Friday, 27 March 2020

We Need To Look After Ourselves

Good afternoon.

These are strange times. Over the past few weeks life has changed dramatically. Suddenly thousands or millions are finding ourselves out of work, and the Government is saying they will ban evictions, and pay some or all of our wages, for some of us at least. We're being told not to travel, to stay two metres away from others at all times (hello, dystopia!) and above all, never to go outside.

The mere act of being able to stand outside is one of the few things that can help keep writers sane ordinarily, in a life that usually involves spending a lot of time inside our own minds.

A lot of my writer-friends on that Virtual Writers' Staffroom, Twitter, have shared that they are finding it hard to write or concentrate at the moment. I have found this too, and I've made a few changes to my own routine that have helped massively in reducing anxiety and worry, so I'm going to share those in the hopes that they will help you too.

Switch off all notifications on your news apps 
This was the first thing I did, and it made a huge difference. If something bad happens, I don't find out about it straight away, in real-time. It waits until the main news at 6 o'clock, or maybe never. In fact, I've reduced my news consumption generally. I let myself look at the news once a day, at teatime, which I watch for half an hour on telly, and then switch it for something fun or funny, usually Seinfeld.

Delete Twitter app off your phone
It will reduce the amount of time you spend mindlessly scrolling and looking at dire things. Even if you kid yourself you're keeping yourself sane by looking at cute and funny videos, all those things are mixed in with news stories, unhelpful speculation, incorrect information or nonsense, and Bad Things. Just delete it already. I promise it'll make you feel better. I look at Twitter once or twice a day now, for five minutes, on the desktop computer. Usually turns out I haven't missed anything important.

Put phone in a drawer or something so you're not looking at it first thing in a morning
Seeing bad news first thing has a way of starting the day off on a bad footing. Before you know it, you're scrolling down onto other, similar bad stories, googling "can you catch Coronavirus over Zoom?" or second-guessing yourself to see whether that slight headache you've got, which you probably got by looking at your phone too much, is an early Coronavirus symptom.

Just put your phone in a drawer - or better yet, switch it off or better even, smash it with a hammer (JOKING) and don't look at it until you've done your work for the day. I promise it'll make you feel better.

If your workplace say that you need to have your phone switched on, I suggest putting the volume up, then putting your work mobile in a place where you can't easily see it or reach it, but where you can still hear it if it goes off. If you can get away with switching it off entirely though, I recommend doing that.

Do something mindful 
Anxiety has a way of spiralling. It tricks our brains into thinking that things are going to get worse and worse and worse, and never better. I know we all have real, pressing concerns at the moment, from losing our income to being worried about paying the rent, to worrying about how our elderly or vulnerable relatives can manage. All legit things to worry about. However, worrying about problems does not fix them. Worrying is like riding a rocking horse: it gives you something to do, but it doesn't get you anywhere.

How do you stop worrying? Well it's tricky, but one thing that has helped me massively is a mindful approach. Mindfulness is basically a technique that encourages you to pay attention to the things around you. It essentially encourages you to immerse yourself in the things you are currently experiencing, to take yourself out of that state of worrying.

There are lots of different things you can do to be mindful. You can watch the birds from your window. You can pet your cat. You can fingerpaint with your kids. You can do a jigsaw or read a book. (if you're finding it hard to concentrate, I suggest starting with something small and unchallenging, like short stories, or a book that you already know and love.) Obviously we can't all be mindful all day every day, but it's definitely a useful thing to do a couple of times a day, to remind yourself that there are real and beautiful things in the world, and to get your brain out of the spiral of catastrophising that tends to happen when you're anxious. I've been doing it several times a day recently and it has helped loads.

The goal is always to get your brain to think about something other than the thing you're worrying about, whether that's how soft your cat's fur is, or how funny birds look when they hop along a fence, or whatever.

Seek out things that are fun, or funny, or comforting
Seek out comforting or funny books and TV shows. Now is the time to rewatch all of Friends, or Brooklyn 99, or to re-read Bridget Jones' Diary. Watch or read whatever undemanding nonsense you like. We're all on lockdown, so whatever you choose to watch is between you and your Netflix subscription. Nobody's ever going to find out, so you might as well.

Try to have a bit of routine in your day 
Having your routine disrupted is in itself destabilising, but the good news is that developing a new routine, whatever that may be, can help. It will give structure to your day.

Mine's easy, because I've only really got myself and the husband to think about, and he can look after himself. Because I'm currently on furlough from my day job, I don't really have to think about working either. My routine is essentially: 8am, get up, get dressed, eat breakfast whilst watching Homes Under The Hammer. 9am, go to desk, work. 12pm, lunch. 2pm, relocate to another area in the house to watch a different episode of Homes Under The Hammer, or to finish the one I started watching that morning.

However, if you're not in my position, and you're currently homeschooling your kids and trying to work at the same time, my advice is probably just try not to kill anyone, and try not to start drinking too early. I'm very sorry that I can't be any more helpful than that in this blog post.

Spot positive things, and enjoy them Yes, there have been plenty of wankers. We've seen people stockpiling hand sanitiser and selling it on for £30 a bottle. We've seen billionaire bosses making their staff either take unpaid leave, or worse still, continue to come into work in non-essential industries. The flipside of that is the amazing community spirit that many have shown. A neighbour of mine in her 70s has told me she's had so many notes through the door offering to help that she could almost light a fire with them. Thousands have signed up to be volunteer helpers getting food and medicine to the elderly and vulnerable. We are showing the best of ourselves as a society in this crisis.

Look to the future hopefully 
"That's easy for you to say!" you're shouting at your computer. (see, I'm psychic as well as annoying.) "If I have to spend another 11 weeks in isolation I might just kill somebody!"

One thing that has kept me going is to keep reminding myself that this is not forever, that one day it's going to come to an end.

The world may well have changed dramatically, and maybe that's for the good. Whatever else about lockdown is driving you / me/ us mad, one thing it has going for it is that it's extremely low-carbon. We're not travelling to work, very few people are flying, and lots of us are sourcing groceries within our local area. Lots of us are trying to grow our own veg (spoiler alert: any veg you plant now won't be ready for months!) and some of you might even have had a few disastrous attempts at baking bread. I can tell you there are a few underbaked, misshapen loaves in my own immediate future. If nothing else, we'll all come out of this more connected, very grateful to our essential workers such as nurses and teachers, and maybe with a few new skills as well.

Either way, I've got a projected end date for our current lockdown lifestyle marked in my diary, mid June, and I'm looking forward to it. I've started planning what I'll do when it ends: go to my favourite local beauty spot, have coffee in my local cafe, go on holiday to Northern Ireland and Donegal. I can't wait to see my nephews and nieces again in real life and to throw my parents their rescheduled Golden Wedding anniversary party. What a joy it will be to enjoy simple things like going for a pint, or giving a dear friend a hi-five or a hug. There are so many things I've been taking for granted and I can't wait to be able to do them all again.

Whatever you're waiting to do, remind yourself of it. Do whatever you need to do: list it, write it in a diary or calendar, make a mood board if you're a mood-boardy kind of person. Give yourself something to look forward to because one thing's for sure, one day all of this will be over, and when that day comes we will all be pale, we will all have very strange hair, but we will all at least be smiling.