Our lives over the last six weeks have changed forever. We can’t escape the daily reminders from the news, social media updates and our cats being extra intuitive. It’s a strange time. We are learning how to work again. And how to live alongside this new normal. Catch ups with friends over the phone are now the highlight of our days. Before lockdown I was on the cusp of beginning to make big decisions about where I want to be, what I want to do, who I want to be and who I want around me. Having largely been in recovery from the worst of my health anxiety. And dealing with a number of life and family events that made me reevaluate the need to enjoy life more, I was for the first time in years learning how feel content. I’d just started a new job, I have a small but select circle of friends who I adore and my sister was (and still is) acing uni. Then a global pandemic hit us, and my health anxiety recovery decided to become practically non-existent, as the country was sent into a state of shock, confusion and grief. When will lockdown end? Will that running event take place? When will I be able to get on a train again? Do I have this virus? No one knows.
Six weeks ago my colleagues and I, like many people up and down the country were told to work from home. We didn’t know for how long or even how it would work, but we knew we could no longer be in the office. That team I’d spent seven months trying to fit into, was suddenly dispersed. As I moved my office home, my desk chair, paperwork, computer, the lot, I felt confident. I’ve worked from home before and knew I could do it again. Home-working, wasn’t new for me like many other people carting their office home, it was not long ago, my normal. I didn’t prepare myself for or fully consider that working from home in the middle of a pandemic is very different to working from home out of choice or necessity. Pandemic home-working is a challenge, and something neither seasoned homeworkers nor novices could prepare for.
In the early days I welcomed the lack of commute, more time to think and reflect, being able to manage my time better. I thought, with no traveling to do, I’d be full of energy and raring to take on new challenges. Something that I didn’t prepare for is how utterly utterly exhausted I feel. I’m knackered. On weekends I struggle to get up and moving before lunchtime and during the week, I’ve often slept through several alarms, leading to a massive panic as I rush around trying to look half decent for the imminent video call. I know I’m not alone in feeling this, and I know that anything you are able to achieve when the world is seemingly imploding is bloody brilliant. I’m feeling drained because the world has quickly become very terrifying, we’re coping with our usual jobs; and if you’re in my line of work supporting people experiencing more trauma than ever, dealing with our own anxieties and uncertainties, and trying to keep up with how friends and family are feeling too. No wonder we’re on our knees. And some employers expect the same productivity they wanted from us when we were living during a very different time a few months ago. We can’t do all of the above without experiencing some kind of fatigue. It’s impossible. And we won’t be or feel as productive as before.
We’ve lost control
My anxiety is driven by not being able to control certain things, so I worry about events I can’t control and control other parts of my life to compensate. My health anxiety in recent times, centred around becoming seriously ill, I’d avoid specific activities or make steps when I go away to ensure I stay well, like more trips to the doctors. We’ve now been told to stay at home, there is no choice or alternative. The words “work from home to avoid people literally dying” is scary. And if you have health anxiety, you can’t avoid health. One of my strategies is to ban doctor google from my life, if I don’t know about it, I can’t worry; being the logic. Information that was once a page on the internet I could avoid reading, is now in the form of daily press conferences. And if you choose not to watch the press conference, it’s recalled on social media. Our control has been taken away in how we live, socialise and work and it’s okay to feel sad about that. Working from home is now no longer a choice. Before I chose home-working, for benefits to my mental health and the autonomy it offered. Now, both of those are lost. And I am grieving that loss and coming to terms with a change. And I’m not a fan of change.
Workplaces have gone digital
Places of work are going through this exciting time when everyone is learning to work digitally, and realising that many people are able to work from home, if they put measures in place to support this. A reasonable adjustment many people with disabilities or mental health conditions have requested and been refused over the years. With this new found digital way of working, organisations, charities and companies are working out how much of their previous face to face work they can offer in a digital format. Office banter is replaced by WhatsApp groups and we now find ourselves in more video calls than we have the energy for. And that’s important, because constant video conferencing teams of 10-20 people at a time is draining. I’m dyspraxic, and find that video calls zap my energy. This is because there’s so much more to process than a normal face to face meeting or even a phone call. We have to concentrate on everyones face, our own face, visual and auditory information (including someones background – cat in shot? or background noise? we still have to process it). We then have to listen, remember what everyone has said and know when to respond. When written down in this way, constant video calls, don’t seem like the best way to get information to a neurodiverse colleague, especially if it’s a meeting with more than one person. And we are often still processing information from one meeting as we go into the next. Workplaces that aren’t used to remote working, want to use technology all of the time, “YOU MUST VIDEO CALL EVERYONE,” they chirp. So questions that would normally be shouted across the office that could easily be answered quickly and efficiently by email as an alternative, are now being posed by half hour video calls. At the start of my home working I felt guilty for feeling so tired. I’m just talking to someone, why do I have the energy of a snail? I didn’t understand. But after talking to others and learning that we collectively feel this way, I feel better about needing to take time out after each video call for my wellbeing. I’ve now built in 15 minute breaks away from the computer screen whenever I have to appear on camera. It helps me recover and gives my brain time to just be. And being able to just be is important. This often means I’m taking more breaks than I would in the office, but we are living in different times, and this calls for different ways of working. Looking at a screen all day everyday is draining.
Anxiety increases. And new anxieties appear.
A common theme emerging is that anxiety is developing and feeds off a pandemic. I’m now unable to leave the house alone, an attempted run last week ended in a panic attack. I worry about bumping into people. Catching the virus and passing it on. Our lives are now so prescribed meaning I’ve become hyper vigilant about what I can and cannot do. Recently I told a friend that I don’t know how I’m going to physically be able to run a half marathon if I can’t leave the house. She reassured me that I will run it, when it comes around. Getting out is vital for my mental health and ensuring that my brain, alongside my body stays healthy. Anxiety is exhausting, worrying about high risk family members, not being able to visit a friend for a chat, worrying about how that friend is feeling and feeling stressed about work is all our reality now. I’ve also heard that people who previously haven’t had any difficulties with mental health in the past, are now developing new anxiety and trauma. Frontline workers are especially hit hard. I’ve learned to swap my usual run for a walk with family, and to aim to eventually build up to running again. I take it slow, don’t go far from home and know I can always turn back if I need to. On days I can’t face crossing the threshold of my front door, I sit outside, make sure I get some sun and vitamin D. I try to read but If I can’t focus, I listen to the birds singing. Sounds idyllic, but most of the time I resemble a meerkat, unable to relax, always looking for the next crisis. I am an expert at dealing with uncertainty, but feeling a million steps behind where I was is bound be tough. And if you do too, know that you will get there eventually and it is completely normal to feel like this. It would probably be more odd if you didn’t have some kind of anxiety at the moment. I want to run and when this is all over feel comfortable enough to travel on public transport again. Both I know this will take time to build up to. Anxiety, makes an appearance when you least want it around, doesn’t it? It’s only natural to feel this way though, focussing on the days rather than the weeks is helping me. As are supportive friends.
We worry about friends and family in a very different way
Workdays are now consumed by extra worry, I’ve always thought about other people, often before myself but now the genuine fear of death has taken over our lives. I’m sure I’m not the only one who genuinely worries that people closest to us are going to die. It’s okay to talk about our new reality in this way. Previously I’ve been able to rationalise worries, as they explore in CBT “What is a more rational thought.” Death is now the rational thought. The news confirms this and so do the words, “This virus affects anyone of any age, anywhere.” There have been times when I’ve had to leave my work because I’ve genuinely been consumed with worry about a friend or family member, if I’m not thinking about their mortality, I’m worried about their mental health. I don’t have any friends who live completely alone, but if I did or anyone unexpectedly found themselves in that situation, I would be very prepared to move in with them (if I was wanted) to ensure they’re okay. I worry about ever seeing elderly relatives again, and when we are finally able to see friends, will those meetings have changed? Has the concept of friendship changed? Will it ever be like before? It is exhausting dealing with these new or slightly heightened feelings. The other day I made a list of everyone I must keep in touch with because I’m terrified in the current state of everything happening at once, that I’ll forget someone.
Focus, concentration and productivity is lost
I’ve noticed, and I know I’m not alone here, that my focus and concentration on work and home life has decreased. I hoover up like that snail we mentioned before. And the supposedly five minute email is taking me half an hour to compose. I know now that I won’t see my previous productivity levels for a while, and it’s unfair for employers to expect the same productivity they would from a staff team in an office. “I’m going to get loads done when we work from home!” I heard colleagues announce. Something that I know for my own circumstances couldn’t be far from the truth. Great if you are able to develop new projects, write a book, grow your business, landscape the garden, redecorate the house and learn to yodel, let me know your secrets, but many of us aren’t going to achieve any of that under normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic. I’m learning when I work best and working with that, not setting alarms was something I’ve been dubious of, but allowing myself to wake up naturally, and adjusting my hours to compensate this is helping. Although I’m still terrified about missing the 10am video meetings, so the no alarm rule is still a work in progress. I’m also allowing more breaks than I would in the office and trying to listen to my body more. I know I’m not going to develop new projects or develop a business venture during lockdown, I’m far too concerned about keeping people alive and sticking with the stability of a full time job. I’m lucky to still have an income and relative normality financially, as I know times in my life this wouldn’t be the case, if Covid-19 hit a year ago, this piece would look very different. So I know how quickly and unexpectedly things can change. But yes, having “more time to do things” is utter rubbish. We are however, using more energy to complete tasks on our to-do lists than ever before.
We are grieving for a world we will never know again
They say grief comes in waves. They say grief is exhausting. A half hour task seems to take days and even on good days getting out of bed is a struggle. As a country we are grieving for a world we may never see again. And as individuals we are grieving for a change in how we do things. I read people talk about the positives of lockdown “birds are singing. Air is cleaner,” it seems to have taken a global pandemic to force us to think about the environment. How we socialise will change. There will for many years be an element of fear at big public events and festivals, while we as a community and country get back on our feet. So while I am working or thinking about how to spend my day, I am also, like many of you ruminating about what is to come. I haven’t treasured more, time spent with friends, picnics in the park or weekends away, than I do now. And I feel a sense of guilt for not valuing them more at the time. In phases of increased anxiety I’ve wished a weekend would be over so I could get home, to feel safe. Now I wish I’d had a chat with the anxiety to ask it not to be so bloody inconsiderate. Life has changed and we are united in that change.
The one thing I have learned during and prior to all of this is to give myself permission for how I feel, and right now, for all of the reasons above, I feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Both mentally and physically. And that, is more than a justified response to our new world.