A return to office life and local lockdowns: life this autumn will be all about change. Here are five psychological tactics to cope with the mass of unknowns.
With leaves glowing orange and red, and a crisp air tinged with the scent of bonfires, autumn has long been a season of symbolic change.
The changes that beckon this year, however, are decidedly less poetic. While seeing friends and colleagues again after months of lockdown can only be a good thing, a lot of uncertainty awaits over the course of the next few months.
Will we all really return to our offices as the government wants us to? When and where will local lockdowns take place? And how will the NHS cope with coronavirus in addition to its usual roster of winter pressures?
As we inch forward into a new reality where the rules aren’t always clear, unknowns beckon at every turn.
Coronavirus didn’t give us much warning the first time around but now we’ve had a taste of it, we at least know that change is a fairly consistent theme. What’s more, it often entails the kind of ambiguous, rapid change that is deeply unsettling; the type that no amount of Netflix-meets-Pinot escapism can abate.
With that in mind, it’s worth having a few strategies in your back pocket to prepare for the events of September, October and beyond. Here are five psychology-backed methods to help keep you calm and focused – even as the outside world continues to pivot.
1. Focus on the moment
“Focus on what’s happening right now – in the moment,” Dr Peter Olusoga, psychology lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, tells Stylist. “That’s a really difficult thing to ask people to do when there’s so much information flying around and there’s so much worry and concern of what’s going to happen in the future, but if we can, try and focus on what’s important now and what’s happening now. It’s about staying present really, and making decisions based on what needs doing in the moment. That’s the best way that we can maintain a little bit of a sense of control.”
As LA-based cognitive therapist Alyssa Mancao suggests in the post above, you can begin this process by thinking, “what do I need right now?” to combat feelings of helplessness.
2. Be aware that your feelings about change will change
Your response to change may be very unnerving – but it’s reassuring to remember that feelings never stay static, but instead constantly shift and adapt. This is especially true of what sleep and trauma psychologist Hope Bastine refers to as “the change curve” (below).
“The change model considers how we might accept a life changing experience and then learn and grow from it,” Bastine tells Stylist. “As human beings, we must adapt to change. We have to be taken to the edge of our comfort zone in order to grow. The experience of the coronavirus pandemic is a major trauma to society as we know it. Going forward, we must heal that trauma and come out of the ashes as enhanced human beings.”
If you are aware that your feelings to change will change (even if they get worse before they get better), that awareness alone can make your reaction seem more manageable in the moment.
3. Go slow and go small
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it helps to break things down into more digestible, bite-sized chunks. So, you may not be able to control whatever coronavirus news is hitting the headlines currently, but you *can* control what you eat for dinner, or whether or not you reach out to a neighbour in need.
Instead of asking yourself, ‘how the hell is this going to happen?’ try instead to ask yourself ‘what’s the next best action I can take?’ over and over,” says Californian therapist Lisa Olivera, writing on Instagram. “Big change is made up of countless countless tiny shifts over time. Don’t discount the little things.”
Need inspiration? These little-yet-grounding steps might include any of habits that mental health clinician Dr. Shainna Ali suggests below.
In other words, if you find yourself grappling around for the right response to whatever happens this autumn, go small and keep focusing on those little, concrete actions that might make a positive difference – either to yourself or to those around you.
In the same breath, that feeling of being overwhelmed by events can be powerfully countered by slowing your life down. Therapist Allyson Dinneen details how to do this in the post below.
4. Stay informed
While cutting yourself off from coronavirus-related news may seem like an intuitive move when you’re feeling anxious, a recent study found that the opposite may be true. The research by North Carolina State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology found that the more people know about Covid-19, the less pandemic-related stress they experience.
Naturally, this doesn’t mean swamping yourself with live updates at all hours. But if you’re more aware of impending changes that are coming up because of coronavirus, you might be better equipped to deal with them. In makes sense that the more solid, factual knowledge you have access to, the more in control you’ll feel: life has less of an ability to blindside you.
“Knowledge reduces uncertainty, and uncertainty can be very stressful,” says study co-author Sheuvan Neupert, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University. “Although speculative, it is likely that knowledge about this new virus reduced uncertainty, which in turn reduced feelings of pandemic stress.”
5. Find an anchor
“Change can leave us feeling like we are flailing and some sort of anchor will help us to move through the change,” Lucinda Gordon Lennox, psychotherapist at TRC Group tells Stylist. “For me it’s a mixture of spirituality and practicalities. So whilst I keep my faith in a higher being, and I practice my yoga and meditation on a daily basis, I will also make sure that as many of my options on the ground are open as possible; I will plan for many different scenarios that might play out, so that I feel prepared for whatever might happen. This might be an underlying need for control that perhaps I can work on more, but it does give me a sense of safety when external situations feel turbulent.”
So there you have it: take it slow and steady, and focus on the moment to roll with the curveballs this autumn. Know too that you are never alone.