A psychologist on how to avoid feelings of “Groundhog Day” during lockdown

Feeling like you’re in an endless loop? Here’s why.

Have you asked yourself what day it is recently? You’re not alone. With so many of us in lockdown and others living under restrictions of varying degrees, it can be easy to feel like every day is the same.

While it was easier to find some enjoyment during the early stages of the pandemic – the novelty of Zoom calls, Netflix binges and cooking up a storm, 18 months on, many of us are beginning to feel the psychological pinch of the daily COVID grind.

I have heard many people refer to what they’re experiencing as ‘Groundhog Day’. So, what can we do to help break up daily feelings of monotony and stagnancy as we work towards a COVID-normal world?

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Acknowledge your thoughts – Show compassion to yourself

As we go in and out of lockdowns, borders open and close and cases go up and down, we can struggle to see the light at the end of the tunnel – especially without solid timelines and targets in place.

As common feelings of frustration, anger and helplessness arise, it’s important to be kind and compassionate to ourselves. We have never lived through a pandemic before, so it is normal to experience a full gamut of emotions.

While many of us are great at showing compassion to other people, we don’t tend to be as compassionate to ourselves. When challenging feelings or emotions arise, ask yourself: What would I say to a loved one? And let the answer guide the way you respond to yourself.

It is also important to take the time to acknowledge your thoughts. Sometimes we spend so much time in our own head that we miss out on pleasant things that are happening in the moment.

It is not easy to break cycles of negative automatic thoughts and, often, the more we try to fight with our thoughts, the worse they become. Rather than pushing thoughts away, notice your thoughts, look at them curiously for a moment, and name them.

For instance, say to yourself: “Okay, so here is anxiety”, “here is doom and gloom”, “here are never-ending ‘what if’s’”, and so on.

We call this technique ‘defusion’, and it is commonly used in the therapeutic approach, known as ‘ACT’, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It is essentially a ‘noticing and naming activity’ that helps shift attention away from thoughts and into the present moment.

Once you’ve ‘noticed and named’, begin focusing on something you love – your partner, child, pet or even a plant! Spend time savouring the moment, using all of your senses including sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. This can be difficult to do for many of us, especially when those thoughts keep coming.

To get better at this, it can help to remind yourself to engage your attention in the present moment. Try this exercise:

  • Notice 5 things you can see
  • Notice 4 things you can hear
  • Notice 3 things you can feel
  • Notice 2 things you can smell
  • Notice 1 thing you can taste.

This process will help you to break out of automatic and/or repetitive negative thinking patterns.

Think about your values

While it can be tempting to spend hours scrolling through social media and news updates, or debating issues regarding lockdowns and vaccinations, these topics can create additional stress, especially when our views differ from others.

It can be helpful to remind ourselves of what is really important to us. What are our values, and what can we do to connect with our values in our every-day lives?

Personal values are those things that are important to us and bring meaning and purpose into our lives. For example, if you value social connection, then connect with others via the telephone or zoom. if you value nature, then take yourself for a walk outside or spend some time in your garden. Again, do this activity mindfully so that you are savouring this activity and awakening your senses.

Making a conscious effort to identify and embody your values is vitally important right now. It can help overcome those feelings of uncertainty and helplessness, which many of us are feeling.

Take control of your work/life balance

With many of us now working from home, the lines between our personal and professional lives are becoming increasingly blurred.

When working from an office or workplace, we usually have a dedicated workspace, set break, start and finish times, as well as dress codes and various other formalities that basically tell our mind we are ‘at work’. These help to bring in structure and psychological barriers between our work and home lives, as well as helping to break up the day.

Now, as we work from home, it’s important to try to implement similar behaviours and structures that enable us to achieve separation between home and work.

Even though it’s often difficult to find complete privacy and a large workspace within the home, it’s important to try to claim a specific place in the house that can act as your ‘office’. If possible, only sit at this space when you’re working and try to keep the space clean and organised as much as possible.

When working at the office, we usually also have daily rituals we follow – for example, chatting with a coworker, grabbing a coffee, popping out to get lunch.

Without us realising, many of these rituals function to break up our day and keep us refreshed and engaged. In lieu of naturally having these rituals form part of your everyday office life, try to find ways to incorporate them into your WFH routine.

Schedule a quick Zoom catch up with your work bestie each morning, pop out for a quick walk around the block, sit on your balcony for your coffee break. These daily rituals will make a world of difference.

It is also important to maintain your regular wake and bed times; to have a shower; and to change in and out of your work clothes. These little things bring a sense of routine and control into our daily lives, when we need them more than ever.

And finally, a non-negotiable tip: don’t be available to your workplace at all times of the day. Create boundaries to ensure you can switch on and off effectively; these are critical for ensuring you get the rest you need.

Schedule pleasant activities

During these difficult and often restrictive times, it can be difficult to do many of the things that intrinsically deliver us happiness and pleasure – visiting friends and family; going out for brunch, dinner and/or a movie; lazing around in the park, and so on.

Something fun may require a little more creativity than usual since our options are limited, but planning to watch a movie you’ve been meaning to see or scheduling to cook your favourite meal, can provide a much-needed sense of enjoyment.

Try to schedule pleasant activities into your diary, otherwise you risk falling prey to prioritising other activities, usually activities for others and not yourself. Schedule coffee breaks, drink your favourite tea etc. Again, do these activities mindfully, bringing your attention to the sights, sounds, smells, touch and tastes. Even consider scheduling an activity in the future, perhaps something you have never done before.

Connect with others

Human beings are social creatures and it is essential to our mental health to feel connected to others.

While exercise is a great way to keep fit, healthy and manage stress during the pandemic, it can also be an incredible way to connect. Depending on your current COVID rules, you can go for a walk, run or bike ride with friends, train 1:1 with a personal trainer in an outdoor setting, or even consider a round of golf which is acceptable in some places.

Video calls are another great way to stay connected when we are separated from our friends and family. As well as simple catch ups, you might look to partake in activities via video call – a movie on Netflix, a virtual workout, a collab dinner, or a weekly trivia tournament.

If we fixate on our inability to do the things the way we used to, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Try to shift and broaden your thinking and embrace new ways of connecting, knowing that the state of the world right now is not the state of the world forever.

In the meantime, you may just learn some strategies that will help you cope when things do get back to normal, even if that’s a new normal.

Vikki Knott is an Associate Professor at the Australian College of Applied Psychology and practicing psychologist.

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