Christmas can be a lonely or stressful time in any ordinary year – but with COVID adding to the worries and the sense of isolation, it has the potential to be tougher than ever. It also affects everybody, often in ways we don’t even realise. Moment editor Toby Venables looks at mental health and wellbeing issues, and offers some resources for practical help
There were three occasions when I was certain I was going to die.
The first of them, involving some very heavy turbulence on a long-distance flight, isn’t one we need to concern ourselves with here, despite being terrifying at the time. The other two were, on the face of it, far less dramatic. But they were also much more unsettling – and, though I only realised it in hindsight, a far greater threat to my life.
The second happened while I was in the car, being driven to my parents’ house in Suffolk by my sister. Though I can now barely remember detail of the circumstances, it had been a difficult and stressful time and I was glad to be heading back to the family home for some time away from those worries. At some point midway in the journey, however, I started to feel odd. I felt like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen in my lungs, as if I was at high altitude. My breathing got faster – but also, my fingers were starting to tingle with pins and needles. It got progressively worse, my fingers and then my whole hands turning numb. I was light-headed. My whole body felt like it was shutting down.
Ludicrous as it may sound, I didn’t want to say anything to my sister at first. I was embarrassed. But also, I didn’t want to ask for help. Men are notoriously bad at doing that. Eventually, I had to. I told her, with typical understatement, that I wasn’t feeling well, and she stopped at a service station – for once, there when it was needed. She went inside to get me a bottle of water, and I sat in the car, unable to catch my breath, my hands now so numb they were immobile and clenched like claws. In that moment I was completely convinced that I was about to die, alone, in that godawful car park. And I wept.
Well, obviously, I didn’t die. In fact, half an hour later, I was completely recovered. I never mentioned it to my parents – it would only have worried them.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, what I had suffered was a panic attack. I’d never had one before and have never had one quite like that since, but what was most strange about it was that it happened in entirely calm circumstances. Happy ones, even. I was heading to a good place, my problems literally behind me. It was a lesson to me about how stress and anxiety can show themselves in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. Sometimes we don’t notice that we’re under stress until we stop – and if the circumstances persist, we often don’t stop, and it can just keep on building.
Sometimes, though, the stress stops us. This was what happened on the third occasion. Again, it was a time of extreme pressure – work pressures this time. I had deadlines that I was barely on top of; a seemingly insurmountable quantity of work to get through. It was one of those occasions when I couldn’t see the wood for the trees, and I sensed I was in a downward spiral – a feedback loop in which worry starts to cripple your ability to function, which just stokes the stress further. Everything seemed impossible. I didn’t feel in proper control of anything. Though I didn’t realise it, I was probably on the edge of serious depression.
I was taking a break in the kitchen. The whole family was there. It was lively, a bit noisy, but happy. And it just hit me. My chest was tight. My head was swimming. My heart was thumping like a hammer in my chest, and my legs became so weak they gave way and I slumped into the sofa.
This time, I went to a cardiologist. They did tests, monitored things. Nothing was out of the ordinary. I felt daft, as one always does when one goes to a doctor only to discover it’s nothing. I felt I’d wasted everybody’s time. But the NHS medical staff did not approach it that way. They all reminded me this was why they were there, and they would far rather tell someone good news than bad.
Also, it wasn’t nothing. Despite feeling greatly relieved when all the tests came back positive, reassured I did not have a heart condition, I took on board the cardiologist’s warnings about managing stress levels. Before leaving I asked – almost as an afterthought – what was the worst that stress could do to you, if there were no physical defects. ‘It can cause a heart attack,’ he said.
That stayed with me. This had been a warning shot. I worked to avoid the build-up of stress, and have been fine since. The other major takeaway from this occasion was that almost from the moment I asked for help, things got better. A burden lifted. We should all learn from that. Asking is hard, but just knowing someone is there, rooting for you, is a large part of that battle. We’re social beings, and we need each other.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to achieve those connections. On these occasions, I had people around me, but not everyone is so lucky – and if you don’t, reaching out is far harder to do. Who do you reach out to anyway? Stress, anxiety and depression – each subtly different, but all overlapping and closely related – become far more difficult to deal with in isolation, and isolation itself can become the problem. Feeling unable to share, turned in on our thoughts, problems become bigger. We get into that downward spiral, that feedback loop – not unlike the stress loop that I found myself in, but slower, and often less easy to identify. It can grind us down.
Somewhat paradoxically, given its joyful nature, Christmas is a time when mental wellbeing is especially challenged. Money worries are brought to the fore. Families getting together can bring additional stresses. And if you have no family, it simply becomes a time when you are reminded of your own isolation.
This, of course, is why there are so many charitable efforts around Christmas. You can read about some of these later in this issue, where we talk to several people who have been helping out in the community, including Revd Carol Avery and Mohammed Saeed, who is a leading light of local voluntary organisation Community First. Both are helping to provide for needs in their respective communities – food, warmth, shelter – the basic things, as Mohammed points out, that we all need as human beings. Yet they are also providing something else – less tangible, but of equal importance: human contact, moral support, a listening ear, a friendly face. As you will read, they have had people cry tears of relief when they turn up on the doorstep.
Of course, COVID, lockdowns and restrictions have amplified all these problems, and created greater and more urgent need. As Carol told me: ‘It’s affected the vulnerable the most. Everything affects the vulnerable more, because they’re already poor, they’re already suffering hardship, already socially isolated – which is why we’re trying to bring some joy around.’
Mohammed adds: ‘We had one mother with a daughter who had stopped talking to her – that was way before the pandemic – and her only connection now is with friends on Facebook and one neighbour that she talks to over the fence. The pandemic just makes those daily problems bigger.’ He notes, also, that often it’s the most elderly citizens who find it hardest to ask for help. ‘Some of these are people who have been through the Nazis bombing Britain. Proud people – people who don’t rely on others for things. If they need something, they’ll go out and do it for themselves. But all of a sudden, this invisible enemy comes and they’re not supposed to leave the house, they’re not supposed to contact anybody.’
Aren’t we all a little like this, though? Determined to do things for ourselves, feeling it is somehow weak to need help? Perhaps that’s something we all need to get over. To some extent, the idea that we ever do anything alone is an illusion. We live in an ordered society, based on co-operation, in which networks of people do what needs to be done, collecting rubbish, keeping the water and electricity and gas flowing, delivering, repairing, tending, serving. It’s so smooth that most of the time, we don’t even notice it – except that now, perhaps, we are noticing it a little more. And that might be a good thing.
As Carol says, the vulnerable will always be the first to suffer, but COVID isn’t choosy. ‘I think it’s affected everybody,’ she says. ‘Even the strongest people have been affected by this.’ This goes way beyond the virus itself, awful as that is. Everybody has had to endure restrictions, lockdown, and fear about the future – and as time has gone on, the psychological effects – fuelled by uncertainty and money worries – have steadily grown. As Wendi Ogle-Welbourn, co-ordinator of Peterborough Support Hub, noted: ‘Some have found themselves in a situation that they never thought they would be in. Having to access professional support, and the benefits organisations, has been such a shock to them.’
As I know well – as perhaps we all know – asking is hard. But we need to recognise when to do it, and also learn to recognise that reluctance in others, and to make it easy for them, as the NHS staff did for me. That alone was such a help.
The real point is, it’s not about this sector, or those people, or that group. It’s about all of us now. ‘I can’t think of anybody I know who hasn’t been affected – even people working,’ says Carol. ‘It’s not just about the isolation of not being able to get out, it’s the whole restriction, not being able to hug your family and friends, and the worry. We don’t know what’s coming tomorrow, and the news fills everybody with fear. I am in contact with families where the children are having days where they just want to cry all day. Psychologically, it’s huge.’
The one positive in this is that we are all sharing this experience. It unites us, and – paradoxically, given the need to socially distance – it can bring us together. If we want that. I think most of us do want that, and that it’s in our nature as humans. It maybe means breaking a few habits, doing things we didn’t think we’d need to do. Some of those things may seem hard at first. But COVID is already requiring that of us – so let’s take this opportunity to make our new habits positive ones.
So, in no special order, I offer my own suggestions for keeping on top of things:
- Ask for help. Everyone understands. It will be met with a friendly response. Even if you’re without family or friends who can help at the moment, there are dozens of community groups right on the doorstep who are happy to hear from you.
- Look for those who need help, and reach out to them. It might be the smallest thing – even just a few moments of human interaction. It can make all the difference – and not just to them. Helping others will help you feel good about things.
- Make it easy for others to be helped. People can be proud, but genuine aid, when really needed, is always welcome.
- Show others you’re thinking of them. Pick up the phone. Have a Zoom session. During normal times, we so often put off that call, thinking we’ll do it later, or that we’ll say what we need to say when we see them next. These are not normal times. Don’t put it off. No one knows you’re thinking of them unless you show it.
- Eat well – but also, think about how others are doing. If you can spare some food, donate it. Apart from anything else, thinking this way will make you appreciate things all the more.
- Get exercise where you can. It doesn’t have to be complicated – you don’t need gym equipment to go for a walk or run, or do some exercises at home. A walk clears your head and gives a fresh perspective, but any exercise will burn away some of the stress and release chemicals that reduce anxiety.
- Create positive habits and establish a routine. Routines can help us feel in control and give a sense of structure to the day – as well as keeping us from sliding into state where depression can take hold. We all have days when we don’t want to get out of bed. But do it anyway. Don’t get caught in that downward spiral.
- Don’t lean on alcohol. A glass of something at the end of the day can be a nice reward and something to genuinely enjoy – but keep it within sensible limits. Again, routines can help. Habits are hard to break, so make them good ones – ones that do you good.
- Don’t obsess over news or social media. I’m sure we’ve all been here at some time or another, but fretting over things we can’t control is a recipe for anxiety. Check the news as part of the routine – then leave it. Use social media for interacting with friends and family. Share a joke. Have a laugh. Make it a positive place.
- Above all, stay connected. We really are in this together. We’re all part of it. That feeling of support is one of the most vital things of all.
If you need help – or know someone who does – get in touch with the Peterborough Support Hub. The hub is open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.
T: 01733 747474
Need more support? These people can help…
Like many organisations, at CPSL Mind we have reorganised ourselves in response to Covid-19 and continue to follow government guidance to protect our staff, volunteers and those we support. Working remotely, we have continued to support our clients and the wider community who have mental health concerns as well as our partners and others.
So how are we continuing to support our community?
We are providing our Sanctuary out-of-hours crisis support over telephone in conjunction with the NHS First Response Service (available by referral when calling 111, Option 2).
Our Good Life Team continue to provide one to one support to our specialist mental health service clients via telephone and, where necessary, through face-to-face visits observing social distancing guidelines.
We are also offering virtual Good Mood Cafes, Open Door calm spaces and Peer Support Groups as part of our Good Life Service to continue these initiatives while we are unable to host them in community spaces. These offer our community the opportunity to connect with others, meeting like-minded people and learning self-help techniques.
Qwell – www.qwell.io – is our online wellbeing support service, including educational and self-help articles and peer-to-peer support via forums. Adults are also able to receive help from qualified counsellors via drop-in or scheduled online chat sessions.
People are almost certainly feeling the effects of these unsettling times so our Changing Lives Primary Care Wellbeing Service including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and counselling continues via telephone. That would naturally also include new mums who have faced their own challenges during lockdown so our Perinatal Team continue to support them via telephone and online.
And vitally our Training, Fundraising, Communications and Campaigns teams are continuing to operate remotely exploring innovative ways to support and engage our community.
Our CPSL Mind number 0300 303 4363 remains open for enquiries from 9.30am to 5.30pm, Mon-Fri (excluding Bank Holidays) as normal.
Visit www.cpslmind.org.uk for more information
About CPSL Mind
Cambridgeshire, Peterborough and South Lincolnshire Mind (CPSL Mind) is a dynamic, county-wide charity that supports local people in their recovery from mental health issues, promotes wellbeing and campaigns against stigma & discrimination. We believe that no-one should have to face a mental health problem alone. If you are facing difficulties with your emotional or mental health and are looking for support on your road to recovery, we are here for you.
We are also committed to tackling stigma and raising awareness of the need for everyone to look after their mental wellbeing. If you are an employer, organisation or individual looking to improve your own wellbeing, or that of your employees, we can help.
Keep Your Head
The Keep Your Head website is a central hub for information on mental health and wellbeing in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. It can help you to find local services and get tips on ways to improve your own wellbeing, and how to look out for others.
This site has been developed through a collaboration between Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Clinical Commissioning Group, Cambridgeshire County Council, Peterborough City Council, and many voluntary sector partners including the SUN Network, Centre 33 and Lifecraft.
The SUN network is an independent Organisation that is steered by its members, here to ensure your voice is heard. We work alongside people to get their voice heard and respected, and to maximize the influence of their expertise and experience. We also believe that all services should be co-produced with service users having a say from strategic level right through to ongoing evaluation and that this involvement should be purposeful and meaningful.
Christmas for most of us is a time for celebration and spending time with those we love the most.
However, for many people it’s a time of hardship and can have a detrimental effect on self-esteem, well-being and mental health. With COVID-19 having already caused tough times for many, it’s important to know that you are not alone and we are on hand to help.
Citizens Advice Peterborough is a local charity offering free, confidential, impartial and independent advice and information services for the people of Peterborough. We are here to provide the advice and guidance you need for the individual problems that you face.
There has been unprecedented demand for our service since March; so far we have helped to resolve over 9400 different issues for over 4000 local people. We have seen increases in the number of local people contacting us about employment and redundancy services, claiming Universal Credit and other benefits. In addition to this, we offer advice on a range of issues including housing and prevention of homelessness, money advice and dealing with debts.
At Citizens Advice Peterborough, we have a team of dedicated advisors who are working to support those in need or to provide free advice.
You can reach us by calling Adviceline on 0808 278 7850 (free phone from landlines and mobiles) or visit our website www.citizensadvice.org.uk where you can email us or web-chat with a trained adviser.
Our recent report – Your care during Covid (available on our website) – shows that the pandemic has had a high or significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of many local people. So, if you need help to find services or support, get in touch with our Information Service.
Lots of health and care services have changed because of Covid, so contact us if you have a question or want to find out what’s available. We can also let you know what your options are if you have a concern or want to complain about local services.
Share your views on health and care
As the independent champion for people who use health and social care services, we make sure that those running services put you at the heart of care.
Please help improve local services by telling us about your recent experiences – at GPs, hospitals, dentists, pharmacies, with social care and more.
Get in touch with us
- Call 0330 355 1285
- Text 0752 0635 176
- Web www.healthwatchpeterborough.co.uk
CGL Aspire Recovery Service
The way you get support from us will be different for a while, but we are still here. We’ll do everything we can to help you stay safe. Things are changing quickly, so keep checking our website, Facebook page and our national coronavirus info page for updates.
Updates to the service:
- Our service is running but we are running telephone-based support and appointments.
- Needle Exchange and Naloxone can be accessed only from our 102-104 Bridge Street site (PE1 1DY). Please call ahead to get a pack if possible.
- To help you stay safe, we are changing the way we prescribe medication or a while. Please take a look at our prescriptions info page – www.changegrowlive.org/advice-info/coronavirus/methadone-buprenorphine-prescriptions – to see what’s happening. If you have any questions about this, give us a call.
- Our groups won’t be running for a while. We are exploring moving some groups online. In the meantime, you can access Breaking Free Online (call the service for an access code if you don’t already have a login) and find online groups and support options on our coronavirus info page: www.changegrowlive.org/advice-info/coronavirus
If your worker isn’t available, please give us a call on the main service number. We’re answering calls between 0930 and 1630 weekdays. If you ring outside of those hours, please leave a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.