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Boy, this lockdown thing can be stressful!




29.04.20 – Darrell Priestley

So, how well do you think you are handling things?

What we are experiencing now is developing into much more of a marathon than a sprint. When lockdown began, we could tell ourselves that it would be just a few weeks, that we could get through it. I suppose we will get through it, but how, and in what shape? And at what cost to ourselves? Even if you are happy, there is simply so much stress from so many sources. Stress is insidious, and it wears away at you.

There are many reasons for me to be happy right now. My family are well, if temporarily remote, but we are constantly in touch. I am keeping up with good friends, and they too are ok, and handling things well overall. Most of my students are now having lessons online, and it feels incredibly good to see them each week, a reminder to me just how valuable such relationships are.

But still, this stress. I have it now, and as an underlying feeling in my chest almost all of the time. And this is normal now, with many people feeling just the same. From all sides, we have concerns. Work is an obvious one, and finances with it. Future health prospects represent another, and not only due to the virus. Many conditions are going without timely treatment, as routine treatments and elective surgery have taken a big hit, and it is reported that it may take several years for the health service to get back to where it was before the outbreak, when waiting times for many procedures were already lengthy.

What about our childrens’ education? How will they cope, and will it affect their development? And then there is the concern that year ten children in particular may feel the impact on their GCSEs next year; would that have any long term impact on their prospects? Speaking with the children I now teach online, a picture is emerging of wide differences in their school’s approach. Most children appear not to have had any direct online contact with thier teachers, though some schools are proactively staying in contact to monitor children’s progress each week. Others find they are expected to pick up work from a school portal, but there are big variations in the volume of work set, and where there may be any lack of good coordination between teaching staff there is the danger that, though well intentioned, the volume of work set could in some cases be overwhelming. Any projects, after all, must be fitted into already stressed lives, and being overworked is as bad as being underworked.

Although working at home, a problem I have, which I think is very common, is a difficulty in switching off. Because I am now at home, the distinction between work and the rest of my life is becoming ever more blurred, which means I’m finding it hard to put the computer down and let go, which somehow seems to build tension. Even just to relax and watch a 45 minute TV programme can be difficult to do, and we achieve this surprisingly little. Another bad habit is working late into the evening, now that in theory we work in the day time only. Stopping work altogether in time for the evening meal is a very good idea, but one that is hard for me to pull off in practice. I put this down to a combination of relief, guilt and fear; relief that miraculously my work can continue, guilt at the thought that I might ever not pull my weight, and fear that if I slack off at all the whole thing might collapse. I am quite sure that some combination of this toxic mix of motivators is driving many others, just like me.

A further source of stress for most of the people I speak with is shopping. Hours a week can be spent just trying to book a home delivery with one of the supermarkets, while the thought of going out and successfully maintaining a social distance for the entire time winds us up, even before you start to think about all those contact points like doors and trolleys, etc.

Besides all this, the future looks different, but what no-one really knows is, different how? Coming out of isolation, how will our mental health stand up? What will our working lives look like, will our family’s health prospects have changed, what changes will there be to holidays, to travel, to cafes, bars, hotels and such? That is an awful lot of unknown for us to handle.

Faced with all of this, it pays to have something that you can be sure of. Many people have told me that what helps them get through this is routine. That can be a routine you didn’t have previously, but routine helps to define our days. Reading hour is something we have tried, and though we rarely manage a whole hour it has become a time of relaxation and lighter hearts. I take an entire day off during the week, the only permitted work related activity being this blog, and while I love my work find this helps so much in coping with stress. Physical exercise is really helpful, especially if it makes you a little out of breath; I’ve not been managing this much lately, and feel worse for that – must try to fit it in. Any activity that engages the mind, and takes you away for a while, can be very beneficial, and could include crafts, gardening, journaling such as keeping a diary, and of course playing music.

I know I am not alone in feeling stress during these uncertain times, but it is important to try to build a strategy for coping, to help us find a way through it all that will deliver us safe on the other side of lockdown. I was especially encouraged recently when the parents of a student I used to teach contacted me, sharing their thoughts and concerns, and how they were dealing with things. Subsequently I have had an email converstaion with their daughter, now a scientist, at whose wedding I played organ and piano last year. She and her research scientist husband seem to be making a reasonable success of life during lockdown, taking up regular reading (and loving it), and going for regular walks. It is really encouraging to know that people can adopt new habits to help protect themselves and endure these difficult times.

Another thing to take strength from is appreciation of others. Look around you at society, and people in general are developing a deeper appreciation for the each other, for one another’s work, and for the contribution that other people make to our lives. Perhaps we were too busy to see this before, but it is a wlecome change now. I hope that in a post lockdown future this warmth will remain, and that we will acknowledge other people more than ever – it would surely lead to a happier world if we do.

Thinking of you all at this difficult time.

Darrell Priestley