Worried about a second wave? How to cope during the next phase of COVID-19.
What do you think about the possibility of a second wave? I personally think a second wave of COVID-19 is inevitable. I think a lot of people feel the same – especially when you look at the science and modelling based on previous viral pandemics. I don't think it's so much a matter of if there'll be a second wave, as when it will be and what it will look like. And this naturally gets many of us feeling a little anxious.
If we look back and reflect on what we've just been through as a nation in the UK, and as a world, it's really been quite an extraordinary time. We may have always known that a pandemic like this was possible in our lifetime, but COVID-19 still ‘came out of the blue’ for most of us. I don't think there were many of us that predicted it was going to be as disruptive to our day to day lives as it has been.
The impact of the first wave
Those first few weeks and months were brutal. As human beings we find that level of change and threat to our lives very anxiety-provoking and stressful. Many of us will have experienced an acute stress response, which is completely normal and will usually settle down within a matter of weeks. You might find you didn’t sleep as well, had lots of intrusive thoughts and images about what was happening and lots of vivid dreams. Maybe you started reaching for some unhealthy stuff to cope. Maybe you found yourself drinking a little bit more, or eating a little bit more, or taking things out on your loved ones a bit more than usual.
As the first peak started to level off there was a slight relaxing of the immediate sense of threat. For many (not everybody) there was a sense that the worst was over and we could begin to relax a little bit. But far from fully relaxed, many of us are left feeling tired, exhausted and overwhelmed.
Worried about a second wave?
Unfortunately, life hasn’t just ‘gone back to normal’ as many of us hoped it would. And it isn't going back to normal anytime soon, if it ever does. Many of us are left feeling, "how are we going to keep going through this and what's to come next?”. That's where a lot of doctors and healthcare professionals are right now. I've been hearing a lot of doctors saying they're quite worried. They're especially concerned about the winter months ahead. They're worried about the sheer volume of patients that could be coming through in the second wave, and although we may have a bit more warning this time around, they are worried that services may not be able to cope with the demand. There is an ominous sense that what lies ahead could be at best really challenging and at worst unbearable.
I'm seeing a lot of doctors, not necessarily naming their fears directly but behaving in ways that portray that they are quite scared. For example, many are choosing not to take much needed annual leave now because they want to save it for the winter months when they know that they might struggle more. In healthcare the winter months are tough anyway. Year after year it's hard to manage with the seasonal increase in workload without the resources needed. So it's understandable that many of us are feeling anxious and stressed - knowing that this winter may be even tougher still due to the extra burden of COVID-19.
What can you do if you’re feeling anxious about a second wave?
If you are feeling a little bit anxious (which is entirely understandable and normal when there is a real threat present like COVID-19) and you don't necessarily think you need professional support, then one of the most helpful things you can do is to bring your mind and body back into the present moment. You can do this very simply by putting both feet on the ground wherever you are. You might want to do that right now, whilst reading this blog. Then take a couple of slow, deep breaths. You mind find it easier to do some ‘box breathing’ or ‘square breathing’. The marines use this technique, as do many stressed-out doctors and nurses across the world. The idea is you breathe whilst counting around the edges of an imaginary square – slowly breathing in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four. Even just doing this once or twice will help you to feel more relaxed and less anxious. It's a powerful technique and you can do it anywhere without anyone knowing that you're doing it. It's really helpful for those moments by a patient’s bedside, when you find yourself freaking out. Or when you read a difficult email that sends your head into a frantic tailspin. Or in the middle of a meeting where you lose your concentration or become preoccupied with worrying thoughts.
Another great technique to help with anxiety and worry is to simply ask yourself - what do I know now and what can I control? Focusing on what you can’t predict and can’t control will usually make you feel on edge, anxious and concerned. Bringing your focus back onto the things you do know and can control will help you to feel safer, more relaxed and in command.
What should you do if this doesn’t work for you? What if you are really anxious and preoccupied and you can't stop thinking about a second wave? Maybe you’re obsessively buying up all the PPE you can possibly find to protect yourself and your family? Maybe your level of fear and worry is interfering with your day to day functioning and you can't relax or start to enjoy your life again.
If this is you or someone you know, then now is a really important time to give your body and brain the space it needs to calm down. To try to recoup your energy stores by allowing yourself some leave. Allow yourself the space you need to think and reflect on what you’ve just been through. Allow your body and brain to properly calm down and remember you are not in immediate danger.
If you're finding you can't recover because you can't relax and you're still so worried about what's to come, then it's important that you get some help. There are lots of things professionals can help you with – from supporting you to take some time off, advice about diet and activity, to helpful medications and therapy.
For any healthcare professionals in the UK struggling with anxiety right now I would highly recommend checking out the NHS Practitioner Health COVID-19 wellbeing page. There are dozens of high-quality free resources, webinars, wellbeing apps and online ‘common rooms’ you can drop into to talk to people in a safe space. If you are a doctor or dentist in England you can also self-refer to the service directly for free and confidential assessment and treatment for any mental health related issues. I do some work with this service and they are fantatsic!
There is also a 24hr text support line for NHS staff – text FRONTLINE to 85258 anytime.
There are also dozens of free resources on our website and you can always email us at email@example.com for some personalised signposting. We'd be very happy to help.
Photo by Simon Clayton from Pexels
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