A Clinical Psychologist on Managing Your Mental Health, as the Sabina Nessa Case Unfolds

·4-min read
Photo credit: Rob Pinney - Getty Images
Photo credit: Rob Pinney - Getty Images

Yesterday, a man was charged with the murder of Sabina Nessa. As you know, the 28-year-old, a daughter, sister, friend and teacher, was killed as she walked to meet a friend in the suburbs of south-east London. Her journey should have taken 5 minutes.

If you are finding going about your life while witnessing this case play out hard, know that this is a very human reaction to something deeply affecting, says clinical psychologist Dr Emma Svanberg, AKA Mumologist.

We are living in a time of hyper-visible violence being committed against people of marginalised genders. This truth is orbiting around a likely shakey baseline emotional state, thanks to covid-era uncertainty.

'For women, there has been an increase in a sense of threat which has almost come alongside a year and a half of threat and constant stress from the pandemic – starting back with #MeToo, then [the murder of] Sarah Everard 6 months ago. The Plymouth shootings in August, meanwhile, got us thinking about incels and this group of men who feel like a specific threat.'

Photo credit: Joseph Okpako - Getty Images
Photo credit: Joseph Okpako - Getty Images

In the Sabina case, racial issues feel apparent, too. 'There is an added grief which is that the initial news response [to the death of Sabina, who was British-Bangladeshi] was so much lower than it was for Sarah Everard. There are many layers which are colliding to leave women, and particularly Black and Brown women, feeling more unsafe,' she adds.

While the onus, of course, should never be on women to protect themselves from male violence, this case is also especially destabilising, says Dr Svanberg, due to the fact that this is another example of someone taking 'safety steps' to protect themselves – to no avail. Sabina was out early at 8.30pm; the venue she was heading to was minutes from her home.

Can joining system change groups help with processing?

The situation is bleak. In 2020, violence against women increased (according to a report from domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid, 61% of women living with their abuser during lockdown said that abuse had escalated; calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline surged by 80% in June 2020). Justice seems elusive: The rate of convictions for assaults on women remains excruciatingly low.

So, how do we try and live with what is going on, without hiding from its hideous reality? 'You might want to take steps like minimising your news and social media consumption,' says Dr Svanberg. 'But I think, for a lot of women, there has been this shift where it's not so much about minimising our natural adrenalin response to this, but moving to galvanishing it to bring about systemic change.

Photo credit: Joseph Okpako - Getty Images
Photo credit: Joseph Okpako - Getty Images

'Not everyone is going to want to do that, and that's, of course, fine, but for those that do there are campaigns like Reclaim These Streets, reading about what people are doing in education at a systemic level to prevent these things from hapening in the longer term and that can galvanise us: we can feel like we are doing something productive with our real, valid anxiety.

It can also help, from a mental health perspective, she says, to talk to other women about their experiences – and share yours.

The mental health benefit of vigils and services

Attending memorials and vigils, too, can help. 'Events such as these create a sense of safety and community. We can feel isolated [at times like these] so anything that brings us into a sense of safe space can counter that response,' says Dr Svanberg.

Other ways to protect your mental health

If, however, your adrenalin response is overloaded and you feel very anxious, before any of the above, creating a feeling of safety in your body might be useful. Try the below to help to bring down your adrenalin levels and to soothe yourself, in the present moment.

1. Physical grounding

When you might feel a lack of safety in your own body, due to a triggering case, physical grounding techniques can be helpful. 'If you are safe in your home, find a time when you can be alone. Place your feet on the floor, focusing on the sensation. Lift your toes and plant them slowly down and feel that connection. You could also hug your own body, get under a heavy, warm blanket or use your senses - name something you can touch, smell and see, to ground yourself in the here and now.'

2. Breathing techniques

Any technique where you take a long inhale through the nose and a longer exhale through the mouth, really focusing on that exhale, can take you out of fight or flight and into rest and digest. 'When you do this, your body is reminded that it is in a place of safety,' Dr Svanberg explains.

3. Be kind to yourself

'I know this is such as a cliche, but this is a hard time these are hard stories to read. Ask yourself: what do you need to do to feel some warmth and kindness in this time?'

4. Seek professional help

A longer term strategy, but, as ever, you might find it helpful to talk to someone if anxiety is stopping you from being able to live your life. (You can find out more about accessing talking therapies on the NHS, here.)

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