I don’t think I’ve ever properly suffered with anxiety – stress is more my thing, though I’m sure the two are somehow linked – but the current coronavirus situation is enough to make anyone as tense and panic-ridden as a hedgehog on a highway.
So there are a few things that I’ve started doing, almost religiously, to safeguard my mental health and attempt to get a good, solid night’s sleep. Good quality sleep is said to be absolutely vital for your overall wellbeing and I must say that I feel much more invigorated since I started going to bed at what would normally be my dinner time.
Yes, it makes me feel as though I’ve suddenly aged by thirty years in the space of a fortnight, especially as I go to bed with a hot water bottle strapped to my chest to “ward off any chills”, but the payoff is that I wake up at 6.30am feeling moderately okay rather than how I usually wake up, which is moody and pessimistic and feeling as though someone has used my head as a gong.
(I don’t actually wake up at six thirty – my youngest does. He’s three and still has no sense of what’s polite when it comes to wakeup times. He’s like a bloody rooster. Except he crows “it’s morning? It’s morning?” rather than “cockadoodledoo”.)
OK, my tips for feeling altogether calmer and less panicked during the coronavirus pandemic, which is likely to stretch on for a good while yet. Realistically. I’m no expert, but all the signs are pointing towards this being a longterm event rather than a short and sharp shock and so I feel it’s perhaps sensible to adopt some semi-permanent lifestyle changes rather than reactionary quick fixes.
My first change is not reading the news all day. It’s tempting to. I go to open my news apps every time I pick up my phone, so I’m also trying not to pick up my phone as much. Difficult, considering my job, but I try. One thing I definitely don’t do is read the news just before bed. Good grief. Recipe for disaster, that is.
Another offshoot change is to only read news from one source, eg the BBC, and a source that doesn’t heavily promote a comments section. If the comments section is something that pops up at the end of the piece, you can’t help but click on it, and the last thing you need at the moment is to fill your head with the thoughts and opinions of a thousand armchair experts. Some of the commenters may well be experts, but wait for them to get themselves quoted in an article and listen to them then. Perhaps.
So, no news before bed and only one slot a day reserved for reading the news at all – I do 5.30pm, when the PM addresses the nation. Which sometimes feels as though I’ve tuned into CBeebies by mistake, but such is the political state of the country/world we live in.
I’ve started reading before I go to sleep – currently on the new Hilary Mantel*, so my mind is filled with Tudor politics and beheadings and frail children all night, but it still counts as escapism.
And then before bed, I do my Epsom Salts trick, which isn’t a trick at all, but feels magical all the same. The important thing to note about this tip is that – unless you’re a billionaire – you need to get yourself a load of no-frills cheap-ass salts. I buy them in huge 10kg tubs from Amazon (see here* and here*) and so my highly effective slumber-bath treatments cost me around 20-50p per soak – if I used the equivalent amount of luxury salts, each bath would cost me about thirty to forty quid.
Because the key is quantity, here; you need a good two cupfuls of salts to really see a difference and knock yourself into a relaxation coma. If you use the pricey salts, in those little pots, you’d be throwing in a whole pot at a time. Crazy times. Buy the big tubs, save yourself a fortune, have the best night’s sleep of your life.
(Disclaimer: can’t guarantee the best night’s sleep, I’m sure that these salts work differently on everyone. I mean, I can take Benilyn Original cough mixture and it’s as though someone has given me four valium, so I’m probably susceptible.)
I also add a few drops of Frankincense essential oil (Aromatherapy Associates do a nice one*, but it’s quite widely available) to de-stress and ground myself. Bloody love a bit of frankincense, me – I’m like one of the three kings, the amount I use.
I did a video on all of these tips – you’re welcome! – and now that most of us are working from home, you have no excuse not to watch it. Ramp that volume up and let yourselves be soothes with my dulcet tones.
Hello, dearest readers. I’ve been at a loss to know what to say to you this week; my usual humour seems to have deserted me and I’m struggling to find the right words. I’m sure that most of you feel the same way as me – overwhelmed and displaced – and so I don’t want to add to your anxieties or write something that doesn’t do justice to the enormity of the situation.
Which is why I’ve called in the expert to say something useful rather than blather away aimlessly at you. I asked psychotherapist Marianne Johnson about how we could stay calm and less anxious in these rapidly changing times – her answer below will be a useful read for so many people. Please do share it, pass on the link, post on Facebook. I’ll be back – no doubt to blather away aimlessly at you – in the next few days.
Coronavirus and Coping with Anxiety.
We are all reeling from the coronavirus outbreak. Each day the world looks a little less recognisable and a little less safe as the numbers of people infected tick up and the isolation measures take hold. In my job as a psychotherapist I am increasingly finding that the focus of my work is now around the anxiety that clients are bringing and how that is impacting their lives.
Fear and panic can build up easily with our non-stop media consumption so it’s vital that we take some control of our own mental health and put things in place to protect and care for ourselves.
I’m finding that anxiety about coronovirus takes on different shapes for different people. Some experience profound existential fear about what might escalate globally in the long term, others are deeply concerned about how people can protect their livelihood and loved ones. And I am also hearing plenty of hope. Many people are expressing a desire for a profound shift in ideology as communities come together and the focus moves from a consumerist stance to a more nurturing one. I hear people longing for better, deeper connections to the people close to them, and also to a deeper sense of themselves.
So what practical measures can we put in place to help ourselves? Firstly, it’s helpful to acknowledge that some worry is inevitable. These are uncertain times. We have to give ourselves a chance to think feel and talk to others about our concerns.
Our brains are wired to avoid uncertainty and this is where anxiety can become problematic. If left unchecked, understandable worries and stress can become converted to overwhelming and unmanageable feeling of panic and dread. It can he helpful to imagine what is happening inside the brain to create this response.
Fear is a primitive and essential emotion. It keeps us safe from harm as we manage immediate threats and react accordingly. Our early ancestors needed this mechanism to escape the dangers in their environment. As our brains became more complex we became able to think ahead and creatively predict what might happen in the future, based on past experience.
Faced with a lack of certainty this more advanced function of our brain presents different versions of what could unfold, which we then process and rationalise. This can run into overdrive when we consume a vast range of speculation in the media. With so much opinion at our disposal we are able to stew in a pot of collective panic and then become compelled to search out more and more information pushing that button of dread.
Here are some suggestions
1) Be aware of how your thoughts are affecting how you feel. You have a choice about which thoughts to hold onto, and which to let go of. We can find ourselves unhappily attached to the negative thinking, feeling as as if the more we think, the more it will help us escape the uncertainty. Keep bringing yourself back to what we do know and try not to catastrophize and ruminate about what might happen.
2) Focus on bringing yourself back to the present, which for some might be meditation and others finding a project that they can immerse themselves in. Purpose is better than distraction. If you can find something really absorbing it will be more helpful to ground you.
2) If you are worried about how much time you are spending on news channels, choose one daily news outlet that you trust and have a dedicated slot that you use to check for updates. Some people may choose to avoid all media for a period of time.
3) Think about human contact and the different ways you can connect to others. It is going to be really important to carve out ways to get support. This might require taking a risk and saying to people ‘i’m here’ but it will be worth it. You can return the favour.
4) Practice a really simple but effective breathing exercise (they really do work). The nervous system can be calmed by just a minute of mindful breathing. I like the 4-7-8 method. You exhale through your mouth completely, then breath in quietly through your nose to a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale competes through your mouth (making a whooshing sound if you like) for a count of 8. Repeat this at least 4 times but as many as you like. This also really helps insomnia.
5) Be gentle with yourself and make time for things which soothe you. It can take a really concerted effort to do this. It’s so much easier to dive into our laptops or phones. Put on some music, watch a film, plant some seeds, bake a cake, do something creative, do whatever it is that can take you into a happier frame of mind.
Marianne Johnson AdvDip MA UKCP
Hurrah! I finally have internet speeds that are faster than the ones that we had back in 1999! And all it took was Mr AMR hanging precariously out of the top window, holding a 4G router above his head like a possessed telecommunications engineer. It’s the same router I’ve had for a while, but we had never tried positioning it 80cm outside the house before – more fool us!
Only others with painfully slow internet will share my joy in finally finding a workable solution to the problem – if you have internet, and it’s fast enough to do basic things such as watch a film on Netflix, then my revelation (indeed this entire post) will hold no interest for you. Move on, smugly, knowing that the next page you click to will take approximately 2.1 seconds to load and not fifteen minutes.
A bit of background, for those who are still with me: I live in a rural hamlet and we don’t have high-speed broadband. Our download speed with BT is around 5MB, upload speed is about 0.8. Netflix can be slow to respond, large files are impossible to upload and, if we have an important email to send with attachments, we find that it’s easier to dictate it to an aged monk and then summon a messenger on horseback to deliver the manuscript directly into the hands of the recipient. Godspeed, Cedric, Godspeed.
When we bought the house, we knew that the internet speeds were dire but the owners had installed satellite internet. Which seemed like a good fix. It really wasn’t – it was temperamental, didn’t like cloudy days and was very expensive to run. I think we kept it for a couple of months before realising that it was a complete waste of money and barely any faster than the bog-standard BT line. This might not be the case for everyone – it can very much depend on geographical position, whether or not you’re in a valley, for example – but the overall feeling about satellite internet, when you read online, seems to be that people aren’t overwhelmed with enthusiasm for it.
So what was my next line of attack? Well, I’ll admit that I was a bit stuck. The residents of my hamlet had been promised Truespeed, which is one of the providers trying to bring FTTP (fibre to the premises) to people in areas without any high speed broadband. They quite literally build the network, from scratch, and connect each home to a network that’s often higher than you’ll even find in the cities.
I have a love-hate relationship with companies such as Gigaclear and Truespeed and also quite a lengthy relationship. The village I lived in just outside of London didn’t have fibre (more forgivable in 2014, I suppose) and one day a meeting was held in the village hall about a high speed network that would be put together by someone called Gigaclear. So we all duly signed up and those of us who were desperate for it (freelancers, mainly, and people running businesses from home) even took it upon ourselves to go out personally and get new sign-ups. Everyone had to give their bank details, sign the forms – we were at 99% they told us! Only less than one household to go! – and it looked like a done deal. But nothing materialised. Even by the time we moved, in 2017, there was no Gigaclear. And I’ve just checked online now, in 2020: still no Gigaclear.
It’s the same with Truespeed. Promised it way before we bought our house in Somerset and for almost two years we’ve been receiving updates but there’s always one more barrier, one more problem that needs to be overcome.
So I had to put aside my hopes of getting Truespeed for now (fibre speeds of up to 200MB!) and seek other remedies. Thankfully, the best one – and I shall be eternally grateful – came from one of my neighbours, Adam, who had beaten us to Somerset by around four months and had therefore exhausted most internet-improving avenues. Now I must be clear, before you get overexcited: this method of gaining miraculously high speeds does depend on your 4G reception. I’ll admit that many rural places have crap internet and barely any 4G coverage, but for those luckily enough to have good phone signal, you’re in for a treat.
4G coverage is ever-improving, so it’s worth checking coverage maps for all providers, not just the one you happen to have stuck with for the past fifteen years. See who comes up trumps on the coverage maps and then get hold of a pay as you go SIM card for that company and test out the 4G reception in all areas of your house.
The areas of the house thing is incredibly important, by the way; in my office, my 4G router gives me download speeds of 6.8MB and upload speeds of 0.98. If I shunt the router forwards into a front bedroom and balance it on the windowsill (or, even, out of the window on the end of Mr AMR’s arm) then I get a ridiculously speedy (for here) 12MB download speed and 26MB upload. (I have no idea why the upload speed is faster, I suspect it’s not a good sign but quite honestly I can’t be bothered to rock the boat when I finally have a workable connection!)
But I’ve gone too far ahead and missed out important information here: neighbour Adam had been experimenting with various internet things and had settled on the very satisfactory method of using a 4G data-only SIM with a router he had bought on Amazon. He was getting fast, reliable internet and paying around £25 per month.
I immediately ordered the router (this one here* (AD/affiliate link) in case you’re interested) and went for the same data SIM he was using (Vodafone, 50GB limit) and the next day slotted everything together and crossed my fingers. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the speedtest came back with 25MB download and 8MB up. Hurrah! All of my work (and Netflix) problems had been solved!
Huawai Router* + Data Only SIM + Reasonable 4G Coverage = Rural High Speed Internet
There was one more twist in the tale, though. Left to its own devices, my Macbook Pro was a champion devourer of data. It chomped its way through data like one of those people who eat hot dogs to break world records; the remaining gigabytes dissolved in front of my very eyes as my iCloud synced the ten thousand daily photos that I took on my phone and my iPhoto uploaded all of my DSLR photos to the iCloud and my iTunes did things that only iTunes really understands, because who can actually access any of their music anyway? It’s all locked up in some virtual shipping container somewhere and you can only play it if you ask really, really nicely, even though you spent forty-nine days importing all of your CDs into your iMac in 2004. (What a bloody waste of time! I swear, the number of weeks I’ve spent copying records onto tape cassettes, tapes onto CD, converting CDs to MP3s. Oh! And the brief yet painful era of the mini disk. Remember those? You couldn’t even buy music on a mini disk, so you had to make the world’s most labour-intensive mix tapes and the whole set-up only lasted for about a year anyway! Which meant that my in-car mini disk player and my mini disk walkman were both an epic waste of hard-earned cash…)
To cut a long story short, my 50GB data was lasting for around two days if I left my MacBook running. So I had to turn off iCloud, which meant I couldn’t sync my photos and I couldn’t see my emails either because they were burning up data like psychopathic data fire-starters. Unlimited data SIMs weren’t yet a thing, so I had to try and find another way to limit my usage. Firstly I bought two SIMs so that I would never run out – I just swapped them over when one ran out for the month. But then I looked into how to manage my usage and found a very handy app called TripMode. I can’t really rave about this app enough; it’s inexpensive, it works, it will probably save you tens of pounds each month, especially if you work from home.
TripMode automatically limits your data usage by blocking things on your computer (or phone) that are data hogs. So iCloud, for example, and Mail, and even iPhoto if you tend to take a lot of video footage and photos with large file sizes. You can preset which apps to block and toggle TripMode on and off so that if you do need to quickly email or sync something it’s easy to do. It also monitors usage and can set data caps – all for about six quid. (At last glance.) Find that here, it’s an absolute must if you don’t have unlimited data.
Luckily, more and more data providers are now doing unlimited data SIMs that you can slip, with an almost sexual level of pleasure, into your router slot. Oh, the thrill of knowing that you’ll be able to load a page on ASOS without getting the spinning wheel of doom! Oh, the sparks of passion that will fly as your fingers caress the keyboard and open New Tab, New Tab, New Tab, as you frantically absorb all of that internet information and even play a Youtube video in the background! Stick a fork in me, unlimited data SIM, I’m done.
Virgin do an unlimited data SIM for those who are already customers, SMARTY have one that’s very cheap and doesn’t have a contract (I found this the slowest for speeds in my area so cancelled), 3 have one, Vodafone have an unlimited SIM but they say it’s just for phones. I have yet to test this. For many, 3 will be the best bet – they have exemplary coverage when you look at their maps. I think that 3 own SMARTY, but I found speeds higher with 3. Go figure.
I hope, sincerely, that at least a few of you that have been struggling with rural – or just plain bad – internet will find this useful. Some will be eye-rolling and saying “duh, like I hadn’t thought of that!” but at least a dozen people in my immediate geographical vicinity hadn’t known about the router + 4G sim option, so I’m going out on a limb and putting it out there.
And at the risk of being even more obvious, I’m going to precis my rural internet findings below, with the Three Useful Things You Should Know If You Have Very Slow Internet. You’re welcome.
1 You can easily find out whether you’re in an area that’s being considered by providers such as Truespeed and Gigaclear. Just type your postcode into their websites (linked above) and it’ll tell you whether there’s a build in progress or any interest at all in your area. You can also (actually is maybe a better first call) check on Open Reach to see whether fibre is coming to your area, or whether your cabinet (not like a kitchen cabinet, it’s bigger and further away) is due to be upgraded. Check that info here.
If your community isn’t eligible for any sort of network building scheme then you could also look into Community Fibre Partnerships, which is when you all get together and basically foot the bill. I’ll side-step the politics on that one, because it seems slightly ridiculous that a community should be having to raise massive funds for something that others get for free… Trying to be all zen at the moment.
2 If you can get 4G signal then you are massively in luck, because you can try the Router + 4G SIM method that works so well for me. You can find 4G coverage maps for most providers here. If you have a reasonably strong 4G signal with one of them then you can buy a 4G router here (that’s the one I have) and data SIM cards from most mobile phone providers. If you want unlimited data (why wouldn’t you?) then try Three (here) and EE have literally just launched theirs onto the market, the deal is £34 per month here. (Please do your own checks as to suitability for your router and so on!)
3 If you don’t get any 4G reception then all is not lost. Though it may be a matter of doing some heavy research and/or digging a little deeper in terms of costs. If you want to try satellite, because you’re desperate (I found it twitchy) then try a larger provider such as Avonline. I also found this website incredibly interesting: ruralinternet.co.uk. You can also contact Open Reach and see how much it would cost for fibre to your premises privately – ie, the road gets dug up just for you, the price depends on how far you are from the nearest cabinet. I don’t need to tell you, I’m sure, that it’s probably going to be really, really expensive. There’s a rudimentary price list here if you can get your head around it…
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Earlier this year I wrote about the fact that Christmas isn’t actually a holiday, not really, and especially not if you have young kids. Or any kind of dependents. Kids don’t stop being kids just because it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Toddlers don’t give a shit if your usual pre-kids Christmas routine was waking up at 10am, opening the “main” present, having Buck’s Fizz in bed and then watching Home Alone three times before maybe drinking more Buck’s Fizz in the bath and then merrily doing all the wrong things to the turkey.
(Do I brine it? Bernard! Which method are we doing? BERNARD! Stop messing with that bloody thermostat and read me the instructions – are we doing Nigella or Jamie? Brine or bacon?)
Even if you don’t have dependents Christmas isn’t much of a rest; you spend the few days between finishing work and Christmas Day trying to buy all of the tat for people that you haven’t bought throughout December (though it’s all on sale by then so that’s good – it’s to make up for the stratospheric stress levels that last-minute shopping bring on) and then you have to read up about which turkey-prep method you need to plump for. That’s if you’re staying at home – chances are you’ve got to do the “Grand Tour” and sleep on five different couches as you travel around the country visiting all of the friends and family members who won’t travel because they have dependents.
Anyway, it is a wonderful time of year, if you’re lucky enough (sadly, for many people it’s abysmal) and for me, having kids has brought Christmas back to life somewhat. I feel as though I see the magic in it again – the lights, the excitement, the cold walks, the jazzy music, the films – and I want to fully appreciate it and not see it as a stress.
So this year I am going to try and at least have one type of rest – a work rest! I’m deleting all of my social media apps from my iPhone so that I can’t look at them, post on them or otherwise engage with them. I’m not deleting the accounts – that would be stupid, given my job – I’m just pressing pause until January.
And (boo hoo) this will be my last post for a couple of weeks here, too, though please be filled with joy at the fact that I have loads of brilliant things lined up for you in January. I’m itching to edit them but mustn’t – if I do start editing, I won’t be able to tie up my last bits of admin and then I’ll be doing that on Monday 23rd and my whole “no work” plan will be made a mockery of. No plan likes to be mocked.
So, farewell for now my festive friends: wishing you an absolute blinder of a Christmas with minimal familial fallout and lots of brined/bacon’d turkey. (Which method do you do? I didn’t brine or bacon last year and it tasted just the same as any other year. I’m sure it’s all a nonsense. Thoughts below.)
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and – as always – a heartfelt thanks to all of you for reading, commenting and messaging. I appreciate each and every one!