How do you feel, today? If you're in a strange place, humming with wired energy that has nowhere to go and feels like it might collapse back in on you – a supernova of rage, fear and sadness – know that you're not alone.
Feelings are running raw. As well as the news of the suspected kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, your darkest nightmare made real, we've had revelations from the Duchess of Sussex about what she endured during her time as a working royal. This includes, she says, a climate of systemic racism and a lack of support when dealing with suicidal ideation.
How has last week affected our mental health?
"This was such a hard week in the news – and such a hard time, overall," says clinical psychologist Dr Emma Svanberg (Mumologist). She notes that you might have been particularly affected by the themes of the two-hour interview if you're a woman of colour, a woman with mental health problems, or both. Then, of course, we are collectively spinning from the gender-based violence, a daily reality illuminated in the most unsettling light.
"With regards to the Sarah Everard case, there are a lot of things that are triggering. The way she disappeared, despite having taken all the precautions that many women take – it might feel really personal.
"What that does is creates a lack of safety in our own bodies. So all of a sudden, we feel much more at risk, we feel a heightened sense of threat. It's a feeling we all have, which maybe is low level most of the time, and it's been brought to the surface."
That's not the only element at play. "The other side of it is the way in which it has been discussed, in some circles, in victim-blaming terms. This can exacerbate these feelings. There is a kind of double whammy in terms of the implicit message that you're not safe as a woman in this country."
Our mental resources have been sapped from 12 months of living lives suspended in aspic. "This is all happening at a time when we're in a really high state of stress already; we're deep into this collective trauma that we have all been experiencing," says Dr Svanberg.
How do we process what has happened?
There are myriad bleak, true realities, here. Violence against females exists. This past year, it has increased (according to a report from domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid, 61 per cent of women living with their abuser during lockdown said that abuse had escalated; calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline surged by 80 per cent in June 2020). The rate of convictions for assaults on women remains excruciatingly low.
Svanberg notes that we need an approach that acknowledges these atrocities, without minimising them, at the same time as thinking about what can we do to feel safe in our bodies. Once we have done this, we can think about how we might take meaningful action to affect change for ourselves as individuals, or more widely if we choose to.
Of course, the issues percolating are very real. Running a bath or practising mindfulness are not solutions to the violence enacted against women and girls every day, the racism woven through the fabric of our society, or the lack of support for people going through mental health anguish. And, for some women, currently living in unsafe homes, this advice will not be helpful.
But if you are struggling to process watching these situations play out, Dr Svanberg suggests you try the following.
7 ways to help your mental health, right now
1. Physical grounding
Firstly, try a technique to move your body out of fight or flight mode. "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 again and feel that connection," details Dr Svanberg. "You could also hug your own body, get under a heavy warm blanket or use your senses [name something you can smell, something you can see, something you can feel] to ground yourself in the here and now."
Another way to do this is via mantras. "Try to repeat to yourself: 'In this moment, I am safe,' or 'here and now, I am safe.' Often, we spiral into catastrophic thinking, but the reality is, while there can be, and can feel, a threat of violence to women, the vast majority of women in this country are safe in their daily lives."
3. 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.
4. Look for joy
"At times like this as well as looking for safety in the body we also need to actively look for moments of joy to remind ourselves that life isn’t just about safety but also pleasure, too." You could try dancing around the living room to your favourite party tune, ordering in your most loved dish or calling a friend and pledging to only talk about things that make you feel good.
5. Watch your media intake
When things like this happen, you can feel like you should bear witness to what is happening, in solidarity: checking the news for updates. But that can wreak havoc on your wellbeing. "We need to recuperate ourselves," says Dr Svanberg. "You might decide to have one time in the day when you check the news; to get your information from places like Simple Politics (@simplepolitics) rather than news sites."
6. Be careful with social media
Similarly, what you look at on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook can trigger your stress response. "One difficult thing about social media is it can catch you unaware – you might be looking at a post from an interior design page and then the next post you see when you scroll is about something harrowing that you're not prepared for," she notes. Deleting those apps for a while might be a good shout, or only going on them once a day, when you're in a certain headspace.
7. Set boundaries
"There's a lot of minimising of the severity of the issues going on, which can be upsetting in itself. If you know there are people who will talk about any issue in a way that you feel is insensitive, steer away from conversations with those people," Dr Svanberg says. It's okay to have boundaries in place about how you protect yourself.
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