‘The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another’ William James

Over the past two weeks Dawn and Kathy have been exploring some of the effects that lockdown has had both on our patterns of working as therapists – virtual therapy and the greater intimacy and informality it creates – but also the anxiety that we have all been experiencing.

Now as lockdown moves on another stage, without knowing what lies ahead, we do know that certain things are happening.  The average number of COVID cases and deaths is decreasing.  We are able to move around more and to see old friends again.  Shops are opening, even if for much of our shopping we may prefer to stay online.  But even as some of these statistics point firmly in a downward direction, others will be rising.

Some of those like unemployment and part-time working and the resultant need for food banks may be relatively easy to measure but others will only emerge, so we are told, over a much longer time frame. Educational opportunities have been severely disrupted as have people referring themselves to medical professionals. Break ups of relationships look as if they will be on the increase – the pressure of being together in a confined space for a long period of time has brought to the surface those underlying problems in the relationship that have been dormant for some time.  And all of these add up to a widely anticipated increase in the levels of stress and mental ill health – all of which come into our counselling rooms, even if our clients at least initially fail to recognise them.

On reflecting on that quotation from William James it is clear that recognition and awareness must be a first step in handling these new stresses.  Denial is perhaps the greatest enemy of a positive therapeutic intervention both for the individual and the couple. Of course for some clients medical help may be required if the stress is triggering things that therapy in itself cannot help with but for many the simple recognition of what is going on for them is the necessary precursor to change.

Having become aware and acknowledged the stress – alongside that will be the need for clients to see that self-care is essential in reducing that stress.  We cannot always change the external stressor – for example the pandemic – but we can change our response to it.  Physically we need to look after ourselves, eating healthily, taking exercise, hydration (not always of the alcoholic type!) and getting sleep.  We need to do activities that help us to relax – games, chatting, exercise, having a bath or reading a book.  And we need to challenge those unhelpful thought patterns and ruminations in our brain.  Download a mindfulness app – Headspace or Calm to help us stay centred in the moment and let our thoughts come and go.

For the couple alongside awareness and the process of making choices will be the crucial task of spending time and energy in communication with one another.  When under stress it is so easy to assume that our partner both knows what we are thinking and that they agree with the choices that we are making.

Here at Coupleworks we experience on a daily basis in our therapy rooms both physically and emotionally just how destructive such assumptions can be.  Our ability to counteract stress does indeed lie in being able to choose one thought over another and that will be of vital importance as we care for ourselves and learn to live in new ways post-lockdown.  But of equal importance for our relationships will be to acknowledge firstly to ourselves but then to our partner the ways in which the stress is affecting our lives.  A couple relationship can be a source of distress but also comfort and strength as we support and care for each other during these challenging times.

Sarah Fletcher