What is it about the pandemic that has made dealing with an existing mental health issue sometimes feel impossible?
I've been very open about my mental health journey, including spending six months in therapy in 2016, but something about the past year has given my clinically diagnosed anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder a bit of a relapse.
The first 12 months of Covid was fine, but in the past year – or rather, since August 17, 2021 – I've noticed the issues I've successfully managed for years have crept back into my life.
I'm not alone in this. I spoke with psychologist (and fellow Herald columnist) Kyle MacDonald, who said: "Initially I think the exhaustion of having to keep up with all the extra decisions and information was extremely taxing, and required us all to work harder emotionally," which gives some explanation as to why some mental health issues have been harder to manage over recent months.
"Over time I think this, along with the worry and the very real anxiety of late about the rising cases is a chronic grinding sort of stress. It taxes us all, and for people who may have already been working quite hard to cope day-to-day, it's enough to tip people over."
Yet I've had a lot of guilt and shame about experiencing a setback for an issue I thought I was managing.
How does one process these feelings? How do you admit to yourself that you're not coping and you need a new path forward? What additional tools do you add in to cope with guilt and shame atop existing stresses?
"Self-compassion is really important, along with acceptance," advises MacDonald.
"I always warn people that change is a wobbly old road, and it's important to not expect we can get 'cured' and be perfectly emotionally healthy people - because no one is.
"Being accepting is hard when it's something we don't want to accept, but it's vital we find ways to slow down, treat ourselves with patience and kindness and do what works for us."
With this advice, I can look back at the past year now and understand why my struggle has been tough – I've been fighting against myself. I have been trying (and failing) to deal with primary feelings of personal anxiety, as improvements have been made impossible because I've refused to accept my own battle.
In fact, the constant internal conundrum of "Why am I feeling like this? I should be coping; this isn't who I am any more!" has prevented me from having any compassion for myself. Denying your struggle is real increases the mental pain, and prevents you from moving forward.
It's true, we have all suffered emotionally during the pandemic and many are not coping well … but think we should be grateful for not being hospitalised with Covid. I'm not a psychologist, I believe diminishing your own problems as "not as bad as others" is a severe roadblock.
Experiencing a panic attack on the bathroom floor and being unable to get up isn't the same as being in ICU, you're right. But it's all relative, and everyone's experience is justified.
In my experience as an end-user in psychotherapy, "low-grade chronic trauma" – by that I mean, an ongoing painful experience that breaks you down slowly and silently without you noticing it – is what some of us have endured with this pandemic era. Trauma doesn't have to be acute, like a car crash or sexual assault.
The people at home during WWII weren't on the front lines or in immediate danger, but six years of war was traumatic in its own right. You just don't feel it when it becomes your everyday experience – like this pandemic has become or countless famines in the past century.
Yet a slow and consistent loss of control has just as equal a right to be labelled "trauma" as something fast and immediately painful. That feeling of loss of personal control, I believe, is the perfect petri dish for old mental health issues to re-grow.
Prior to engaging in weekly therapy years ago, denying low-grade chronic trauma as "serious" stopped me from getting better. In fact, during that therapy journey, I was initially made to feel by two psychologists that my experience "wasn't that bad" and it was my perspective that needed changing on my past chronic trauma (not dealing with the actual trauma).
This reminds me of how many people have normalised a pandemic so much that they no longer see it as a global natural disaster. But it is. To put it into context other Cantabrians will understand, it's an earthquake that goes on, and on, and on.
It took finding a third practitioner to effectively validate my experience as low-intensity but similarly mentally destructive as a single and powerful event. Only then was I able to openly receive the treatment I was offered, and actually start to make headway.
You may not notice you're in a drought until it's too late, and it certainly doesn't help to have others tell you to be thankful you're not in the Sahara Desert when you still need a drink of water.
I can see now I have repeated my past behaviour during the pandemic and told myself this current experience isn't traumatic enough to warrant a secondary relapse.
With that in mind, here's my advice if you've found yourself not managing with an existing mental health issue you have effectively dealt with in the past: validate your own experience.
Don't wait for someone else to do it for you. It's okay not to be coping any more. I've found admitting that to yourself can be imperative in finding a way out.
WHERE TO GET HELP
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Helpline: 1737
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111