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The 7 emotional stages you’ll go through during lockdown

Wilhelm Crous - Wednesday, May 06, 2020


As we go into the next level of lockdown in South Africa, Steph Vermeulen, author, life coach and one of SA’s authorities on emotional intelligence breaks down the emotional stages we may be going through right now and offers practical tips to cope.  

These are the 7 emotional stages you are likely to go through during a lockdown (although they may not necessarily occur in this order).

  1. Initial optimism: To some isolation may have felt like a dream come true: Working from home is going to be great. I can get to the projects I’ve been wanting to work on, or improve a skill, pick up a new hobby and spend more time with the kids.
  2. Determination: When you find yourself overwhelmed by cleaning, feeding and home-schooling while trying to get on with your own work priorities, the initial enthusiasm wanes but you remain determined to stick to your routine. 
  3. Satisfaction and frustration: You’ll experience times when you’re more productive and less productive leading to moments of satisfaction and periods of frustration.
  4. Depression: When you start struggling and feeling this is hard. Your routine or lack of it might not be working and you may experience restlessness that makes it difficult to concentrate. The lack of real social connection starts to bite.  You may miss the freedom of going out and seeing friends and loved ones and could feel demotivated, hopeless or experience a sense of despair. 
  5. Anger: You might experience anger about the situation, the confinement, the rules that constrain you and get easily irritated by others in your household, neighbours or even members of government. You may find yourself signing every petition circulating to try and make this stop.  
  6. Acceptance: When you resign yourself to the situation and carry on doing whatever is in your control and letting go of what is not in your control.
  7. Making meaning: Inspiration catapults us out of despair and even reminding yourself that this lockdown serves the greater good to prevent more sickness and death can be helpful.  You can also make meaning from doing practical things like packing food parcels for the hungry or by envisioning new, better ways of living or doing things.
So, how does one cope?

Lockdown and isolation is new to all of us so don’t expect yourself to handle this perfectly or to behave impeccably under difficult circumstances.  There’s good reason these 7 stages are adapted from the stages of grieving because grief is what this feels like.  Many people have real fears about the future because they have lost their job or had their income reduced.  Even where this is not the case having to give up your freedom and your social connections will trigger your nervous system to respond unconsciously to this threat.

How to calm yourself down 

Here are a few things you can do to soothe your nervous system:

  • The first is to limit your news diet and especially social media where conspiracy theories are running amok.  Conspiracy theories may seem plausible to your thinking brain that is searching for answers to explain the sense of doom-and-gloom you may be feeling.  In truth, these fear-based fantasies ramp up our nervous system making us more agitated than we were before.

  • Practice the “Apple Technique” suggested by AnxietyUK:
    • Acknowledge: Notice and acknowledge the uncertainty and anxiety as it arises in your mind.
    • Pause! Don’t react at all. Pause and breathe.
    • Pull back. Tell yourself: “This is the worry talking. It’s only a thought or feeling.” Don’t believe everything your mind tells you. Thoughts are not statements-of-facts. They are just thoughts.
    • Let go of the thought or feeling: It will pass. You don’t have to respond.  If these thoughts or feelings are unsettling, imagine them floating away in a bubble or cloud.
    • Explore the present moment because right now all is ok. Notice your breathing. Notice the ground beneath you. Notice and name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell. This keeps you grounded in the present moment. Then shift your attention to something else—on what you need to do, or what you were doing before you noticed the worry, or do something else – but, whatever you choose, give it your full attention.

  • Stay connected with friends and family online. Calmly chatting to loved ones can make us feel safer.

  • Stay active and keep moving with some gentle stretching, yoga, online workout sessions or – where permitted – walking and jogging (in nature if you can). 

  • Seek help if need be: Consult a coach or therapist online if the situation becomes overwhelming.  

  • And laugh!  Humour provides a substantial sense of relief to your nervous system and forces you to relax. Watch stand-up, watch comedies (old and new) and share memes that appeal to your sense of humour.   

Most importantly stay safe and stay calm!  

Don’t forget to join us for our webinar this Thursday from 14h00 to 16h00, where Steph Vermeulen alongside several other specialists will unpack strategies to help you and your team survive (and even thrive!) during and after the COVID-19 crisis. Register online here.

We will be hosting an online “Mental Health in the Workplace during Coronavirus Seminar” on 18 June 2020. This one-day online event will give you the opportunity to find out how Discovery, Sasol, ICAS, Momentum (and more) are managing employee mental health during COVID-19 - learn more here.




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