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Facing COVID-19 with compassion and connection

Monday 6 April 2020 4:15pm

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Dr Desiree Dickerson

It’s Day 17 of the COVID-19 lockdown in Spain. In a small village on the Mediterranean coast, about an hour south of Valencia, Dr Desiree Dickerson, her husband and their two small children, aged three and five, are starting another day of their “new normal” life.

They can’t go outside at all unless it’s to visit the supermarket or walk a dog if they had one, but otherwise they have to stay inside. Yesterday the five-year-old had a meltdown, and just wants to go back to school.

“There are definitely ups and downs, good days and bad days, good and bad hours at this point,” says Desiree, a clinical psychologist who graduated with a PhD from the University of Otago, and who specialises in the mental health and well-being of academics.

The lockdown was originally to last until 11 April but she says with the COVID-19 figures in Spain as they are it’s looking more like at least 26 April.

“You get up in the morning and you’re like ‘right I’ve got this’ but then by lunchtime I haven’t got this anymore.”

She and her husband, a physicist, both work full-time from home, which with the children is a now constant juggle. There’s a lot of TV exercise classes going on in the living room; “we’ve gone right back to jumping jacks and burpees”.

She says she’s careful not to think about how long they’ve been there or how long it is to go, and consciously stays in the present, keeping off all but a couple of news feeds.

“At the beginning I was compulsively watching the stats, and lots of people still are because it’s an anxiety release, giving you some level of certainty amongst the uncertainty. I cut back because it wasn’t helping my state of mind.”

As the virus has spread throughout Spain, and is now in her village, she says she is constantly upping the level of self-care for her family and herself. “Looking after yourself and your mental health is becoming more and more of a priority.”

Before the lockdown, as a consultant for universities, Desiree’s work took her around the world doing face-to-face workshops for academics, and right now she was meant to be taking a workshop in the UK, followed by one in Sweden and then another in Switzerland.

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Now confined to online channels, she has a live call workshop set up later in the morning to share resources about mental well-being and coping with COVID-19. And she has just had an article published in Nature, entitled “Seven tips to manage your mental health and well-being during the COVID-19 outbreak”.


For all of us in lockdown, or coping with the many profound impacts of COVID-19, here are some of her tips to help us through:


  • Manage your expectations, of yourself and of others:

    Understand that a lot of that bandwidth of that mental space that you have is being used up now on other things. For many of us it’s being used up processing what’s going on around us, and that makes sense.

    Try to accept that and develop a new normal for this situation. Lower expectations of productivity a little bit and also for others.

    A lot of international students are struggling. I’m a long, long way from home but at least when I see how you are coping with this and how the Government is handling this I have a sense that you guys [in New Zealand] are going to be OK, whereas a lot of international students are from China or India and they are looking at a whole different picture.

    We need to acknowledge that everybody will be going through something different right now and will have different levels of stress. Don’t expect people to be their best selves right now, have a lot of compassion. People are hoarding in the supermarket because they’re scared.

    In terms of productivity, keep it short, work in short breaks, say 25 minutes work and a five-minute break. Often when we work, work, work for two or three hours we then see our productivity dive.

    Breaking tasks down is also important. Instead of going from A to Z go from A to B. Break them down, make them small, make them wins, because at the moment there are very few wins in our day.


  • Set some really good foundations to help manage stress:

    Make sure you get the sleep that you need. Avoid blue lights before bed and maintain a routine around sleep and wake times.

    Eat well. Especially where children are involved, when you’re up to here already with the level of stress, leaning on alcohol or other things is not your friend. And when we’re stressed we eat sugar or fat and they don’t necessarily help us maintain our best immune systems, or our best level of cognitive functioning.

    Exercise however or wherever you can get it. It will lower your stress levels, help you regulate your emotions and improve your sleep.

    Socialise. Maintain and create connections with others, through virtual groups, book clubs and co-working spaces.

    Routine is your friend. Create clear distinctions between work and non-work time and spaces. Find something to do that is not work and is not virus-related that brings you joy.


  • Know your own stress signals:

    If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed try to understand your own warning signs. For me I hold tension in my jaw and shoulders, and that’s my warning sign. Identify key thoughts, sensations and actions that contribute to your cycle of distress (frustration, worry, sadness, tension, compulsively checking the latest COVID-19 statistics).

    Acknowledge those warning signs and actively seeking to settle that tension in those early phases will help you maintain a level of function and help you get through.

    Actively relax. It sounds trivial but these things really feed into anxiety and maintain it. Some people start to shallow breathe. Engage with belly breathing, it engages our rest and digest system, slows our heart rate down and bring us into a resting state.


  • Manage uncertainty by staying in the present:

    Take each day as it comes. Focus on the things you can control.

    Obviously, there’s uncertainty, uncertainty because we don’t know how long we’re going to be here, we don’t know what the impact is going to be, we don’t know how many people are going to be hurt by this. So, there is a level of uncertainty and with uncertainty comes anxiety – about the illness itself, also what this means for society, jobs, the economy. There is a considerable level of stressors out there that are justifiable and reasonable.

    We can also often get caught in a state of rumination. The what if questions come up a lot – what if I get it, what if my father gets it… We often tend to manage those worry cycles by numbing, using alcohol or something like that, or by checking compulsively so we feel better for minute. Even the worry itself, trying to answer those questions and trying to solve them and trying to plan and fix the problems that don’t actually exist, keeps us in that loop and keeps our level of stress up.

    Catch yourself in the act of doing it, and even just simply say stop, don’t follow that thought down the rabbit hole. Mindfulness and meditation can be great tools here.



“These foundations will help you manage anxiety and stress,” says Desiree. “There’s no right way to cope. Each one of us will manage this differently, will manage our emotions differently. If you’re feeling anxious that’s normal and to be expected.”

“Big emotions will come, but it’s much like a wave, they also go. When we are feeling strong emotions, when we are feeling super anxious or worried, understand that those emotions will subside as well.”

As well as being compassionate to others, be kind to ourselves. “How we talk to ourselves can either provide a powerful buffer to these difficult circumstances or amplify our distress. We can ask for help or reach out when help is asked of us.”

As for tackling how to work online, Desiree says the saving grace of the situation right now is that we are all in the same boat. “We are all making the same mistakes, we forget to press mute, the children come running in… If ever there was a time to learn something new it’s now, all of us together going ‘can you hear me, can you hear me’, we are all just bumbling along trying to find our way together and there’s something beautiful in that.”

And now, it’s time for her to join the live call with academics in their own bubbles all around the world, figuring out online together just how to cope with their new normal, and how to help their students.