I never expected supermarket stress to become the biggest challenge of lock-down.

At a time when people are losing their lives behind sealed doors, and frontline staff from all sectors are risking coronavirus exposure every day, the weekly shop is a comparatively trivial experience. I have been lucky so far: my life remains largely unaffected by the unimaginable devastation of Covid-19.

The fact that my lock-down stress consists of things like ‘everyone wants anti-bac wipes this week and there are none’ is almost a source of shame. But my everyday has been turning into a kind of melodrama.

When lock-down started, suddenly it wasn’t safe for anyone in my family but me to go inside a Tesco. The first time I experienced the queue system in a supermarket car park, complete with an overhead strip light on the blink and lines of yellow hazard tape, it did indeed seem to herald the coming zombie apocalypse.

Covid-19 in Aisle 20

Popping to the shops quickly became a monolithic task. I was jostling three shopping loads in one trolley, multiple credit cards, hand sanitiser, and then obsessively cleaning doorknobs so that I wouldn’t accidentally kill my 83-year old father.

Errands that were once straightforward have taken on Crystal Maze levels of complexity. Shops have implemented various approaches to social distancing — one-way lanes, complex checkout procedures – with the rules sometimes varying between branches of the same retailer.

What’s worse, people seem to have have wildly different interpretations of the guidelines. The ground beneath your feet is ever-shifting and just when you think you’ve got it figured out, someone tells you to get your onions off the conveyor belt and wait your turn.

But something else is happening as well. I’ve been losing perspective.

To do list
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

These strange and difficult times

It makes sense. When you’re no longer having to dash about squeezing in exercise classes and dental appointments and family commitments on either side of a commute and an eight-hour work day, you get used to a shrunken version of your routine. Working and sleeping in the same place, seeing the same people every day—or no one at all—even the smallest tasks can threaten to take over an otherwise frameless daily schedule.

For many in the ‘stay-at-home’ camp, doing things you’ve slowly become unaccustomed to, like interacting with other humans or even leaving the house, can seem overwhelming simply because you’re out of practice.

In my case, I’ve been getting nervous the night before a shopping trip, and bracing myself when stepping out the front door. It has afforded me a sliver of insight into what it’s like to suffer with chronic mental ill-health, and feel this way all the time.

Lock-down stress
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

The psychological impact of coronavirus

The Dean of the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work, Anna Scheyett, defines stress simply as:

“A reaction that happens when a person has demands made on them that are more than they think their current resources can handle.”

People are facing any number of worries about loved ones, daily death tolls, home-schooling, childcare and financial insecurity. It’s unsurprising that many of us are feeling overwhelmed right now. We all have different types of triggers, demands placed on us and capabilities for taking on more.

It’s important to remember that, whether it stems from doing too much or too little, stress is not a personal failing, but a sign that we are already full to the brim with responsibilities. Any more and it could become detrimental to our health. We should take it as a cue to ask for extra support, modify what’s required of us, if we can, or change the way we respond to a situation.

How to combat lock-down stress

Vrije Universiteit Brussel Psychology Professor and trauma expert Elke Van Hoof has called the mass quarantine conditions across the world “arguably the largest psychological experiment ever conducted”, warning of a mass fallout to come, as people begin to suffer from stress and burnout. Many may feel unable to return to work, just as it becomes crucial to jumpstart the economy.

Her response? ‘Everyone OK’, an interactive web-based assessment and support tool available to all (it’s called an ‘intervention’ but don’t let that put you off). It allows you to gauge your current levels of stress, tackle the root causes and build up resilience.

‘Everyone OK’ is worth trying if you’re feeling at all anxious or know someone who is. It can even be done as a family activity – there are elements of drawing, visualisation and a technique called a ‘butterfly hug’.

Let’s face it, we could all do with one of those right now.

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