March 2020 (COVID-19) – Blog Post 3: Managing Loneliness – The Guildford Psychologist

27.03.20

Once again, I hope this period is not proving to be too difficult for you and your loved ones. This is the third blog of this series and is focused on managing loneliness. My previous COVID-19 blogs titled ‘Ways to maintain your Wellbeing’ and ‘Coping with uncertainty and other difficult thoughts and feelings’ can be found below this post. As always, any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me and I’ll be happy to help.

Stay safe,

Ben

Managing Loneliness

Humans are social creatures. Back in caveman/woman times, without each other we’d struggle to survive. There was virtually no way that we’d be able to hunt, cook, fight, make a shelter and our clothes, all on our own. As a result, part of our brain is wired to seek out other people and seek social approval.

Thankfully, in today’s world, we have so much available to us (supermarkets, ovens, houses, online shopping) that it is relatively easy to survive on our own. However, whilst we can survive in the physical sense, it does not mean we will feel good mentally when on our own. This is because there is still that part of our brain that believes we need others to survive. This is why regulations surrounding staying indoors, social distancing and working from home can be tough. If you’re living on your own you may not be able to get the physical human contact that your mind craves. It is therefore natural that your brain is going to react with concern.

Loneliness is the feeling we get when we are not able to achieve the level of social interaction we desire. It can play a significant impact on our mental health and can unfortunately lead us to feel anxious and depressed. I therefore hope these tips help.

 

Tip 1: Think of alternative ways of making contact with others

If you’re unable to go out, try to think of other ways in which you can see people. Phoning, text, WhatsApp and FaceTime / video calls are great ways to stay in contact with friends and family. This can help remind you that there are people around. There are even some great mobile apps to help link up with friends in group video – Houseparty is one of these apps (www.houseparty.com).

 

Tip 2: Talk to people online

If you have a hobby/interest then there’s a high chance that there’s an online forum dedicated to the subject. This’ll enable you to chat to others with similar interests. Tapatalk (www.tapatalk.com) hosts thousands of different forums, where you can chat to others. Dating apps too, and online games can also be great ways to interact with others.

 

Tip 3: Just observe others

Just observing other people outside can be really helpful. So, if you can go out, take some time to do some people-watching. Or if you live near others, sit by your window and watch the world go by. Even waving to someone or saying hello to a neighbour through their window can help us feel a little less lonely.

 

Tip 4: Learn to spend time with you.

This period could be a great time to learn how to make the best of being with yourself and comfortable in your own company. For example, during this period could be a time to learn a new skill, read up on something you’ve always wanted to know more about. It could be cooking, yoga, writing a novel (or just a journal!), or just reading that book that you got for Christmas five years ago that always goes in the ‘I’ll read that after I’ve done (insert mundane task)’ pile.

 

Tip 5: Make plans for the future

We can learn a lot about ourselves in our own company. Some things we may like, some we may not. But recognising these gives us an avenue to make changes to improve, to set goals on how we may go about things differently in the future.

 

Tip 6: Got any pets?

Pets can be a great reliever of loneliness; spending some quality time with them can be a great way to reduce feelings of loneliness.

 

Tip 7: Just for older people….

If you’re one of the 8.5 million older people in this country then this period may hit you the hardest. The length of time you may be asked to self-isolate to keep yourself well could naturally have an effect on your mental health. Understandably, feelings of loneliness could appear. There are people out there though, and AgeUK (www.ageuk.org.uk), Independent Age (www.independantage.org) and The Silver Line (www.thesilverline.org.uk) all can provide further advice as well as their ever popular befriending services.

 

This is just a small list of tips that I thought were more applicable to the current difficult situation we’re in than a typical list (which, naturally, invariably involves meeting up with new people or old friends!).

If loneliness is an ongoing problem for you, there are lots of places out there that can help. There are charities that specialise in helping with loneliness. One of which is Campaign to End Loneliness (https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/). On this website you can find links to all sorts of places, including other befriending services and volunteering opportunities. Indeed, once normality returns and we do not need to stay indoors then there are many websites around which can help us meet new, likeminded people – Meetup (www.meetup.com) is a great (non-dating!) site where you can meet new people in your area.

Finally, I just wanted to add that if loneliness has been a long-standing problem for you, then it’s important to recognise the value of small steps to help overcome it. For example, if the idea of volunteering is daunting, then just set your first goal to write the email to enquire, or just have a short phone call. If attending a yoga class is something that interests you but feels overwhelming, then perhaps ring the organiser and ask if you can just watch for a session. I also help many people for whom loneliness is a result of shyness/social anxiety; working on the latter can be a really helpful way of helping with the former, so just ask if you’d like help here. It’s such a common difficulty and I’d be more than happy to help.

 

March 2020 (COVID-19) – Blog Post 2: Coping with Uncertainty and other difficult thoughts and feelings – The Guildford Psychologist

24.3.20 Once again, I just want to say I hope you and you loved ones are well at this difficult time. This is my second blog on tips I hope you will find helpful – the first blog titled ‘Tips to maintain your wellbeing’ can be found below this one.

Today’s blog is on coping with difficult thoughts and feelings that may naturally come up at this time. If you have any questions or want me to clarify anything please do feel free to contact me and I’d be more than happy to talk through it with you.

Stay safe,

Ben

Coping with Uncertainty and other difficult thoughts and feelings

Firstly, I really want to stress that at these difficult times it is completely normal to be feeling anxious. We are in an environment that most of us are not used to and our brains are having to negotiate through it with a lot of uncertainty.

The brain, naturally, is not a fan of uncertainty. Uncertainty in the past (caveman/woman times) often meant ‘danger’ (more chance of being attacked/eaten). Part of our brain has not evolved since these times. Therefore, when there’s a lot of uncertainty, our brain will naturally try to think ways to get more control so it feels safe. The problem is that it’s quite persistent so when it can’t get certainty/control, it sometimes keeps trying to get it, on the assumption that if we keep thinking about the problem, we’ll achieve our certainty goal!  However, as we know, getting control over some things is not always possible and we can sometimes find ourselves working tirelessly and worrying tirelessly about controlling things that we can’t control. So here’s some tips:

 

Tip 1: Recognise what you can control, and what you can’t control and try to focus more on the former.

Make a list of the things you can control and the things you can’t and try to focus on the former. Examples of each might be:

Things we can’t control:

  • How long this virus situation will last for
  • How others react in this scenario
  • Whether others follow social distancing rules
  • How much pasta is left on the shelves….

Things we CAN control:

  • What you do with your hands, feet and mouth right now
  • Your positive attitude
  • Trying to find fun things to do at home
  • Your own decision whether to socially distance
  • Whether you try to be kind and thoughtful
  • If you go on social media, listen to the news
  • Whether we try to be the best human we’d like to be at this moment

 

Tip 2a: Understand the difference between our ‘thinking-self’ and our ‘observing-self’

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of control over our thoughts. For example, try not to think of a pink elephant for thirty seconds…… it’s tricky! Trying to stop/fight a thought rarely works and nor does distraction, or if it does, not for much time – particularly if it’s about something we’re worried about.

Since fighting these thoughts, or trying to control something we have little control over invariably gets us nowhere, the trick is to do the opposite. This involves being more accepting of these thoughts.

So how do we accept our thoughts? Firstly, by accepting our thoughts, I don’t mean we agree with them. I simply mean that we accept that they exist, that they’re there in our head. It can also be helpful to recognise the difference between our thinking self and our observing self, and this exercise can help with that:

For the next thirty seconds, just pause for a moment and notice what you mind is thinking. Perhaps your mind is naming the objects around you. Maybe it’s thinking ‘I’ve got no thoughts’. Perhaps it’s even generated an image in your mind. If no thoughts appear, just keep listening until they restart. And that’s it. You’ve recognised the part of your mind that talks – the thinking self – and the part of your mind that listens – the observing self.

 

Tip 2b: Use your observing-self to help you accept your thoughts/thinking-self

Now, to accept a thought, we want to use our observing self and observe the thought/thinking-self non-judgmentally. I often suggest to clients to think of a name for their thinking self, like ‘Bob’ or ‘Goober’ (if it makes you smile, all the better!).

So, if you notice that your ‘Bob’ is thinking in a loop, try using the following techniques to help adopt an acceptance approach to the thoughts, and help you focus more on the things you can control:

  • politely thanking ‘Bob’ for the alert then move on with our day.
  • put Bob’s thoughts on a cloud and watch them drift by, and when they come back just put them on another cloud – accepting the clouds/thoughts in the sky
  • putting the thoughts on a leaf and imagine them floating down a river (there’s a great youtube video that can help you practice this): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1C8hwj5LXw
  • thinking about the BBC News Channel, with the ticker tape going along the bottom with all the headlines – imagine your thoughts scrolling on that ticker tape, just round and round – but notice how you can still observe the newsreader if you wish.

As well as accepting your thoughts, it can be helpful to try to accept your difficult feelings too. This takes practice, but, as with the thoughts, the idea is to be able to step back and observe these feelings inside. Then, with the time you’d use to typically fight these feelings, try to be the best version of you that you can be (see Tip 3), even if means the emotions are still there. Russ Harris is world-renowned for his literature on acceptance, and he’s done a great video on ‘the struggle switch’ which explains the idea of accepting our emotions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCp1l16GCXI

 

Tip 3: Work out what matters and try to focus on being the best version of you that you want to be.

When we don’t spend so long fighting / distracting ourselves from our thoughts, we can often find we have more free time. With this time, focus on being the best version of you that you can be. To work out what the ‘best you’ is, it can be really helpful to think about what values you’d like to live by.  This can be tricky and does take a little bit of thought. One way to work out the values that matter to you can be to ask yourself the following two questions:

  • Imagine it’s your (insert your age + 2 years) birthday. You’re having a party and your family and friends are there. Invariably you come up in conversation (!). How, would you like your friends/family to be describing you / your personality amongst themselves?
  • Think of some people you really admire. These may be people you know personally, maybe film stars/celebrities, maybe even a cartoon character. What is it about them that you admire? What qualities do they have?

If after thinking through these questions you struggle to come up with some values, that’s okay. Hopefully this list of values may help: https://www.actmindfully.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Values_Checklist_-_Russ_Harris.pdf. The list has a task attached to it, specifically for the purpose of helping you to work out what values matter most to you.

 

Tip 4: Set some goals around these values

Now that you’ve an idea on some key values you’d like to live by, set yourself some clear, realistic goals on how you could live in accordance with them. For example, let’s say one of the values you choose is ‘Caring’. You may set a goal to make a loved one a cup of coffee in the morning. Another may be to give a relative a ring to check out how they are.


Since how we behave invariably impacts our thoughts and our feelings, behaving in a way that is congruent with the person we’d like to be often makes us feel content in ourselves.

 

I hope you found this helpful. If you did, it may be worth checking out Russ Harris’s booklet on COVID-19 for more detailed tips! Russ is a well known practitioner in the world of Acceptance of Commitment Therapy (ACT) and he’s written lots of helpful books on the therapy.

His COVID-19 handout can be found on: https://coronadosafe.org/blog/face-covid/#.XnkDNYj7RPY

 

As always, any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

March 2020 (COVID-19) – Blog Post 1: Tips to Maintain your Wellbeing – The Guildford Psychologist

Firstly, I just want to say I hope you and you loved ones are well at this difficult time. Over the last week, I’ve been trying to think of things I can post on this site that I hope will help others manage this tricky time.

Speaking to clients and colleagues there seems to be some common questions that people have, and I’ll try to cover the main questions in individual blog posts. The first blog (below) will focus on ways to maintain our wellbeing. Over the next few days though, I’ll write further posts on ways of coping with difficult thoughts and feelings that may naturally come up at this time, and I’ll also do a special section on managing loneliness.

As always please do not hesitate to contact me should you have any questions.

Stay safe,

Ben

 

Tips to Maintain Your Wellbeing

I don’t think anything I put in this initial blog post will be rocket science – but, I hope, because of that, the ideas may be easier to implement! These ideas are not going to stop the threat of the Coronavirus, but I hope they help you manage your wellbeing during this tricky period. However, these are just some ideas….do feel free to email me if you have any more and I’ll add them.

Tip 1: Try to ensure you get enough sleep

When the brain has a lot of uncertainty fizzing about, it may be that you find it difficult to sleep. On a previous blog (https://www.drbenjmead.co.uk/2015/08/) I wrote some tips that I hope will help.

Tip 2: Try to eat healthily

Getting the right nutrients inside us can be really good for our mental health – it gives the brain energy and helps us think more clearly. For information on what is a good balanced diet, the NHS has a really helpful page: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-eatwell-guide/

Tip 3: Try to get enough exercise

Try to move your body each day, even if you have to stay indoors, as exercise is good for mood and stress levels. If you have a garden, use it! Hopefully it’ll warm up in the coming weeks making the garden a lovely place to be and get exercise. If you don’t have a garden, exercising indoors can be a good way to get fit. Perhaps try some of the Yoga videos on youtube. For the kids, Joe Wicks is going to be doing live PE sessions every Monday to Friday on his youtube channel at 9am – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAxW1XT0iEJo0TYlRfn6rYQ (he also has some great exercises for adults too….)

Tip 4: Practise Mindfulness…

Some of you may have heard of ‘Mindfulness’. Some of you may even have heard of Headspace, which is a great app to help practise mindfulness. Generously, the people at Headspace have kindly chosen to give additional free access to some of their mindfulness tracks: https://www.headspace.com/covid-19. Mindfulness can be a great way to help us observe ourselves and not get caught up into thought processes about things we have little control over (more on this on a future blog!), so if you’ve some free time now, this could be a great time to learn to help the present you, and your future you.

Tip 5: Connect with others

Whilst we may not be able to meet up so easily, in today’s world we have so much technology at our disposal. Facetime, WhatsApp video, Zoom – all great ways to chat to friends and family online! I love Zoom – mainly because it has a cool little Whiteboard function that lets you draw things to each other (game of noughts and crosses?). There’s also online gaming with friends. Or just the good old fashioned telephone, or chats over the garden fence…..

Tip 6: Go outside for a walk

Getting in your car and choosing a non crowded area to walk when you know there are few people around can be brilliant for one’s mental health. The fresh air and noticing the wildlife around can also help us be more mindful.

Tip 7: Take some time away from the news and social media

Keeping up to date with current is, of course, important. But, how helpful is it for that BBC live feed to be on in the background all the time? Having time away from the topic of Coronavirus will give our head some space to think of other things and recognise that life is greater than Coronavirus. Turn off those notifications for a few hours, turn off that Live News feed, and recognise the other things that are currently important to you.