NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

It’s the virus which has sparked fear and disruption around the world. And New Zealand is not immune – our lives remain restricted under alert level 3 in a bid to eliminate Covid-19.

So, how do we get through the coronavirus pandemic?

Kyle MacDonald is a psychotherapist and mental-health advocate and has been answering your questions in a twice-weekly column since the lockdown began. This will be his last regular column.

I’m working hard to manage the challenges of Covid-19, but there’s no end in sight. I feel very low some days. Sometimes I have dark thoughts, which I know I mustn’t act on. But I do find them upsetting and want to stop them. What are some good strategies?

When we’re overwhelmed we need to work really hard to just focus on what is in front of us – to stay in the present moment.

It’s a tricky balance between acknowledging the feelings and not getting stuck in them: lost in the worry about the future.

Without question the best approaches are distraction, in other words focusing on things that engage our attention that are outside of ourselves – not the thoughts that are going on inside your head.

The annoying thing is it requires work to keep our attention away from the distressing thoughts – and on whatever it is that we’re engaging in.

If the distress is intense you may need more physical distractions, intense exercise, cold showers, or holding an ice block. These techniques might sound a bit strange, but can be really effective when highly distressed.

But overall – just get through the moment, one day, one hour or one minute at a time.

And if you’re really struggling ask for help – call or text 1737 and talk to a trained counsellor.

With children likely to go back to early childhood education centres and school at level 2, but with social distancing being enforced, I’m concerned about the short- and long-term effects on my young children of enforcing social distancing. It’s not natural to expect them to keep their distance from their friends and teachers and I wonder what effect this is going to have on them. Especially on preschoolers if they can’t hug their teacher like normal if they are upset or hurt

Anyone who works with small children knows that the reality of keeping little people apart is not that realistic.

It’s also true that the evidence as it exists thus far is that very little transmission has happened between children, or from children to adults. We don’t know why but that seems to be the case.

The so called “Marist cluster” hasn’t helped this anxiety either, but it has been confirmed that this didn’t start with a student – the cluster is about the community surrounding the school.

It’s going to be really hard for all of us to re-calibrate our anxiety to the threat – remember at level 2 we’re no longer in bubbles.

But we need to keep trusting the official advice and doing the best we can in the environments we are in.

And you are right, our children’s emotional wellbeing is important too and we all have a part to play in making our children feel safe and cared for.

I’ve been hoarding food. Don’t hate me. I go to the supermarket with the best intentions to just top up on fresh food, but I can’t seem to stop myself buying more things for the cupboard and freezer. I can’t really afford this, but I can’t seem to stop

Anxiety shows up in all sorts of ways, and the thing about hoarding food is it is one of the most understandable responses there is – our survival depends on it.

However, as I think you’re recognising, it isn’t necessary.

It’s important to focus on the anxiety so it can be managed, without needing to act on it.

This means tolerating the feelings without buying more food than is necessary – which might sound easy but can be hard – especially if the feelings are intense and highjacking our behaviour.

Make a plan to support your “rational mind” – make a list and stick to it, or challenge yourself to only make meals from what you already have in the cupboard.

And distract while shopping – wearing headphones and listening to music, the radio or podcasts is a good way to do this.

Remember, your anxiety is trying to protect you but it can take a little time for our alarm system to catch up with reality. You’re not alone we’re all struggling with that in one way or another.

I’ve been having panic attacks, and some quite out-there catastrophic thinking. What can I do to get control of this?

Panic is awful, we define it as the fear of fear. Because of this the main focus with panic attacks can seem counter-intuitive – we have to get better at tolerating fear and anxiety.

A physical focus is the best place to start.

Managing our breath – we all tend to breathe to shallow when anxious – so slowing and deepening the breath is the aim.

The easiest way to do that is to put your hand on your diaphragm, just at the base of your ribs, and breathe in a way that makes your hand move.

And as I’ve talked about elsewhere, distract from the distressing thoughts with engaging activities that require an external focus.

Tolerating the anxiety is hard, but it’s important to remember that fear is an understandable response to the current situation and for all of us it is going to take some time for anxiety to “recalibrate” to the reality of the situation as it changes.

For some of us that will take some work, but it is time well spent.

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