Feeling anxious and unsettled is a perfectly normal response to life during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to opera singer and psychologist Greta Bradman.
‘Never was the level of uncertainty greater across the community, particularly for us in the performing arts,’ said Bradman, a member of the Arts Wellbeing Collective Advisory Group.
Stressing that fear, anxiety and sadness are perfectly normal emotional responses in such uncertain times – especially given the financial uncertainty that many in the sector are currently facing – Bradman suggested several simple tips to assist in maintaining emotional equilibrium during lockdown.
1. Stop seeking out bad news
‘The human brain is more responsive and sensitive to negative news and threats and danger, and we tend to go looking for that. So we need to be an active participant in really reframing and helping orientate our brain towards information that isn't threat-based,’ said Bradman.
While that can be difficult, it is far from impossible, Bradman said. ‘But it has to be a conscious activity. So that might mean actively putting down the phone or not looking at those … news articles that are anxiety-provoking or which reinforce our sense of lack of security or uncertainty.’
Instead of endlessly scrolling through news reports about the latest COVID-19 infection rates, she recommended deliberately seeking out good news.
‘So following folks on Instagram like Reason to be Cheerful and … actually inclining towards good news. Choose your sources of information carefully so you don't get caught up in misinformation and panic. And as I say, actively go after good news for your information diet … Because we know that as humans, we're built to go looking for threats – and at a time like this our threat filter is on high alert. So we need to find ways of dampening that.’
2. Create healthy habits
Bradman also recommends actively creating healthy habits, including exercising and maintaining social connections despite remaining physically isolated.
‘So even though it’s a time where we are far more isolated than perhaps we've ever been, certainly as a community we can still connect virtually. So think about daily exercise as not just being for your body and not even just being for your mind, but for your creativity and also your social heart,’ she said.
‘Exercise that connection muscle because it feeds so much more than just that muscle in turn. For example, video chat – it can actually be an awesome resource and [help you] remember that we are all in this boat together. So don't be afraid to reach out to others where you might not ordinarily have that connection or that relationship with them. Reach out and suggest, “Hey, you know how like, every few months we catch up for a cuppa? Well, can we do that virtually using Skype or using Zoom?”’
'Think about daily exercise as not just being for your body and your mind, but for your creativity and also your social heart.'
Seeing people face to face, even over the internet, can be a valuable tool in maintaining mental health and wellbeing, she explained.
‘There's really interesting research to show you that oxytocin, which is the love hormone or the connection hormone – if we text someone or if we email or if we chat via messaging, we don’t get a hit of oxytocin the way that we do … when we can actually see them and we have that body language ... That can really feed into our wellbeing and positive mental health, [as well as generate] the activation and release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which are the feel-good neurotransmitters.’
3. Engage with mindfulness
Bradman said that another important habit during the stressful period we are all living through is actively engaging with mindfulness techniques in order to unhook from the endless ‘what ifs?’ and ‘if onlys’.
She recommends a number of Mindfulness which both she and her clients have found useful.
‘So for instance, Waking up with Sam Harris is one that a lot of my clients in psychology love. And not because I introduced it to them, it's just a really engaging, resonant app at the moment. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, a philosopher, he's also a New York Times bestseller, and his voice is one that just really seems to sort of resonate with people,’ Bradman said.
‘I love Waking up with Sam Harris the app as well, and then others such as Smiling Mind and Buddhify. Use them to actively unhook, as I say, from the what ifs and the if onlys in order to reconnect ourselves with the present moment.
‘A lot of the time the threats and the anxieties and the worries that we have don't relate back to what's happening within our bodies and within a context right now; the things that we concerned might happen or possibly will happen. So to give [ourselves] a break from that at a physiological level can be really valuable as well,’ Bradman said.
4. Accept your grief
Given the waves of closures, cancellations and lost job opportunities that have beset the sector, it’s hardly surprising that many people are collectively grieving what they’ve lost – and even what’s yet to come.
David Kessler, an expert on grief and loss, has described the current collective mindset as ‘anticipatory grief,’ explains Bradman.
‘He makes the point that at the moment with COVID-19, the feeling of discomfort that we all have is more than just the fear of economic toll on us individually and collectively. It's also a fear of losing connection and the fear of losing normalcy and those aspects of our lives – particularly in the performing arts – and that it is in fact, grief. And we're not used to this collective grief to this extent that is in the air; we don't really know what to do with it or about it – especially when we know the journey is not done yet. And so we have the sense of anticipatory grief, the sense of a storm coming.’
5. Focus on what you can do for yourself
Working through the stages of grief towards sadness and acceptance takes time, Bradman continued. One thing that can help is to focus on practical things you can do for yourself instead of endlessly obsessing about the coulds, the shoulds and maybes.
‘I know it's a really difficult thing to have the discipline to ask ourselves, “What can we do? And what do we need in order to put our own oxygen masks on first?”’
By being kind to ourselves and our immediate circle, that prevents us from over-reaching in our attempts to help everyone, Bradman said.
‘Really focus on putting first things first, which is supporting ourselves and supporting those around us,’ she said.
This interview is based on a recent conversation between Greta Bradman and Richard Watts on the 3RRR program SmartArts. Listen to the interview in full.