• Catherine Benfield

Building Up Your Lockdown Defences


I've been desperate to get back to writing for a while now and I can't think of a better form of motivation to help get me started, than to try to get some support information out there during what is proving to be a really challenging time for all of us.

At this moment in time some of us are trying to deal with a new level of loneliness and isolation never felt before, others are exhausted from being constantly ‘on’ as they deal with cooped up children. Some are squashed into small apartments with no outdoor space, others are key workers worried about passing on the virus to their family or missing a much-loved relative who has entered self-isolation. I could go on and on and on….

Although we are all dealing with so much right now, there are some set things we can all do to try to make our situations a little more bearable. I thought it might be helpful to share some of the things I’m doing to help me cope in the hope perhaps you could do the same! A LOT of it has it’s grounding in the work I’ve done within Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Exposure + Response Prevention, and Acceptance + Commitment Therapy.

I know we’re often told not to compare ourselves with others but I thought it might be helpful to share my own situation in terms of both the lockdown and its impact on my mental health, so you know where I’m coming from when writing this. You’ll probably find we’ve got quite a lot in common even if we are in different situations.

As always please feel very free to skip the next section completely and start reading straight from ‘Things that are Really Helping!’ 😊

My Situation

In terms of Lockdown and COVID-19.

Will has asthma, and often normal colds end up with us in A + E as he deals with breathing difficulties, so we have been in isolation for almost five weeks. As soon as we heard asthmatics were high risk, we chose to remove him from school. This was a week before the schools closed.

We are currently running low on some of Will’s prevention medication (this is something that official documentation has suggested asthmatics should be taking right now just in case they catch the virus. We have hunted high and low for a pharmacy that can get their hands on the meds with no luck – it seems everybody’s on the lookout for it.

Pete is a construction worker – he is self-employed. Because of Will's condition we needed to make the difficult decision to pull him out of work, we now have very little income so have needed to apply for financial relief.

We are trying to use our time wisely and to be really patient with ourselves and each other. As with most people we are having lots of ups and downs.

In terms of Anxiety and OCD

In terms of symptoms, boy has this brain of mine been busy. I’m doing compulsions I haven’t done for years. I can feel those dusty old neural pathways saying ‘Here we go lads, and here’s us thinking we’d been forgotten!’ Bastards. Most of the compulsions are nowhere near as bad or ingrained as they used to be, and I can complete my ERP even though I find some distressing again – boooooo! But I’ve dealt with it before, right?

My biggest OCD loop at the moment is bedtime again, and guess what, it focusses on William. AGAIN!! Yay!! (insert gritted teeth grin). For those of you who have read my blog on the baby gate – you will totally understand this. If you haven’t, you can read it here but please make sure you come back and finish this one. I’m really hoping it will be helpful!

In terms of OCD, all the intrusive thoughts I used to get about Will falling through the baby gate and down the stairs, I now get because the baby gate ISN’T there! I know, how ironic! I get intrusive thoughts about little man falling down the stairs, slipping on things in the night, hitting his head during the fall… basically anything I look at becomes the object that will hurt my little one should he have a night time wander but thanks to my therapy I can recognise the symptoms. And here they are, the little darlings:

Obsessions:

Visual – I can see the accident happen and the minutes following, both in still and moving pictures.

Auditory – I can ‘hear’ the sounds of them happening.

Compulsions:

Playing the obsessions over and over looking for certainty that what I fear will happen, won’t happen.

Asking my husband to check – I know, sooooo naughty!!

Checking and rechecking journeys from Wills room to various places in the house looking for trip hazards or things sticking out at head height.

Talking to myself about things I’ve checked to try to help it ‘go in’. I also hold my breath at certain times, hum tunes, or tap patterns on my fingers for the same reasons.

In terms of night time checks, I have to be honest with both myself and you… I’m having a pretty spectacular relapse.

In terms of Body Focused Repetitive Behaviours (BFRB) – I am twisting my hair until I fear I may wear away my finger prints. I have picked the skin on both of my thumbs and without gum, I’d have probably bitten into my cheeks quite a bit too. I do these things without thinking when anxious. Last year it got much better, a big part of that was actually learning what BFRBs were, and how to address them, but at the minute it’s playing a more prominent role in my life again. Strangely enough, my nails which normally take a battering at times of stress, are looking great. Go figure!

So that’s where I am. Both in terms of our situation in lockdown and in terms of Anxiety and OCD. I’ve chosen not to add depression to this list because at the minute because I would find it very strange if I wasn’t dealing with some days of low mood. I will keep an eye on it though and talk to my GP if I feel I need to.

Right, that's enough about the more difficult parts, lets move on to some of the things I've been doing to help look after my mental well-being.

Things that are Really Helping!

Acceptance, acceptance, acceptance...

Old me would have been like ‘I AM NOT accepting this situation, it’s awful - to accept it makes it okay, NO WAY!’ But that really isn’t what it means. It means that, where possible, I choose not to fight what is happening. Whether it’s events, feelings, or something else entirely - if I can’t control them, I need to work at accepting them.

I accept I am going to be feeling ALL the feelings at the moment. I can go from feeling almost deliriously happy and grateful one minute to feeling like I could burst with heartbreak the next. I’m trying to be really kind to myself, I try to accept those feelings. I mean, surely it would be really odd if those feelings weren’t being felt right now wouldn’t it, right? The news filtering into us… the lack of planes in the sky (I live in East London, we are flown over constantly, the sky is now quiet). We also live quite near a major road and hospital, the roars of motor have been replaced by birdsong and sirens, a scene that quickly changes between beautiful and relaxing, to eerie and strange. There is no escaping current events, and fighting against them makes the whole experiences more tiring.

I just want to add here also that accepting feelings does not mean we ignore the ones that threaten to swallow us whole. More on that under ‘Recognising Unhelpful Thinking as it Arises’ below.

In fact, there’s so much I want to write on acceptance I’m going to write another post on it straight after this one. Please keep an eye out for that.

So, what else helps…?

Being Flexible!

Change things that aren’t working if you can. When you’re stuck inside it’s so easy to feel trapped in terms of the options available to you and the variety of decisions you can make. This was definitely the case when I started home schooling. The first week of self-isolation saw me and Will trying to recreate a school at home. He had created a timetable which he stuck to his bedroom door, I’d dug out all of my teaching books – we’d turned our office area into a cute, colourful little at-home classroom. This worked beautifully for the first week, when all day, every day at home without minute-by-minute plans felt impossible. As the weeks passed, it became clear that we needed a different approach but I was so rigid in my thinking, I didn’t change anything. It ended in frustration for both of us.

We learned over time that we would have to became way more flexible and our set-in-stone structuring was replaced by a more fluid, positive experience (I should point out its not been perfect by any stretch – I want to be totally realistic about that!) At seven years old, our little one is far better suited to learning at home through the odd bit of cooking, discussions about finances and budgets (as he wonders why he can’t have an expensive Easter present), games around the house and in the garden, through creative outlets and by playing, etc.

Practicing Gratitude

I must admit this is one of the areas I most struggle with. My relationship with gratitude can change on a daily basis where one day I find it a really helpful tool and the next day I find it inappropriate, annoying and endlessly frustrating. Especially on days I can't do it! I messaged with Chrissie Hodges the other day about this and can almost hear her voice saying the same things too. When you are frightened by the news or events in your life, it is not surprising that feeling gratitude can seem like an impossible ask. Please do not feel bad about not being able to do it. But, at the same time, don’t give up on it completely.

Some days feeling gratitude doesn’t work, some days it does. Every Thursday at 8pm we go outside and yell and bang pots and whoop as loud as we can in the direction of the hospital at the bottom of our road to say thankyou. I feel that gratitude, deep within my very being. I’ve also had times of feelings immense gratitude for my loved ones and my circumstances being the way they are – I recognise and appreciate that I am in a very lucky position. But again, it’s important for me to note that on days I fail to access that gratitude I can be left feeling frustrated and ungrateful.

Go through your therapy notes and recovery work.

The chances are we have all the information we need at our fingertips. Find it! If you are feeling panicky and experiencing the physical symptoms of anxiety reread about how the body works and how it’s effected by anxiety. Find out what those uncomfortable symptoms are. Take the power away from those frightening moments by using knowledge. Once you know what's going on you can address it!

Refresh your memory of the CBT strategies you learned. Take up practice again. WRITE THINGS DOWN!! I’ve always advocated using 'well you' to help 'not-so-well-you'. When you’re having a good day write down ideas for things that will help you when you’re not feeling so good. Make lists. Get your therapy worksheets out again, go over old exercises (as long as you feel comfortable doing them – please consult with your GP or medical professional if you are worried). Write compassionate letters to yourself. I have one for panic attacks and one for grief, I’m thinking about writing one for night-time anxiety which is hitting pretty hard at the minute so that when I feel anxious and it’s dark outside, I can use my own words to calm myself and validate my feelings. We can be our own experts!

Read something about Acceptance and Commitment therapy. Learn about the concept and how you can apply it to your own recovery. You’ll find as you look through it that things come back to you very quickly. The OCD Stories has a brilliant podcast on this with Dr Steven Hayes.

An idea I absolutely love it to create a Relapse Prevention Blueprint (it’s called this in the UK but we could easily turn it around and call it a self-care box). Collect some of your favourite things, sights, sounds, smells, memories, DVD’s, textures, etc and put them in a box so they are altogether. I decorated mine and really loved the project. It’s always there for when you feel anxious and you can easily access things to help you feel better.

Going through mine reminded me of how much I love The Office (the US version). I’ve since started watching it again and it’s really giving me a lift in the evenings.

Sometimes all we need is a small reminder.

Recognising Unhelpful Thinking as it Arises

This should be part of the above section really but it's so important I wanted to focus on it separately!

I practiced recognising cognitive distortions (unhelpful thinking patterns) so often during therapy - and after I finished - that I could identify them, label them and challenge them pretty much automatically. This all happened, rather ironically, without me really needing to think much about it. The lockdown has slowed that ability for me. I’m a little more distracted - a little foggier mentally - so I have to remind myself of the distortions and how to challenge them. Doing this has made a huge difference to my mindset.

Be aware of what you allow into your environment

As people with OCD we need to be careful about doing this. We need to make sure it doesn't become about compulsions and avoidance, but some choices are brilliant for protecting our own mental wellbeing. For example, I only listen to the news once a day and that’s only when I feel I have enough energy in reserve for it. It’s not avoidance, it’s self-care.

I’ve also muted certain hashtags and accounts on social media for a while. If I go onto social media, I want to know I’m not going to come away feeling significantly worse than I did when I went on. People are totally entitled to their opinions and what they choose to put on their feeds is up to them completely. It is not up to me to try to change that. It is up to me to choose whether or not to have it as part of my online experience at the moment.

Physical Activity

Most of us can go out once a day in the UK for physical activity and exercise. What are the restrictions near you? How could you use the time available to you? Lots of fitness professionals are giving away free online sessions. PE with Joe Wicks on YouTube is excellent and seems to be taking the world by storm. I’ve been doing PE with Joe every morning and honestly, although I spend a lot of the sessions moaning about the fact I'll be stiff in the morning, I’m doing it, and more than that, I feel mentally and emotionally better afterwards.

Do you have a garden you could get out to do some gardening or have a little potter? Is there an exercise or movement you can do that is within the house if you are staying in?

Calming Activity

Yoga has always helped me massively, I don’t do it very often but I’m always amazed why I don’t make more space for it in my life. It steadies my breathing, it calms my mind - it really helps. I also find mindfulness helpful (see headspace, calm apps).

I always hesitate to write about yoga and mindfulness because I know often people have been recommended these strategies as a way of dealing with very difficult symptoms and offered very little other medical support and that really isn’t on. But that doesn’t mean that these things aren’t helpful. If you have seen other people criticising yoga and mindfulness please don’t let it put you off trying them as possibilities as long as you feel up to it, and again if you have concerns or questions ask a professional.

There are tons of blogs and posts out there about activities to help you stay calm so I’m going to stop this section here. Colouring, painting, creating, listening to music… the list is endless!

Help others if you have the means.

It’s so easy to feel helpless in this current situation. This is especially the case when you have very limited options available to you. Helping others in whatever way you can encourages you to think outside of yourself. I have a few elderly and vulnerable neighbours I check on when I go to the shops. I’ve made sure they have my number.

Our elderly neighbours cat hurt its leg and was limping around our front garden (he's fine now) so we took it to the vet for the owners who couldn't go out. Little things like that make a lot of difference.

Even if you’re stuck in complete isolation where you mustn’t go out at all think about what you can do to help from home. Even down to sharing ways to help on social media is helpful! An example of this for me is writing this post. We’re very limited as to what we can do here as we have a little person to keep occupied all day so I started making time to fit in some writing with the hope it will help others - I really hope it does! 😊

I’m going to end this blog by covering one of my favourite subjects and something absolutely critical and central to my recovery….

Self-Love and Compassion

Times are challenging at the minute, there is no denying it, and I’m going to try not to add to that by beating myself up for certain feelings, emotions, behaviours, choices, etc. Those of us with OCD are extremely prone to doubt and guilt and I’m going to keep that in the forefront of my thinking. Feeling guilt and doubt is a sign of OCD, NOT that I’ve done anything wrong. I’m going to go really easy on myself. Yes, at the minute my husband sometimes steps in to do my night time checks. It’s helping me get a better nights sleep and stopping me from spiraling. Yes, I sometimes feel so frustrated I could run screaming down the road. Are there many of us who don’t feel like that? And yes, during the editing phase of this post, despite what I proudly declared earlier I have gnawed at one of my thumb nails! Dammit! That was one of the best ones!

Ultimately, I want to do a bloody good job of looking after myself during this difficult time. I want to look after myself in the same way I want to look after everyone else around me and as I've learned time and time again through therapy and my recovery work following that, for me, that starts with self-love, self-compassion and self-acceptance.

If you've stuck with this all the way to the end THANK YOU SO MUCH!!! I much prefer long-form blogging and I know they can wrack up the minutes.

There have been a huge amount of excellent articles and online chats and resources made available for those of us with OCD. I've tried to collect as many as possible and I'm going to list them under here so please check them out.

But before I do that I want to say a huge thankyou to Pete for producing yet another amazing piece of artwork for the blog. He did it mainly with an active 7 year old jumping on and off him and kids DVD's blasting his ears! Thankyou Pete!!!

So here we go, to end on...

Other COVID-19 specific help and articles:

The OCD Stories - Dr Jon Grayson

OCD Action Charity Online Support Groups

OCD UK Charity- Coronavirus Support Resources

Maternal OCD Charity - Coronavirus Support Materials

Chrissie Hodges - OCD Game Changers Fireside Chats on Facebook

OCD Kids Movie - A list of resources and support materials

The IOCDF - Online support resources

Jon Hershfield and Shala Nicely - article (Jon's written a few articles, keep an eye out).

Treat My OCD - blog

Evie Canavan - keep an eye on her Instagram for really helpful information for parents

Perinatal Mental Health Partnership - lots of helpful information for parents.

Alegra Kastens - article

Kimberley Quinlan - keep an eye out for very helpful Instagram stories!

Made of Millions - helpful online support and articles

Peace of Mind Foundation - helpful support resources and articles

Right there we go! I'm sure I've missed loads. If you know of any others or want me to add your articles, etc to the list please let me know!

Lots of love everyone. Take care.

I'll be back soon! 😊


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London, UK

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