Updated: Jan 9, 2021
There will be calm at the end of the storm. In the meantime, here are some tips for managing your mood and stress levels in these difficult times from BABCP-accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist, Joanna Hogan MBABCP.
Joanna Hogan works in therapy rooms in Sevenoaks and Tonbridge, Kent, United Kingdom, in London and online. She specialises in anxiety, depression and sleep. She works with
clients on restoring wellbeing, building resilience, anxiety, chronic depression, self-esteem, OCD, panic attacks, health anxiety, PTSD, sleep, personality disorders and phobias. Joanna uses schema therapy, CBT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and sleep therapy in her work.
The prospect of being locked down for much of the next few months is daunting. Whilst there is an end in sight as the vaccine becomes more widely available, for many this can feel distant and elusive, particularly with the prospect of short, cold days and long evenings indoors, alone or with children. Spring seems so near but so far for many of us, and for those who are also grieving for loved ones lost or dear ones distant, the winter days can seem never-ending.
So how do we keep our mood levels up and our stress levels down, as we brace ourselves for the next few months? I have put together some advice for clients and friends on what works, based on clinically-based research.
Aim for an A.C.E. Balance (achievement, connection and enjoyment)
A.C.E. activities are those that bring a sense of achievement or purpose (like chores, work, childcare and mastering skills), connection (with other people) and enjoyment (anything that you find pleasurable and fun). This balance of activities has been shown in clinical research trials to be essential in order to have a rich and full life, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Whether you are working from home, living alone or juggling home-schooling with other demands, a rich mix of activities helps children and adults of all ages to manage their mood.
Whilst it may be simple to have the intention of striking a balance, turning that intention into action takes a level of organisation and motivation. I often suggest to my clients that they try writing down one goal for each of the three categories (Achievement, Connection and Enjoyment) that they want to achieve in the next month, and then to schedule the steps they plan to take in the pursuit of each goal.
So, for example, in the next month, I might aim for:
A: Tidy my messy cupboards. Or increase the amount of exercise that I do.
C: Connect with other colleagues whilst working from home. Or ring an old friend for a chat.
E: Make sure I have regular one-to-one time with each of my children. Listen to my favourite music.
Try writing down three goals for yourself now, one for each category of achievement, connection and enjoyment. If you would some ideas of activities for each of these categories, or would like an A.C.E. planner to help with scheduling these activities, please get in touch through my website joannahogancbt.co.uk.
When setting goals – keep them realistic!
I never did quite learn to speak Mandarin, play the clarinet or knit a blanket in the 2020 lockdowns! If you make lockdown or New Year’s Resolutions that are too ambitious and unrealistic, or are based on other people’s values rather than your own, you are less likely to achieve them and are more likely to become disheartened by your lack of progress.
For each of the three goals that you have set above, write down one small, manageable step that you can take in the next week towards achieving that goal, and write in your planner or diary when you plan to do these. Making these steps small and manageable helps to build our sense of achievement and, therefore, our motivation.
My specific, manageable, small steps for this week might therefore be:
A: Tidy my sock drawer on Monday evening; go for a 20-minute walk at 9am every day.
C: Set up a Zoom call with colleagues on Friday lunchtime.
E: Schedule 10 minutes per day to play with or talk one-to-one with each of my children.
Follow the plan, not the mood
When you have your plan, try and stick to it regardless of how you are feeling. I always encourage my clients to “follow the plan not the mood” and to not wait to feel like doing something. Your mind won’t always be your friend when you are trying to stick to your plans – mine will often say things to me like “I’m too tired or busy to exercise today”. Allow these thoughts to float away like leaves on the breeze, and bring your focus of attention back to your intentions.
If you find you are still struggling to stick to your plans, try putting down a few options for each day; a sense of choice can help build motivation and can help motivate young and old alike. For example, you may set the intention to exercise at a given time, then choose between walking, cycling or stretching.
Rewards help build motivation
Allowing ourselves regular, achievable rewards for the steps we take towards meeting our goals can help us to stick to our plans and can in itself be motivating. For example, if I achieve the steps I have planned this week, I might allow myself something I value at the weekend, like watching a film I’ve wanted to see or having a coffee in bed!
Do what matters to you! (not others)
Setting your own goals, based on your own values, and comparing how you do on these from week to week, is likely to have a much greater impact on your mood and stress levels than being influenced by what those around you (or worse still, those on social media) are appearing to achieve! In high-achieving commuter towns it’s easy to be guided by the goals of others. If you find yourself doing this then take some time before you set your goals to work out what your own values are. The exercise below can help with this.
Exercise – do what matters to you
Close your eyes and imagine that you’re through the other side of the pandemic. You’re having a face-to-face catch up with friends or family and chatting about your experience over the last year. What do you want to say to others that you most valued in how you behaved in the past year? What would you like those closest to you to have noticed about how you were? Make a mental note of the three values or ‘ways of being’ that you are most proud of, which defined how you were in the pandemic.
Now open your eyes and come back to the present. Ask yourself what small step could you take in the next few weeks that takes you closer to this value or ‘way of being’?
Some examples of values are: kindness, compassion, forgiveness, industriousness, playfulness and generosity.
It ain’t (just) what you do, it’s the way that you do it
When we are struggling with difficult feelings of sadness, anxiety or frustration, it can be very easy to get caught up in our own thoughts. Whilst we might manage to motivate ourselves to do something we have meant to, like going for a walk, if we are caught in our own anxious or low thoughts during the walk itself, the mood-lifting potential of the walk may be limited as a result of our inward-looking focus. Whether you’re reading with a child, going for a walk or drinking a cup of coffee, try to pause and bring your focus of attention away from your thoughts and to your senses. You can try the following tried and tested exercise to help with this.
An exercise to change the focus of your attention
Pause and notice your breathing.
Notice one thing you can smell.
Notice two things you can touch or feel.
Notice three things you can hear.
Notice four things you can see.
If you find your thoughts getting caught into your worries or concerns whilst doing this exercise, gently allow them to float away in a bubble or like leaves on the breeze. Research psychologists have found that trying to engender a sense of awe in our surroundings can help with this exercise and really lift the mood. You don’t even have to leave your door for this – I regularly encourage clients to get this sense of awe from looking out of the window at a cloud, studying a house-plant or even by watching a nature-based programme such as David Attenborough's Blue Planet.
I’ll think about that later
If your mind still wants to hold onto its thoughts or concerns, then try saying to your mind “I’ll worry about that later” or “I’ll dwell on that later”. You can even plan a time later in the day for these thoughts. As CBT therapists we often suggest a 20 minute time for this towards the end of the day but not too close to bedtime. The rest of the day then becomes ‘worry free’ or ‘rumination free’ time.
Stress and low mood feed on supressed emotions
There will be calm at the end of the storm but while we’re still in the storm let’s not dress for beach!
Trying to suppress our emotions is a fuel for stress. Many well-meaning friends or relatives might encourage us to “think positive!” Whilst this may sound helpful, the ‘think positive’ mindset can lead to the suppression or denial of our feelings. I have really valued the recent media acknowledgment that 2020 was a hard year for all of us. Whilst there are things that we can all find to value and appreciate in the past year, a sense of appreciation for what we have is very different to the denial of feelings when things are hard. If we try instead to make space and time to notice the emotions we are feeling, we will feel more able to process these feelings and less prone to stress, to feelings of numbness or even to episodes such as nightmares and flashbacks.
For an audio recording to help you or a family member identify and be more comfortable with their emotions, please contact me through my website www.joannahogancbt.co.uk.
And next time you find yourself wanting to ask someone you know to ‘think positive’, maybe instead take some time to show compassion by offering support and acknowledgement of the difficult feelings they are having: “I know it’s hard, I care about you and I’m here to support you”.
This brings me to my last tip for mood-lifting and stress reduction:
Little acts of kindness
Doing things that help others can help lift the mood and beat the January blues. The kindness, support and generosity to others that was showcased in the media in 2020 was astounding. Grand gestures don’t always have to define our compassion to others, and sometimes the greatest pleasure can be given in the smallest, most manageable of gestures. I encourage my clients to start with little, achievable acts of kindness, like taking the time to make contact with someone who is on their own or offering to pick up shopping for a neighbour. Even caring for a plant or putting out seeds for the birds can help lift the mood.
There will be calm at the end of the storm
January is a notoriously difficult month for many people’s moods. And for many of us, this January is probably harder than most. But nothing lasts forever. There will be calm at the end of the storm. And until the storm passes, there are things we can do for ourselves and those around us that bring little glimpses of sunshine.
Joanna Hogan is a CBT psychotherapist working in private practice and for the NHS. She sees adults, children and young people for one-to-one therapy. She also supervises CBT therapists, runs workshops for local businesses and schools on wellbeing and sleep and runs CPD training events for psychological therapy services. Her website is www.joannahogancbt.co.uk. Joanna practices from Sevenoaks and online and as well as providing services for the NHS.