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  • Writer's pictureDr Martine Prunty

Coping with Hopelessness

Well everyone, it’s Groundhog Day. Again. Day 3 347 489. Or at least it feels like it. I’m sure I am not the only one that is losing their resolve. I’m pretty sure that, for the most part, we began our “two week snap lockdown” with optimism and a naïve assumption that this would be all that was needed to contain the new outbreak. But with each block of weeks added periodically to the lockdown, as each goal post was moved, I’ve noticed a significant drop in morale in my own community that I am assuming has happened in most of Sydney. Us Psychologists call it Learned Helplessness. What’s that you say? It’s a condition that happens where people develop a sense of powerlessness after they continually fail to succeed.

Learned helplessness in a lockdown that goes on, seemingly indefinitely, makes perfect sense. After all, most of us are doing the right thing. And yet, each day the 11am presser brings a sense of foreboding as the new case numbers continue to travel consistently in the wrong direction. It’s no wonder we are feeling down. Learned helplessness can be a precursor to depression sometimes, so it’s important to recognise when this feeling has crept up on us, so we can take some steps to stop it turning into something more serious.

Firstly, please know that this feeling of being powerlessness and that anything you’re doing doesn’t seem to be helping is normal. It’s a crappy feeling. It’s unpleasant and we can’t do anything to make it stop straight away. But you can do things that make it feel “less worse”.

The first thing is to try and have some structure in your day. Get up at a time you would on any other non-lockdown day. And make your bed! Seems benign, right? Well. Actually making your bed is the first “tick” on your list of achievements for the day. It is a way of telling yourself that small things matter, and the environment that you spend your time (A LOT OF TIME) in can have an affect on the way you see yourself and your mood. No one feels good when they know they’ve been living like a sloth. Get dressed too, it’s important! And for anyone with children, for the love of God, MAKE THEM BRUSH THEIR TEETH! These are all seemingly small things, but when personal hygiene goes, it’s a slippery slope to depression.

Make sure you get outside every day, if possible twice. Not only is Vitamin D important for your bones, muscles and overall health, but being exposed to the sunlight helps maintain your circadian rhythm. So you will sleep better. It is also good for mental and physical health, and so important during this time to help with feelings of boredom, stress and feeling “trapped” inside.

Exercise, especially right now, is crucial. Your own fitness level will determine what kind of exercise will be suited to you. For those who are missing the gym or other structured forms of exercise, where are a great many apps you can download for inspiration. Your Personal Trainer is likely offering 1:1 PT in a local park, so get in touch if you can. But for those who hate exercise, just get outside and pound that pavement with some walking. Use a step tracker and set a low goal that you’re confident you’ll meet (if it’s too high and you don’t meet it, it will just bring on that old Learned Helplessness again so small, manageable goals are important right now). When you hear that predictable voice telling you it’s cold, or you’re worried you’ll catch a virus, or you’re just not up to it today, or you’ll start tomorrow – listen up! Recognise these as excuses your mind gives you, that trick you into not exercising. You might feel some short term relief that you don’t need to start today, but what happens in the long term? It reinforces your belief that you can’t exercise, you’re not a fit person and…hello again learned helplessness. Remember: no one has ever regretted a Parker and his research team have further identified some additional symptoms and these are:

1. Impaired cognition like attention/memory problems and brain fog

2. Feeling anxious and/or depressed

3. Irritability and anger

4. Sleep disturbance, whether it be too much or too little

I’m sure a great many of us are exhausted by the thought of endless weeks of lockdown. I’m sure we feel overwhelmed that we have to manage our children’s schooling remotely whilst staying on top of our jobs and daily tasks as well. I have no doubt that it has affected our cognitive skills – who else is having trouble concentrating on remote learning tasks and then running into problems trying to teach that to our kids? I personally don’t recall the grades of 5, 3 and 1 being so difficult! As for cynicism – I am going to raise my hand on this one, reach for the stars and admit I have become a first-class “glass half empty” person in the current climate. There is no glass. And who could blame me (or you)? Things aren’t exactly looking promising that we will be “allowed out” any time soon, so it’s perfectly natural to have a sense of hopelessness about the next few months at least. When we feel this way it’s also common for us to have sleeping problems – some people may be sleeping way too much, and some not enough. I’m in the second camp. I get into bed and read until the book falls on my face, but then when I try to sleep PING! Eyes open. Where did my drowsiness go? Naturally then I am irritable in the morning and way more impatient with my children than I would like to be.

Ok, so to recap:

We need to keep a structure, we need to stay hygienic, we need to get outside and we need to get moving. Tick, tick, tick and tick.

One final thing. We are humans and because of that, we are primed to need social interaction. I don’t know about you, but just spending time with my immediate family is not particularly satisfying right now. I need other social outlets to boost my mood and for me, that’s my friends. Friends are like a big gulp of fresh air, so that I can then bunker down back inside homeschooling my kids, and making them eleventy thousand more snacks. So how do I do that? You could phone a friend and have a chat, but if there is someone who lives locally to you, meet them for a walk! That way you’re ticking your “get outside”, exercise and social goal all in one go! Boom!

Look after yourselves, everyone. There are a lot of things we cannot control right now, and it’s anxiety provoking for all of us. But don’t lose sight of the things that are in your control. It’s important. And you are important.

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