Long read: Expert advice on how to cope during lockdown
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By Charlotte Grainger
You wake up to find your freedom has been taken away. You can no longer leave your home as you please. Instead, the government outlines specific instances when you’re allowed out on the streets. You’re locked in. To add insult to injury, your income stream is becoming worryingly unstable.
This is the reality faced by freelancers all around the country and the globe. If you’re feeling mentally foggy, anxious or struggling with depressive symptoms, you’re not alone. This gargantuan change has affected us all. So, what’s the cause and how can we move forward?
How lockdown mentally impacts freelancers
First things first, let’s talk about what’s caused this mental shift. The sudden impact of self-isolation has transformed everyone’s work lives. However, as Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing for Mind explains, the self-employed may be hit the hardest. “Commonly cited causes of stress and poor mental health at work include long working hours, excessive workload and lack of support from managers and other colleagues”, Mamo says. “These are all factors that we hear are often problematic at the best of times, let alone during the current situation, with the huge disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak likely to be disproportionately impacting freelancers.
“In addition, the well-being initiatives often readily made available by employers to their staff — such as access to counselling through Employee Assistance Programmes, subsidised exercise classes and gym membership and flexible working hours — aren’t necessarily available to freelance staff. That’s why, now more than ever, it’s important everyone takes steps to promote their own mental health, as well as looking out for others.”
The reason you feel less productive
Aside from experiencing higher stress levels, you may be seeing a dip in productivity. It’s a dangerous combination. Natasha Page, a self-employed counsellor and psychotherapist, and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy elaborates on the direct impact stress can have on both your creativity and output:
“There’s a part in the brain called the amygdala that plays a central role in our anxiety response. When that is happening, it can lead to us not being as productive and not thinking as clearly because you’re thinking about the danger around you. When some of those psychological processes are happening, it will have an impact on how you’re working,” explains Page.
Moreover, the ramifications of self-isolation and the outbreak may not end there. For some of us, the ultimate loss of security—both financial and health-wise — could lead to further mental issues. Experiencing depressive symptoms during this period may be a result of ‘reactive depression’, i.e. a temporary condition that is caused by the situation.
“Depression in a normal sense [means] people can experience episodes of depression if they have a diagnosis,” says Page. “But ‘reactive depression’ is different because it’s in response to an event that’s happened. Suddenly having things taken away from you and not having the certainty of what life’s going to look like going forward could lead to people responding with reactive depression.”
How to mentally cope and stay productive
The world continues to catapult forwards and we have to move with it. As the initial shock wanes, it’s important to find ways to mentally cope and, if possible, stay productive. With that in mind, here are some expert-backed tips you may want to try.
1. Stay connected with the outside world
“Working remotely can be isolating, particularly in the current climate, where we’re not able to depend on our usual coping strategies, such as socialising face-to-face with loved ones outside of work or going to the gym,” says Mamo.
“Feeling lonely can contribute to developing things like anxiety and depression. If you’re feeling low or anxious, you might feel like withdrawing from those around you, and it can be difficult to reach out to others. Try to stay connected with colleagues, clients and friends and family – whether that’s over email, text, phone or video calling using software like Skype, Zoom or Microsoft Teams.”
2. Try relaxation exercises
Feeling stressed out? Simply taking some time to unwind could be essential to your well-being. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools you can use, many of which are free. From apps boasting calming tracks to online resources, there are many choices.
Page encourages people to do relaxation exercises. “We can access parts of the brain to bring on the soothing system. If you’ve not tried that before, just start out with something simple. There are some apps out there that you may have already heard of such as Headspace or Calm,” says Page.
3. Get your daily exercise
There’s a temptation to whittle away the hours, moving intermittently between your bed, the sofa and perhaps a chair. However, the fact that you’re working from home doesn’t mean that you should skip your daily exercise. Heading out for a walk or doing an exercise video in your living room could have a major impact on how you feel.
4. Don’t binge-watch the news
Naturally, we all want to stay up to date with the latest outbreak news. The situation can feel all-consuming. You may find yourself leaving the TV or radio on in the background all day long. However, over-saturating yourself with this information is a risky game to play.
“One thing I do in terms of keeping up to date with the news is I just listen to the daily briefing and focus on that rather than watching the news all day. A lot of it’s repeated anyway and you’re totally bombarding yourself with the negative messages as well. And, again, that’s going to be activating the stress response which isn’t healthy,” says Page.
5. Ground yourself
Panicking about the future? Worried about what the next days, weeks or even months may hold? Stop. Looking too far ahead can induce anxiety and further stress. To keep yourself on track, it’s worth practicing some grounding techniques and trying to stay present.
“Bring yourself back to where you are, the here and now. Not focussing on what the future might be but where are you now, today? Are you in a safe place? Have you had a hot meal today? It’s just thinking about those basics and being grateful for what you’ve got. So, a gratitude diary is another great thing that people can do,” says Page.
6. Tackle your to-do list
“Often when you’re self-employed or a freelancer, you might have a to-do list. I know I’ve always got a list of things I want to do like an area of my business I want to develop,” says Page. “Think about those things that you’ve had on hold; that you’ve not had time to do and try to use the time to start working on some of those. Use the time as a positive space and focus on what might be after we’ve all come out of isolation.”
7. Consider adapting your business
“Be creative about how you might be able to broaden your area of expertise”, Page says. “That might also help you grow your audience, both during or after things return to normal”.
It’s important to remember that this will end. It has to. While there’s no immediate light at the end of the tunnel, there will come a point when things return to normal. If you’re fixated on the future, take some positive steps that will help you in the long-run. Considering how you can position your offering post-outbreak is a savvy way to stay productive.
8. Support your fellow freelancers
Repeat the mantra: You are not in this alone. Self-employed individuals account for approximately 15% of the British workforce. Focusing on supporting the greater freelance community will decrease loneliness and strengthen social bonds. Consider reaching out to those around you and offering help in any way that you can.
Stay safe and carry on!
The truth is that there’s no fail-safe formula to coping. Looking after your mental health may be a case of trial and error. Regardless, taking steps towards looking after your wellbeing is vital. If you need some more advice, Mind has now launched a new toolkit on their Mental Health at Work page.
Stay safe, look after each other, and carry on.