Coming home is a soft landing, a safe place where you can recover from the stresses of life and be safe with the people you love. But when you are not at home in your closest relationships, life can become unbearable.
There’s a mistake we seem to repeat over and over – success, no matter how brilliant, can feel meaningless without the safety of our most important relationships. It is not about where you live, it is all about how you live with the people you love.
There is nothing to judge, because maybe all intimate relationships need to feel the unbearable tension of isolation to remind us of what is important. That loving relationships are places of safety, where we feel that very important sense of being part of each other. In my therapy practice, not a day goes by where I do not hear that the experience of our relationships determines the experience of our life.
When life is busy with things to do, it feels valuable to know there is that intimate space where we know we can land and be whatever we need to be. The value of comfortable silence, or a conversation with a friend that sees us should not be underestimated. A home is nothing without the warmth of relationships; it is the place to be seen for a safe landing.
Today, as Covid-19 spreads, we kick into protective mode and our minds feel very busy and full. Do you also find yourself reflective and distracted, saturated with thoughts and way too vigilant? The signs of trauma are entering our psyches.
There are a few ways to get away from “the crisis in our head” and be “safe on our inside”, simple things we can do that can hopefully shift our crisis mindset, or at least give some peace of mind.
Confront what you feel and think
We find safety in confronting our thoughts and some relief in distraction. If you spend time trying to comfort yourself through only distracting yourself from what you feel, distraction will only give you short and temporary relief. The real relief comes when you mix distraction with confrontation.
In order to get calm, you also need to gently confront what you feel and think. You cannot find comfort in running only, as your comfort zones will stop being comforting over time. To get to a place of calm and safety, you need to know your fears.
Take note of what you feel and think, because you cannot expect to be calm if you avoid what is affecting you. Being calm and grounded starts with acknowledging what is spinning around in your mind.
The energy you spend avoiding what you are going through will increase your stress levels. The process of picking up one thought after another will escalate your stress levels to an overwhelming mess. One of the best ways to contain your anxious thoughts is to write them down. A good time to keep a diary, as your experiences might not only be contained on the pages, but remind you of a significant time in our world.
As you list what is bothering you, you start to see what is relevant and not, and contain your thoughts in one place. Try to not spend time with what you cannot control and focus on what is in your power. To try and control what is not in your control is at the core of increased anxiety, and depression.
When you confront and you connect with it, you also need to step back at times and breathe. Especially if what you see is overwhelming or worrying you constantly. Just as you schedule your day, you need to schedule your emotions around your new realities. One bite at a time, slowly and gently, your thoughts also need boundaries.
Don’t judge your need to avoid and distract yourself from difficult realities. It can provide relief and energy.
Be mindful of your anxiety and depression levels
We all suffer from anxiety or depression or a mix of the two. Despite mental health conditions becoming a visible part of our language to voice what we are going through, we still struggle to talk about it. A world crisis gives you permission to speak about anxiety and depression, like never before. Don’t miss this opportunity for personal growth.
This is not the time to be dishonest with yourself. I come from a family of anxiety “worriers”, and for most of my life I have struggled with my anxieties. They are plural, because they come in different forms.
Anxiety creeps into your mind with circular, repetitive thinking. Your mind picks up some worst-case scenarios, then does some future worrying (about things out of your control), then collects a few unnecessary and irrational fears and turns them into gigantic catastrophes. The nature of anxiety is to collect as many anxieties as possible and grow into general background anxiety that feels vague and undefined. Like a windup toy that has been turned up too many times and stuck in a rut of fight and flight, our general but overwhelming fears alert our minds to go into protective mode.
It is natural instinct to avoid the worst and get to safety, but in the process, we get locked down with our fears.
The person that lives with anxiety does not like to live with uncertainty. Naturally, when we respond to life from a very high level of anxiety, we show our irritable and moody selves. For relationships, it is also the worst place from which to attempt to have a meaningful conversation. It is a good time to be relaxed and reflective and not reactive.
Depression is known for general low energy and mood. Measure the heavy, negative thoughts and the amount of complaining you are doing. Depression gradually sneaks up on you like a thief in the dark and robs you from enjoyment and motivation. As your energy and mood diminish, you might find yourself removed from simple actions like exercise, socialising (even if it’s just a phone call to a friend), and creative pursuits.
One day you might realise that you have stopped doing what you use to enjoy, and for no apparent reason. In therapy, I often hear the description of depression as a person standing on the sidelines of their own life, not being in the stream or flow of what they know their lives are supposed to be. Depression removes us and disconnects us from our true selves.
Dealing with your anxiety and depression at this time is maybe not so much about problem-solving, but rather gentle reflection. Simply watch and measure how your anxiety and depression levels rise, and be accepting, rather than judgmental of yourself and where you are. See how it moves up and down on a scale, and think of ways to bring them down.
One sure way to bring it down is to stop being hard, critical and judgmental. Stop doing what your childhood traumas did to you. There is no need to be hard on yourself for having a tough time, and it feels instantly easier to accept and make friends with your thoughts and feelings. Spend some time with them, greet them and try to make peace with your very real human experiences.
Telling someone to switch his or her thoughts to something more positive, when you feel far removed from yourself is like throwing a little stone into a dark pond: useless advice. But as much as you can dwell in your own sad thoughts, at some point you have to connect with some serious truths. The thoughts you carry do determine the experience of your life. If you are your thoughts, you can make some life-changing decisions. Nobody is going to save you except yourself. You are the authority over your own thoughts; make some serious decisions about what you want to allow to be said in your own head and how, and what should be let go.
If your depression and anxiety are spinning out of control to the point where it feels like emotional torture, get some professional help. Essential mental health services are available for a reason.
When our worst fears are coming true, it can also give you some perspective, a bigger picture that might be insightful and even provide relief. In my experience, we don’t collect lessons in hard times, but rather reflect afterwards.
Maybe the fact that we are all sharing the same experience soothes our thoughts. The irony is that there is nothing like a crisis to force us in time to think about what is really important. Your “old” worries might now feel insignificant in comparison to your existing fears. Threats to your health and longevity will shift your perceptions of life quickly, and rid you of insignificant and wasteful worries. A new perspective that can change you forever can be expected. What you feared before Covid-19, might have shifted into some new and refreshing outlooks on life. Only you can find the calm and meaning in it all.
It is understandable that during a crisis you want to escape and hide, but instead of running, aim at staying connected with yourself and the people you love.
Don’t spend more of your valuable energy on hiding and pretending that you are okay when you are not. The amount of energy you spend on faking it can rather be spent on connecting with a friend or family member. Social isolation invites you to increase your communication and stay close to your people.
In order to find a little sunshine, you need to get honest with yourself and the people who care for you, so that your network of support can kick in. Only share with people you can trust with your emotions, people who will listen and acknowledge your experiences and not give you advice or get defensive.
Tell you best friends how you are doing and don’t close the doors on your support network. They might remind you of your beautiful energy or share stories that remind of your courage: Truths that become words of encouragement during this important time.
Comfort yourself and the people around you
Choose your words carefully in the way you speak to yourself and others, and try to fill your mind with honest, but encouraging words. Find safety on the inside as you fill yourself with calming and soothing messages to yourself and the ones you love. “We will get through it, we are strong and we are in it together”, feels true.
This is a time of courage, where courage is defined by you being the director of your own thoughts. Don’t let your thoughts take over and spoil your daily experiences.
Cultivate a new inner dialogue that consists of words that feel true to the mind and the heart, that encourage you to not give up and push through the discomfort of being outside of your comfort zones. Be mindful of how hard you can be especially if you come from a background, like most of us, where you were criticised, marginalised, rejected and abandoned. Keep an eye on your fears of loss, and stay connected to what is true and not the irrational comments of your anxiety. Let go of your “should and should nots …”, that will only make you feel not good enough. Let us remind each other that we never give up. There is no time for relationship politics and power games, it is a time to be real, kind and very gentle.
Create a daily routine
It has been said that what feels comforting initially doesn’t become comforting over time. You can do only so many days without structure, lounging in your pyjamas, watching TV with a bag of chips.
There is comfort in structure and routine. Structure your days in a way that feels simple and gentle. Don’t fill your days with lots of things to do, but choose two or three things that you know will fill the day positively and with purpose. Get dressed, work and make lunch. Think ahead, plan the next day; there is tremendous safety in having a say and control over how your days unfold.
Find your new happy places at home. Think of the essence of the experiences that give you joy and find creative ways to recreate them from the safety of your home.
As a crisis sometimes instills panic in our minds, and puts our bodies into hyper mode, be reminded that this is a good time to try to slow down. How grounding it is to consciously do things slowly. A gentle reminder that our crazy, rushing lives might make no sense, not any more.
Slowing down is not about doing less, it is about being more consciously present with what you do without the need to rush. You are being kinder to yourself through slowing your thoughts and actions down. To slow down, for example, you take your time in making breakfast. Because you don’t have to sit in the traffic for work, you can think about what you eat and how to make it. Sit at your table for a change to start your day, as you leave behind the disruptions of a rushing mind.
This is a time to follow those baking recipes that you never have time for and be comforted by the smells of a home, even if they are only in our imaginations.
Reflect on your relationships
Being trapped in a relationship that threatens you is not the best relationship to go to battle too. Who needs to be criticised, commented on and mostly misunderstood when life is hard.
When you lose an important loved one, you are reminded of who your best friends are. It is during hard times that you quickly get to the truth. What upsets or irritates you in a partner or a friend might now be a little too much in your face or strangely feel insignificant.
At the same time, be careful to judge your relationship and find problems in each other, and not in your stressful context. What is around us, becomes us and two people trying to have a conversation under stress is an invitation for a fight.
Maybe it is an opportunity to become kind, gentle and respectful and become friends again (or maybe to reflect on how to get divorced).
Reflect on what is changing in you
What else will change? What is changing in us?
Do not be surprised if you rethink the way you use your time and find new ideas on how to live. When you have been hit by a crisis, especially one you did not ask for, it often shifts how you see parts of your life in new ways, like time. Where do you waste time? How do you use time? Be reminded of the important lessons of this moment, when soon you might miss going to work or going out with your friends and family. ML
Stefan Blom is a clinical psychologist who specialises in relationships. He lives and works in Cape Town and is the author of The Truth About Relationships (translated into Afrikaans and Romanian) published by Human & Rousseau. He says: “Thank you to everyone that shared your crisis and losses over the last 22 years. Your stories of courage and determination, is at the heart of this one.”
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