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“Is it real?” a friend asks. “Am I actually dreaming right now?” She’s not alone in doubting reality. Many of us may have had snatched moments like this over the past week, spacing out for some time or questioning whether what we’re all experiencing right now is actually happening – especially after the prime minister announced the near-total lockdown.
In the special broadcast, Boris Johnson addressed the nation with a sombre tone and told of how people must stay indoors, aside from our one allotted exercise outing each day and jobs that can’t be done from home. Break the social-distancing rules and you could be moved on by police – or even fined.
It was an unprecedented message in peacetime – and our questioning of reality is a coping mechanism to deal with what is by any stretch a stressful situation. There is an imminent threat to global health and also the lives of our nearest and dearest. Silently and rapidly, Covid-19 has spread from country to country, destroying lives, but also altering ways of life, economies and social structures.
More than six in 10 UK adults (62%) have felt anxious or worried because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation. One in five (22%) have felt panicked, almost a third (30%) have felt afraid, while almost one in five people (18%) say they’ve felt hopeless.
“When our anxiety is triggered, what happens is our brain searches frantically to see how we have managed this before,” says psychotherapist Pam Custers, who runs The Relationship Practice and is part of the Counselling Directory.
Your brain is telling you: well, we must have experience of this, how do we manage it? “But the reality is that none of us have faced this before,” Custers explains. We’re in unchartered territory – and when you feel distressed by this, and helpless, that’s when this surreal feeling, this dream-like state, might kick in.
“We’re constantly in a no man’s land. It feels unreal because we’ve just never experienced it before, or anything like it,” adds Custers. “Every time we watch the news, our internal alarm system – the amygdala – triggers our alarm system, and the next step in the process of fight or flight is casting about to try and resolve that feeling. But actually it’s very hard to resolve that feeling right now.”
This sense that nothing is real, like you’re in a dream or movie, is considered a symptom of disassociation – something many people will experience at some point in their lives, according to the mental health charity Mind.
What is dissociation and why do we feel it?
Dissociation is one way the mind copes with too much stress, for example in people who’ve been through something traumatic. “If you dissociate, you may feel disconnected from yourself and the world around you,” says Mind. “You may feel detached from your body or as though the world around you is unreal.”
Experiences of dissociation can last for a relatively short time (hours or days) or for much longer (weeks or months). People who dissociate for a long time might go on to develop a dissociative disorder, where it becomes their primary way of dealing with stressful experiences.
The hard reality right now is that many people are facing, or will at some stage experience, a certain level of trauma because of this virus – whether that’s the death of someone close, the loss of jobs and income, or the decline of a relationship. The Covid-19 crisis is an unfolding and distressing event that millions are collectively facing and it will likely overwhelm our ability to cope. Many may feel helpless in the months to come.
It’s unsurprising then that people are reacting by questioning reality. Some might minimise or deny it’s happening altogether. Each of these are coping strategies.
As Lucy Fuller, a UKCP-accredited counsellor and psychotherapist, says: “Nobody foresaw this – well, maybe scientists did – and so what’s happening in the world doesn’t feel real because nobody thought this could happen to our lives.
“Who would’ve thought that everything could completely shut down and we’d be told to go home and not come out. In many ways it is unreal, so it is hard to accept.”
Fuller believes our brain is doing all it can to stop us from descending into doom. “To have a sense of dread is a horrible emotion, it’s a difficult emotion, and people will do everything they can not to go to that place,” she says.
“Sometimes you can go out and the street is empty, it feels really strange; or somebody tells you that a relative of theirs has died – we could be thrown into that sense of dread but humans will avoid that as much as they can because that’s a really destructive, awful feeling.”
The government’s latest announcement of lockdown measures succeeded in scaring most people into staying at home and not risking the lives of others. But it might’ve also triggered a lot of anxiety, suggests Custers.
“Depending on our makeup and our attachment styles, we’ll either be triggered immediately into anxiety, or others will be more slow to respond, or people will respond in a way that is in denial,” she says.
“The government has had to up the ante in terms of triggering us into action. We are being pumped with this [information about coronavirus] – and I can understand why – but we are going to have trauma.”
So is it best to embrace this feeling – or challenge it? Custers believes we shouldn’t sit with it, because anxiety can run away with us if we let it and we can end up in a dark place or, as Fuller alludes to, that space of dread.
“Anxiety at the moment is normal, the government is [enforcing extreme measures] in order to make you take action – and I think that’s something people have to realise,” says Custers.
A moment of questioning whether this is real is a pretty normal response – your brain is trying its hardest to cope and process what’s going on. But if it becomes overwhelming and you having this feeling of living in another world where you’re not engaging with real life, it’s time to take action.
What can you do to feel a bit better?
There are things you can do from your own home to keep mentally well right now. The first is to call upon your rational self, says Custers. “Tell yourself: I am perfectly safe within these four walls, I am ok and I’m going to structure my life in a way that I can carry on with my normality as far as possible,” she explains..
If, on a Thursday night, you used to do a weekly yoga session, join an online yoga class. If you loved going to the pub on a Friday night to do a pub quiz, get your mates together (via a hangout app) and do one online. Maintaining a sense of normality is key, right now especially.
Kindness can be really positive for our mental health, particularly in times when we feel out of control. “Even if you can’t go out you could phone someone who’s having a difficult time,” Custers suggests, who says kindness can be as impactful as mindfulness for our mental wellbeing. Or why not get involved in this #viralkindness postcard campaign in your local neighbourhood, volunteer for the NHS – or check out these other ways to help the most vulnerable.
You should also be focusing on connection. Have a significant conversation – not about what you’ve got on your shopping list, but a more deep and meaningful chat – with someone every day. If you live alone, it might good to do this by video call or app. And if you find your mental health is really struggling, seek support from your friends and relatives, but also consider a therapist.
The NHS talking therapies programme is still open and accepting referrals, though appointments are likely to be delivered by telephone or video call instead of in person. That said, face to face sessions are still possible where both parties think it is in the best interests of the patient to do so. Lots of private therapists are offering virtual sessions, for those able to pay.
And lastly, take note of the beauty of the world. Have a moment to contemplate the bigger picture, the universe, but also the beauty in small, everyday things, which can help put everything into perspective.
“We have to hope,” Fuller concludes. “We have to believe that yes, it’s going to be bad, and we’re doing this so the NHS can save as many lives as we can – but then it’s going to get better.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.