Photo Credit: Tom Mossholder, Unsplash
As the lockdown period looks set to run potentially into several weeks or months, I have noticed messages beginning to appear on LinkedIn and wider social media from those who are starting to struggle with the general uncertainty and isolation, and having their freedom of movement restricted. There is already a lot of advice out there from medical professionals, psychologists, and mental health and well-being experts. I am about to add to that.
Reading all this advice prompted me to reflect on how I was feeling about the lockdown, concluding very quickly that I was fine. I swiftly worked out that this is, in fact, the fourth time I have lived for an indeterminate period of time with my freedom of movement curtailed, from mildly inconvenient to severe. I have quickly drawn on what I remember from those times: to be resilient during the current conditions in which we are all compelled to live. To give you an idea of how I have built up my resilience, here is a quick summary of previous lockdowns I have experienced:
Thailand, May – June 2014: A military curfew was introduced from 10pm to 5am every day following the Thai military taking control of government in a bloodless coup d’état. This came after months of political and civil unrest and proved only a mild inconvenience to my daily life: no late-night beers or travel.
Afghanistan, April – May 2005: United Nations increased the security state to maximum level, referred to as “White City”, permitting only travel to and from work, and weekly visits to a designated grocery store or designated secure places. This lockdown was not fun: an extract from my concluding friends and family weekly “Afghani-gram” email in the reference section validates this.
Bosnia, March – June 1999: When NATO increased its “Force Protection” state to maximum during the neighbouring Kosovo conflict, personnel movement was strictly limited. I had my previously cherished ‘walk-alone’ privileges revoked and, for the first time ever, I had to carry a weapon. No press centre BBQs or beers with journalists: I was far too busy anyway.
As I reflect on these times and how I came out sane and stronger, here is my take on getting through lockdown:
Routine and rhythm: Routine and rhythm give most people a sense of comfort, control and normality. This has always been my mantra and it is what kept me going in Bosnia. When that routine is thrown into chaos, it can trigger anxiety, so it is important to re-establish control.
It soon becomes the new (temporary) ‘normal’: an important mindset to establish. Routines should be full and could involve the simplest things: set times to consume news, spending time on meal preparation, volunteering, work tasks, family life, cleaning – or whatever gives you a sense of purpose, comfort and being in control. Instead of train times and client appointments, my new adjusted daily routine revolves around two fixed anchors: low tide, when I take my one-hour exercise, and 12.30pm, when I check in on my elderly neighbour. Weekly routines include virtual Girl Guide meetings on Thursday evenings and three sets of Zoom drinks on Fridays.
Stay connected: The biggest changes I have experienced during this lockdown are all positives: social media and internet voice/video-calling options other than Skype. I cannot underscore how much difference this makes. As a social species, this is a very obvious observation, and one shared by doctors, psychologists and mental health experts: we need to feel connected.
This is validated as we Zoom and pick up the phone to speak to people we care about or are worried about, even if we have not heard from them for years. I recently connected again with a US friend after five years. Conversely, if you are struggling, pick up the phone and speak to someone who knows and understands you. Or if you want to keep it anonymous, workplaces, professional organisations and charities have set up special helplines. It’s the one time in life not to go it alone: use conversations and technology to alleviate the physical isolation.
Recovery: In crisis management, it is never too early to plan for post-crisis. Following the initial shock of the spread of the disease and the necessary adjustment to lockdown measures, it’s important to consider the future at the same time as dealing with our day-to-day lockdown lives.
There is no doubt our post-COVID-19 lives will be very different on so many levels. Thinking about an undefined future can cause anxiety and be overwhelming. After Bosnia and Afghanistan, I didn’t have a job, but it didn’t stop me doing something about it before leaving, despite the challenging conditions I was living and working in. Right now, the future is full of uncertainties: when the virus spread will stop; how and when the global economy will recover; how lives and businesses will change; and how we will adjust to the reality of this insecurity.
Taking a proactive stance, however, enables us to maintain a semblance of control. It is a problem we all need to solve: identify the issues and map out all recovery options, however stark they may be. It will help to alleviate any anxiety and to adjust gradually to how the future may look.
And finally …
Health and self-discipline: During this crisis, the two things you can control are your mind and body. Both have a direct impact on the direction of personal travel. During the most stressful periods in past lockdowns, I found myself applying a lot more self-discipline to maintain good physical and mental health. The challenge is to balance staying at home for our physical health whilst addressing the needs of our mental health during this period of 'confinement'.
This was significantly challenging when I was working 18-hour+ days during previous lockdowns. However, during those periods, if things were getting on top of me, I gave myself a ‘moment’ to consider all the negative and positive things going on, and to recalibrate my mind. It is all too easy to let the situation and/or circumstances overwhelm you. Today it has a name: mindfulness.
Activities that allow creativity or a sense of purpose are another way to help with this. What doesn’t help is slipping into bad eating and drinking habits. Keep the treats for the weekend and incorporate them into your routine. Above all, proactively look after yourself and those in your immediate household.
There is no playbook to being cooped up at home, but the best way to get through it is to focus on the things you can still control. When that shows signs of strain, ask for help.
Later this week my guest blogger, Nigel Lester, will be writing about building resilience in leadership roles during times of uncertainty: a time of intense pressure.
References and useful links:
Summary of what happened during UN ‘White City’ lockdown in Kabul, April – June 2005
- 24 April – Car bomb exploded two blocks from my guest house (no casualties)
- 28 April – Shoot-out outside Ministry of Interior
- 2 May – Had to duck automatic gunfire hitting our vehicle as it passed a police shoot out - two killed a few feet from us
- 3 May – Woken by two earth tremors measuring 3.6 and 4.1
- 5 May - Applied for first of many jobs
- 7 May – UN Offices and guest house in Jalalabad burnt down during rioting (14 dead): UN staff evacuated.
- 8 May – UN worker one of two killed in Kabul internet cafe suicide bomb
- 14 May – two rockets fired on city, although this was denied by authorities
- 16 May – Italian aid worker kidnapped
- 22 May – Warning issued for threat of suicide bomb attacks against internationals in Kabul as a “kill an international” campaign was launched
- 30 May – Our escort jeep engine burst into flames in the middle of Kabul rush-hour, leaving us sitting ducks
- 9 June – Italian Aid worker released unharmed
- 13 June – Cholera outbreak confirmed in Kabul
Other people’s experiences of self-isolation:
Three interviews, including former hostage Terry Waite, who was incarcerated for almost five years during the Lebanon civil war: https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/
Coronavirus: Submarine captain Ryan Ramsey’s advice on social isolation:
A former hostage, a sufferer of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and an astronaut: https://www.1843magazine.com/people/notes-on-isolation-from-those-who-know-it-well
NHS “Every mind matters” website offers advice and tips on mental health wellbeing:
Time to Change charity providing tips and advice during the COVID-19 crisis, including a guide to various charities offering helplines: