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The Groundhog Day is real, so here’s how you can break out of it

Maintaining mental wellbeing in lockdown can be difficult. You’re cranky, you’re tired and you’re frustrated. We get it … because we feel it too.  So, we’re turning to the experts for advice.

Sabrina Read is a psychologist and speaker on many topics including mental health, relationships, and career development. Thanks to our friends at SEEK, we got to ask her everything we wanted to know about why we’re feeling this way, how we can improve our mental wellbeing, and how we can support our team and loved ones.

So many of us are feeling anxious at the moment. Can we talk about how it is a very valid and normal feeling and why?

Every emotion has its place. And we only do ourselves, and each other, a disservice when we judge or rank some feelings as positive and others as negative; or when we repeatedly negate, ignore, or avoid emotions because they feel uncomfortable or intolerable.  Feelings are nothing more and nothing less than an invitation to explore, think or act in different ways and they serve as a signpost to what needs our attention. As the world continues to turn in unexpected ways, it makes sense many of us are feeling worried, overwhelmed, and concerned. However, there is a difference between worrying in response to uncertainty, fears, and change versus experiencing an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a hard-wired reaction to perceived threats that has kept our species alive for centuries; and can indicate we need to choose a different response, rethink the event that is triggering us, or upskill and add to our coping tool kit in some way. On the other hand, clinical levels of anxiety impede our daily functioning, preventing us from living as we would like in the domains of work, relationships or with fundamental building blocks of wellbeing like sleep. Sharing how we are feeling, in genuine and honest ways, not only helps the person expressing their fears, but reveals a vulnerability that invites the listener to do the same. When we express our worries about the state of the world, we help to normalise universal human fear. And often this helps to alleviate our sense of being alone and dial up our much-needed desire for belonging, acceptance, and hope; even during tough times, and global pandemics!

What are some of the first signs that show we or someone we work with might be struggling?

Struggling makes sense right now. Look for tangible changes in behaviour to indicate there may be bigger issue, rather than seeking to analyse, interpret or diagnose self or others. Perhaps you or someone you are concerned about is being less punctual, less engaged, more withdrawn, more teary, less tolerant, drinking more, or sleeping less? One of the best ways to work out if there is cause for concern is to use typical behaviour as a baseline so we are comparing ourselves with ourselves, rather than ourselves with others.

How can you tell if you’re just having a down day or if it’s something more serious? What are some of the signs that you should seek professional help?

The severity and frequency of difficult thoughts, feelings and behaviour tell us a lot. A down day can feel overwhelming, but as a new day dawns, the heaviness, struggle, or suffering has typically shifted, even if it’s a small incremental shift in a positive direction. The situation may require professional help or at least further attention and investigation when the severity or frequency of thoughts, feelings and behaviour are more prolonged and impact basic day to day activities and experiences including pleasure, relationships, engagement, meaning and achievements.

For a lot of us (particularly those in Melbourne in Sydney) it feels like ‘groundhog day’ when we wake up each day. What are some easy mood boosters we can do to fill our cups and look after our mental wellbeing?

Rather than look to the magical holy grail of wellbeing solutions somewhere “out there”, look to your own history instead. What activities, thoughts, behaviours, and people have helped lift your mood or sooth your pain during tough times in the past? When in lockdown we can’t necessarily duplicate Pilates in a studio, dinner in a restaurant with friends, seeing live music, or enjoying overseas travel; this line of inquiry helps identify what tools and strategies have filled up your cup in the past which is an invitation to explore modified options that are feasible now. Pilates online? Cooking new dishes? Walking with friends? Dancing with the kids or downloading new music? Exploring your own 5km radius through the eyes of a child? Modified options may not meet all your wellbeing needs but at least they will align with what you know of your own needs. And don’t estimate the power of small changes creating meaningful ripples. Listening to Beyonce when you wash the dishes may not change the world, but it can give you a temporary boost that doom scrolling won’t! I even know one woman who (humorously) treats unloading the dishwasher like an Olympic sport trying to better her times and efficiency each time.

How can we look after the people around us? If we’re worried about someone, what are some things we can do given so many of us can’t see each other in person. And what can we do beyond checking in and saying, ‘thinking of you’?

Firstly, mention any observable changes you’ve noticed to show you care while leaving any judgment at the door. Then check in while parking the need to offer solutions or answers and instead – listen. Listen with a view to understand what the other person is feeling, rather than hearing it as a personal attack or invitation to solve their worries. Help to facilitate next steps while always acknowledging that the person you care about likely has some good coping tools in their kit that they may have temporarily lost or forgotten.

A lot of us are spending our days on back-to-back calls. Do you have any advice on dealing with Zoom fatigue?

There’s no magic bullet but taking breaks and implementing boundaries is key. Take breaks between zooms and don’t apologise for mixing things up by standing, sitting, or trying other postures to give your body a rest. Swap some zooms for walking phone meetings to stretch your legs and allow your eyes to adjust to middle- and long-distance views instead of a screen; and invite others to do the same. New research also suggests that turning cameras off reduces exhaustion and boosts engagement; and can promote attention and prevent burnout. Just like in the good old-fashioned days when face-to-face contact was the norm, too many of us attend meetings without having clear objectives of desired outcomes. Create boundaries and dial up engagement and productivity by only attending zooms that align to your role, function, and goals. And lastly, don’t assume meetings need to go for 30 or 60 minutes. There aren’t any rules that say a 15 minute pow wow can’t meet our needs if we articulate what purpose we want the meeting to serve. Treat your time as a precious commodity or “like a CEO does!” Because at the end of the day, we are all gifted with the same number of hours in the day, and how we choose to use them impacts how we feel and turn up in the world.

Do you have any advice for leaders who are doing their best to remain upbeat and supportive of their teams, while carrying a huge mental load of keeping a business afloat?

Sometimes the greatest gift a leader can offer is being vulnerable and sharing that they are finding things tough too. If a team sees the boss as invincible and always upbeat, they can feel the pressure to follow suit, which has the potential to set up an inauthentic dynamic, and unhelpful expectations. Most of us have enough demands relating to our actual role without taking on added demands of pretending to be someone we are not. Sometimes it’s OK to dial down positivity and perfectionism for a good dose of reality, listening and empathy. Aim for realistic optimism over unrealistic rainbows and unicorns or, at the other extreme, pessimism and doom and gloom. Neither extreme is helpful, yet realistic optimism combines a positive attitude with an honest assessment of the current challenges and pain points for individuals and the collective.

There’s a lot of parents and carers in the Business Chicks community who are worried about the mental health of their kids and teens. What are the signs they should look for, and how can we support their wellbeing during such a hard time?

As with adults, it’s useful to observe any differences in our children’s behaviour from their usual ways of being including displaying more withdrawal, tears, or anger; noting that anger is often expressed in young people when they are actually depressed. In younger children, regression (behaviour from younger years) can also be a sign for concern. Examples may be unexpected toileting accidents, increased dependence, disrupted sleep or language regression. In older children and teens, changes in basic functioning including maintaining friendships, too much or too little sleep, and a disengagement in learning, may also be worth exploring further. As a parent, let go of the pressure to be a mental health expert, but don’t underestimate your knowing and intuition as someone that knows their young person well! If your child is anxious, avoid reassuring them continually which can inadvertently cement the idea there is actually something to fear. And in the case of more depressive symptoms, understand that being told to pep up or turn that frown upside down is not helpful. If telling someone to stop worrying or stop being down was effective, your young person would have already tried that! I like asking the simple, yet powerful question “what’s the hardest thing about being you right now?” A question like this is direct, but when asked with empathy and curiosity can illicit an honest insight into what your young person is finding most difficult. Instead of lecturing, diagnosing, or attempting to solve and fix, view your child or teen as a collaborative problem solver with their own sense of agency. Your greatest gift may be to provide support and hope at a time when your child is low on these, and if necessary, help facilitate next steps to finding professional help including from your GP or a psychologist.

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