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Coping with Covid: my report card says “Could do better”

What have we learned from the last lockdown? Does having a job and being an introvert make it any easier?

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As I put my head back under the pillow this morning and tried not to think about the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic, I did wonder if hiding away really was the right thing to do.

I’m lucky. I have a job - one that I can do from home. I can afford to pay for my groceries and all my  bills. I am an introvert and don’t mind long periods of not seeing my friends and family. I don’t have small children. I have some hobbies that can be done at home, and I have a rich library of happy memories to call on when I need them. I also have decent wifi.

So what’s my problem then?

Early in 2020 I began to scroll my phone obsessively for any news of Covid. Did you do it too? “Doomscrolling” is the term that was coined for it. I guess if there’s a word for it then I’m not the only one doing it! Back then I read everything I could find, I knew the pandemic figures from all over the world (thanks to the Johns Hopkins University website) and I listened to every news bulletin and podcast available. I even tried to keep up to date with all the swirling misinformation that threatened (and is still threatening) our attempts to get the pandemic under control.

After a while my obsession eased, along with case numbers. For a little while it felt like the crisis might be over.

Now, of course my problem is back with vengeance. Here we are again, in the midst of a new wave of infection and the situation is getting worse! Yes, we have the vaccine now, but we also have lots of community members who can’t or don’t want to have it. Not only that, it seems that many of our community members are not prepared to accept that, until we are sure we have enough people vaccinated and we are done with new variants, we still need to conform to behavioural recommendations such as wearing masks and social distancing. I’m worried about the lethality and long-term morbidity of the virus and I’m also very worried about the attitudes of my fellow human beings.

I read somewhere that the thing to do when obsessed by worrying thoughts, is to make sure you spend an absolute maximum of 50% of your time thinking them. Is that good advice? Is it even possible? Try it for yourself. If you are a health professional worried about the implications of the pandemic and talking to people about it day in day out, less than 50% might prove very difficult. If you are someone with a big social media habit, then 50% might actually be impossible.

Worry time” limitations are not really working for me this time around. Intrusive Covid conversations with family, friends and patients keep interfering with my resolve to keep the subject in check. Regular news bulletins remain a problem. I’m still trying though.

Aerobic exercise might help, if I could bring myself to do any. I know (from the literature 😊) that exercise helps with overall psychological wellbeing, but does it work to stop you from thinking thoughts that you don’t want to think? I don’t think I can exercise hard enough for that to happen! Walking with a novel in my ears is helpful but I often need go back a few pages in the audiobook, when I realise that I’ve stopped listening. I know getting out into nature can be useful too, but I live in an apartment and in lockdown the best I can do is sit on my balcony or take a walk along the river. Oh, for a trip to the beach or a long bushwalk!

I’m trying

Distraction is working. I am currently knitting a complex pattern and writing the chapters of a novel in my head as I knit. That’s about the level of cognitive engagement I need to stop the pandemic intrusions. My colleague Guy Gordon is right as well – loud music helps, especially if I sing along. Can you picture me? I’m sitting on the floor in a patch of sunshine, just inside the balcony doors, knitting a 4-colour fair isle jumper. I have to stop occasionally to write down a particularly exciting plot point or phrase that comes to mind. There is loud music playing and, every now and again, I burst into song. Just when I think I’ve got it under control the music stops, the news comes on and I’m off again thinking about things I don’t want to think about.

But I reckon if this goes on for much longer, I’m going to get good at it. My knitting skills will improve and the novel I’ve been trying to write for a couple of decades might get written!

Maybe I won’t go back to bed after all.

More about coping with Covid:

There is a lot of advice online about ways to cope with lockdown and the pandemic generally. Why not try the resources on the Black Dog Institute website as a starting point.

You might also like to look at the Working Towards Wellbeing videos we’ve made to help you learn and teach some CBT-based self-management skills.

 

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Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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