we use them to manage our emotions and find it difficult to be without them. Remember to give yourself permission to unplug, turn off your notifications and make a conscious effort to use a pen and paper for things that you might default to your phone or laptop to do. For example, write a gratitude list or a journal by hand rather than on an app.
Make an effort to get outside, screens can change how we feel, yes, but rather unpredictably. If you feel low and you log on to social media to make you feel better you are at the mercy of whatever appears on your feed…instead, get outside! Take your one outing a day at that point. Screens confuse our bio rhythms – being outside resets them. At times like these it can be easy to get caught up in the intensity of what is going wrong rather than the – granted sometimes difficult to see – opportunities for change.
Your mind is a fascinating organ – it has many parts to it. Each part moves at a different speed and in a different way to the next, and we all need a little help to keep ourselves in good psychological shape at times. All things considered, never has there been a better time to let yourself focus on working towards a happier, healthier mind.
You can find lots more information about looking after your mental health by visiting www.zoeaston.com or www.yourmentalhealthworkout.com.