I have a problem with the phrase ‘the new normal’. It grates with me like nails on a blackboard. It feels as though it’s making light of the past year, saying, ‘This is life now: buck up, get back to work, deal with it.’
But we cannot underestimate what we’ve experienced. Many people have lost loved ones and were unable to say goodbye. Others have faced financial ruin. I know many parents who have had to seek help for children and teenagers struggling with mental health issues, anorexia and self-harm. And I can’t even think about the horrors of being stuck at home in an abusive relationship or with abusive parents.
So while many are raising a toast to their new-found freedom in the pub right now (and that’s understandable, too), there’s an equal number of people who are not in a good place. If this is you and you’re suffering extreme anxiety, then know that this is ‘normal’, too.
Post-pandemic stress disorder (PPSD, not an official term) is a new phrase being used to describe the resulting trauma of 2020. It was coined by Owen O’Kane, a psychotherapist, author and the former NHS clinical lead for mental health, who believes that due to the invisible nature of the pandemic, we may see trauma minimised. Just because we’ve all been in it doesn’t mean we should belittle it.
Obviously PPSD is a twist on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition where the patient relives a traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks. According to Alejandra Sarmiento, a trauma specialist at London mental health clinic The Soke, we don’t have to have suffered unimaginable trauma to experience PTSD. ‘It can occur after major disasters but it can also manifest after you were shouted at in front of a room of people,’ she says. ‘After Covid-19, we would expect a form of PTSD to happen globally.’ But most disasters, she explains, are confined to time and location, ‘Covid-19 is invisible and yet everywhere which only compounds the anxiety.’
PTSD, Sarmiento explains, occurs when our stress response kicks in during a traumatic event and we freeze in fear. ‘All that emotion becomes stuck, and can result in a stress disorder, which is when the memories bubble up afterwards. A smell, a noise, or something on the TV can trigger them to erupt.’
So how do you know if you have PPSD, and what can be done to overcome it? Poor sleep patterns, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, angry outbursts, inability to function properly and extreme stress after a memory can all be signs. Here Sarmiento shares how to get through it…
Reach out for connection, ‘ideally with a professional who can help you unravel and process the trauma, or have your stress response in a safe environment. The more you deal with something the less scary it seems.’
Talk to a friend or family member. ‘Talking to someone close – in small windows rather
than for hours – can be a relief.’
Try to sit with the feeling. ‘Ask yourself how the anxiety/trauma feels in your body. The more you can befriend it the less of a hold it has over you.’
Keep a journal of your thoughts.‘Each day write down how you are feeling or when you feel overwhelmed. There is something about writing things out that processes your thoughts.’
Be kind to yourself. ‘Run a bath, have a healthy meal, call a friend. You are sending a signal back to your body to say, “You’ve got this.”’
Finally, remember that the upside of trauma, says Sarmiento, can be ‘post-traumatic growth – usually after great periods of stress you feel more resilient and can pick up new skills’. Whether that’s meditation or knitting, brighter days really do lie ahead.
Where to find help
If you are in crisis text SHOUT to 85258. If you are struggling contact CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) on 0800 585 858. If you are under 25 go to themix.org.uk. Find a therapist at nhs.uk/service-search/find-a-psychological-therapies-service. Go to mind.org.uk for trusted mental health information.
A mood boost for your home
Whether or not your home has been a haven in the past year, you will fall in love with the new Aromatherapy Associates home range. The Atomiser diffuser (£120, aromatherapyassociates.com) fills the air with uplifting scents, while a new cleaning range in association with The Laundress (surface cleaner, detergent and washing-up liquid, from £21.50, thelaundress.com) even makes housework enjoyable.