In the November 2020 'Strong Mind' issue of Women’s Health, on sale now, we profile a series of women and explore the effect of the pandemic on their mental health. Here, Dr Anna Blakney, a scientist at Imperial College London who is working on a Covid-19 vaccine, shares how she coped with the fallout that came as a result of the disintegration of her pre-coronavirus routine and the suffering of others played out on the news.
She explains that the hours spent in the lab - under an increasingly public lens - became a vital distraction for her mind from the uncertainties of the outside world...
When my boss walked into my office at Imperial College London in January and suggested that we pivot from three years spent working on a vaccine platform for the likes of influenza, Ebola, rabies, Marburg and HIV, in order to create one for Covid-19, I tried to talk him out of it. Even as a scientist specialising in infectious diseases, I couldn’t comprehend what was awaiting us. Thankfully, he didn’t listen to me. On January 10th, a team in China published the sequence – meaning we had a new ‘target’ for our vaccine – and we got to work.
I started feeling the pressure - my job became placed under an increasingly intense lens at the same time as more than one in four people saw their own work paused through furlough. I’ve always wanted to make a difference to people’s health. Of all the opportunities you get in life, being part of the team that creates the Covid-19 vaccine – that ultimately enables humanity to get back on track – is the one you really, really want to succeed.
This was the thought running through my mind in late March when normal life disintegrated for all of us, one dinner date and yoga class at a time. As others became confined to working from home, baking banana bread or home-schooling kids, I was soon the only person walking the leafy streets to my north-west London lab, where the usually bustling corridors of the university were now unnervingly dead and our 30-person team was reduced to eight. I’m good at focusing on the task at hand. I’d answer emails and plan experiments before analysing cell cultures through a microscope. It was only after I left the lab and headed home that my mind would become overwhelmed.
I’d spend the first hour after getting through the front door sitting on the sofa; emotionally drained, in a low-energy limbo, waiting for my brain to calm down from the noise. Watching the news triggered some of my most unpleasant bouts of anxiety. After a 12-hour stint at work one day, when our animal studies were finishing, I grabbed dinner and sat down, only to find myself watching a heart-breaking segment on domestic violence victims. Later, I read one emotive story after another about people dying in hospital. It seemed like the world was ending – life as we knew it would never be the same – and I couldn’t shake that feeling of uncertainty.
On reflection, in that bad mental place, I was mourning the far-reaching impact of the virus – it felt like we were grieving the loss of our future selves on a population-wide level. What really affected me was just thinking about the people all over the world who would be greatly impacted by a crumbling economy and it made me really sad thinking about the collective suffering.
People losing their jobs, small businesses closing, recent graduates not being able to start careers in the field they trained in. But, while it’s important to be informed, if I allowed myself to dwell in that anxious space I wouldn’t have a clear headspace for finding a vaccine, which I felt was my prime responsibility. Through my work I can indirectly help end such suffering. I also wanted to be a strong, supportive presence for my boyfriend, and parents in Colorado.
Working on my mental wellbeing wasn’t easy. The first thing I did was change my mindset - by acknowledging that I was feeling discomfort, and having an awareness that it was because my routine had been disrupted. I needed to establish a new one: an online yoga session at the same time as I would usually go to a class, running when I would normally head to the gym, and sticking to a meditative ritual of cooking every night. I also went on socially-distanced walks with friends and wrote in my journal. Taking these steps helped me feel human again; to rise above the chaos.
We’re now trialling the vaccine on people. I still find it strange when I see my boss on the news; I try to forget that what I’m doing during the day is intrinsically linked to what I see on the news at night. To remember would be paralysing. Now I’m in a new routine, I feel more mentally resilient. Any insecurities I now have stem, not out of whether we’re doing our best, but whether what we are channelling all our energy into will work. I’m confident it will.
Read more powerful stories of women getting to grips with their mental health during the pandemic in the November 2020 'Strong Mind' issue of Women’s Health on sale now. Pick up an issue OR why not get Women's Health delivered directly to your door. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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