Reflections on lockdown, resilience and beyond
Published on 29 June 2020
Integrated Recovery Team Media Release
Two Whanganui District Health Board staff with backgrounds in mental health – Olive Redfern and Ron Kinsey – talk about their expertise in resilience, coping mechanisms and change following the response to Covid-19.
Olive Redfern’s ‘day job’ is dementia educator at WDHB, but during the Covid-19 crisis, she couldn’t deliver training, so worked in the DHB’s staff welfare team, walking through the hospital daily through Alert Level 4, checking in with staff.
“Every day I was reminded of the resilience of people. We had so many things put upon us and we were required to adapt immediately. Huge changes were made, which we would never had dreamt of prior to Covid-19, but here we were doing it…wards swapping around, clinics moving and people working from home.
“WDHB staff got on with it, cared for patients and were prepared to put themselves on the frontline. It was a gift for me to be part of it. I like supporting people and I felt very privileged to be asked,” she says.
Her advice for managing stress, whether in a crisis situation or otherwise, is to engage the pre-frontal cortex, “the thinking part of your brain, that helps you solve problems - to use a neuroscience term”.
“Often when we get stressed we engage the amygdala – the ‘fight or flight’ part of the brain - and we forget to engage the thinking brain. Negative thoughts take us down a pathway that activates cortisol production, whereas if we have positive thoughts including gratitude and kindness, we engage the dopamine pathway and exhibit more positive emotions and behaviours.
“There is no one way of dealing with responses to a big event like a global pandemic,” Olive says.
“What stresses one person might be very exciting for another. It’s about perception and understanding we are all different and just because one person has a way of being and doing doesn’t mean it's going to work for everybody. We know resilience is something we build. It’s innate and within us but how we build it depends on the experiences we have in our lives and how we respond to them. We have very little control of the stuff around us but we can control how we react so it’s about managing ourselves and not buying into stress around us.
“Check in with your thinking every now and then. Stop, pause, breathe and reflect. Will another way of thinking get you through differently? Instead of looking at the big picture, break down goals into small, achievable tasks. Every time we achieve a little task we activate dopamine which gives us a good feeling, unlike cortisol which can contribute to unhealthy and chronic conditions which are over represented in New Zealand.”
Even with her knowledge and experience in managing stress and building resilience, Olive said she had to check in with herself during lockdown.
“Generally I am pretty good at motivating myself but in week three I hit a wall. It was the weekend before Easter and I had to do some self-coaching to get myself through,” she says.
“During Alert Levels 4 and 3”, Olive says, “people were generally in ‘coping mode’. Emotional and mental health responses to the lockdown and the pandemic may begin to surface later when people have time to reflect and absorb the experience.”
Ron Kinsey, Consultant Psychologist in WDHB’s community mental health team, agrees.
“Most of us didn’t have enough time to talk to our clients about what was happening leading up to the lockdown. Some people took to it really well and for others it was a bit difficult and we are trying to pick that up now,” Ron says.
“A lot of the referrals we are getting are for people with alcohol or drug overuse. Probably anxiety will come through later on when people start to relax and take a breath. It’s usually a bit delayed. Regrettably, family violence went up too as people were living in a microcosm and irritation and frustrations came through.”
He says some people who have had anxiety relating to Covid-19 won’t need professional advice but will find ways to ground themselves and make decisions about what they need to do.
“For some, a bit of physiological first aid (emotional and practical support) will be all they need. Some elderly people who have been through WW2 for example will say ‘I have been through this before and it’s nothing new’. Different people will have different views. Some will respond well and some won’t.”
He anticipates anxiety may grow now the borders are open and people begin travelling to countries with Covid-19. Part of managing this anxiety is learning how to use PPE properly while traveling in order to be safe “but not overdoing it”.
‘”We are getting back to readjusting to society as a result of a disaster. We are reshuffling and working out what works. We will build confidence again that the world is safe, or safer. A vaccine might turn up and then we will on to the next problem. There will always be something but it’s about learning how to cope with what’s happening now.”
While Ron and others in the mental health field can’t fix the economy, they can prepare people for change or help people through job losses.
“From a mental health perspective we can’t create jobs but what I am getting people to do is think about how they are going to cope now and what they are going to do. Some people might be forced into retirement and haven’t planned for it. I encourage them to think differently. Sometimes it’s possible, sometimes it’s not.
“Because the response to Covid-19 was a whole country thing we are all in the same boat so we all sharing similar stories so people are not left out of the disaster/survivor stuff. We’ve all been there, we’ve all got through it and we will all have stories to tell. That’s a plus.”