In Mindcast

Sarah Appleton – COVID-19: How to regulate distress and identify helpful sources of support

Dr Sarah Appleton is a Clinical Psychologist working in Employee Health for Central London Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. Sarah shares strategies about how to best regulate difficult emotions to allow you to effectively identify and connect with sources of help. Two blogs accompany this podcast, one entitled ‘Why we’re all grieving’ written by Sarah and the other ‘Suffering during a time of crisis’ written by her colleague Neal Gething.

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Hi there, my name is Dr Sarah Appleton and I am a Clinical Psychologist working in Employee Health for Central London Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. I am currently helping to shape the psychological support for trust staff in light of COVID-19. Throughout my conversations with staff members, and mirroring my own personal experience, I have become increasingly aware of how difficult feelings such as stress and anxiety can overwhelm an individual and make it difficult to identify a way to move forward. I therefore wanted to share with you some strategies to help you regulate difficult emotions, allowing you to engage the “wise mind” and move forward with what is most effective.

So, with that in mind, I wanted to start by reiterating that these are unprecedented times. As clinicians, we are likely to experience intense professional consequences of COVID-19 that may include a change to our job roles which bring new feelings of uncertainty or inadequacy, managing larger caseloads or holding greater risk, navigating difficult ethical decisions, or witnessing greater loss of life. 

Moreover, in addition to the professional impact of COVID-19, we are not experiencing these changes in isolation. We cannot simply “step into” our professional role and “step back out” to “normal” life; our normal has changed. Returning home may no longer be a safe place. We may find that our personal lives are now invaded with new anxieties for our own safety or the safety of those around us, with COVID-19 news offering a relentless reminder of the challenges we face, with financial uncertainty, or with personal bereavements.

Listening to Ravi Rana’s most recent podcast on “COVID-19 Information Overload” I found myself reflecting on how difficult it can be, during a time of high threat, to actually be able to see the wood through the trees and identify a helpful way forward. We may feel so overwhelmed, or so on autopilot trying to cope, that it can be difficult to even recognise our own distress let alone navigate the wealth of “support” that is made available to us.

I therefore wanted to create a podcast with this in mind. To offer an understanding as to why feeling overwhelmed is a “normal” response, and to offer some support on how to best regulate these difficult emotions to allow you to effectively identify and connect with sources of help.

Understanding our “Threat Response” System

Drawing upon emotional regulation literature, we know that when we encounter times of high threat our innate “fight, flight, freeze” response is activated.  This is our evolutionary response to threat that was designed to keep us safe. If you think of our ancestors encountering a lion, they would either need to get ready to fight it, flight (run away) or freeze (and hope the lion didn’t see them).

When this “threat system” is activated we experience a downturn in emotional processing. That is, our higher level executive functions (responsible for planning, reasoning and complex problem solving) go offline. This is not our fault. If you think back to the lion, it was not helpful for our ancestors to plan their escape or to consider the impact that their response would have on the lion – they just needed to get out of there.

However, whilst the activation of our “threat system” is not our fault, we can see that recurrent activation of the “fight, flight, freeze” response in our current circumstances can cause some problems. In our current circumstances, this might look like us snapping at those around us (fight), avoiding work or distracting ourselves with less pressing tasks (flight), or feeling so overwhelmed that we find it difficult to make decisions (freeze). This can also look like us “freezing” with knowing what, or how, to access sources of support.

Creating a Moment of Pause

So what do we do? Whilst this response is not our fault we have a responsibility to notice and work against this, actively slowing down and allowing our logical “wise mind” to come back online. In creating a moment of pause between a stimulus and our response, we can help to effectively regulate our emotions and identify/pursue what is most helpful to us.

Dr Russ Harris outlines a helpful tool for slowing down that can be described using the acronym “ACE”:

  • A: Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings. Try to do this without judgement or fear, recognising that we need to experience the full range of emotional experiences – good and bad. Try to make room for this, fostering a sense of compassion for the distress you may be experiencing.
  • C: Come back into your body. Bring attention back into your body by taking a few deep breaths, pushing your feet into the floor or pressing your fingertips together
  • E: Engage in what you are doing. Bring your attention back into the room by focusing on your five senses, or five different things that you can see. Now bring this full attention to whatever are you doing.

Committed Action: Focusing on What You Can Control

Slowing down and naming your emotional experience allows you time to acknowledge and validate the distress that you are feeling. Once you have acknowledged your emotional experience, and allowed a moment of pause to regulate the “threat” system, you are better able to recognise what support might be most helpful.

I have split the potentially helpful committed actions that I have noted from personal and professional observation into three steps.

  1. Focus on what you can control: The more we focus on what we cannot control, the more overwhelmed we feel. We can’t control COVID-19, and we can’t eliminate our normal emotional reactions to it. What we can do is focus, moment to moment, on the choices we do have.
  2. Remember your strengths: COVID-19 means that you are likely to be experiencing increased distress without access to your full range of previous coping strategies (e.g. going to the gym, distracting yourself with work, or meeting up with friends or family). It’s therefore not surprising that you might feel somewhat ill-equipped to deal with the current pandemic. Whilst COVID-19 brings new challenges, remember that you have effectively navigated times of difficulty in the past. Take a moment to remember how you coped historically. Write a list of what helped and then try to adapt these strategies to your current circumstances.
  3. Seek support where helpful: These are unprecedented times and we may all need to access additional support at one time or another. Once you have got used to naming your emotional experience, see what themes come up regularly (e.g. anxiety). You can then visit the “Resources” tab for helpful links to appropriate psychological support, clicking on whatever psychological presentation is most present for you.

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