Strategies for Mental Well-Being in the Home Office

Strategies for Mental Well-Being in the Home Office

Most of my working life was spent at jobs in factories, in classrooms, behind a bar, and in offices. Being a freelance photographer means that I began spending a lot of time working from home. Now, given recent events, I’m spending all of my time working from home. How does working from home affect your mental health? Do you have any strategies for wellbeing?

In this article, I am going to explore 

To get through this, I spoke with Victoria Donahue, a registered psychotherapist with the College of Registered Psychotherapists in Ontario. Donahue focuses on helping her clients understand their feelings of anxiety, sadness, and inadequacy so that they can live up to their full potential.

Why Working From Home Can Be Problematic

Sure, working from home means you have (at least the illusion of) control over your day-to-day. You decide when it’s time to get up (after all, the commute is short), whether you work from your desk, the dining room table, or the couch, and when lunch will be. 

But, as Donahue and I discussed, working from home also means that work-life boundaries break down. In fact, for most, these boundaries become nonexistent. Essentially, without a physical distance between home life and work, the two spaces become one. You literally can’t get away from work while you’re at home.

Related to this, if you’re running your own business from home, there is an almost irresistible pressure to just work a little harder, to work just a little longer. The pressure of work can creep into every facet of your life. 

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Working from home can socially isolate you from other people. Donahue pointed out that at home, you have fewer coincidental social interactions. You don’t smile and say hello at the water cooler or coffee maker. There are no brief interactions as you walk to the printer. This lack of social interaction can often lead to chronic loneliness. This type of loneliness is outright dangerous. It leads to higher rates of depression, which can cascade into a series of very serious health problems. 

The Mayo Clinic lists the following as symptoms of depression:

  • Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness, or hopelessness
  • Angry outbursts, irritability, or frustration, even over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities, such as sex, hobbies, or sports
  • Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain
  • Anxiety, agitation, or restlessness
  • Slowed thinking, speaking, or body movements
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things
  • Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicide attempts, or suicide
  • Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please consider reaching out for help. There are crisis experts who can assist. For help in the U.S. call 1-800-273-8255 or find links at Suicide Prevention Lifeline; in Canada, call 1-833-456-4566 or look into Bell Canada’s let’s talk help links; or follow the links for European crisis centers or for Asia, Africa, Oceania, and South America.

COVID-19 Has Made Most of These Issues Worse

Given the closures, lockdowns, and shelter-in-place orders, these work-from-home issues have the potential to become much more acute.

Adrenaline Surge

The shelter-in-place and emergency lockdown measures that most of us are or have been living under were never intended to be in place for weeks, let alone months. They are for momentary emergencies. After the adrenaline of the extreme changes in lifestyle wears off, it’s very difficult to continue to live in a state of crisis. Humans’ fight or flight reflex isn’t designed to govern your reactions for such a long period of time. This type of long-term crisis can cause very serious emotional and chemical imbalances.

Adrenaline Surge - Victoria Donahue

Brene Brown, author, and professor at the University of Houston was recently interviewed by CBC and explained that:

Normally, in order to get through a crisis, our bodies are built to respond with... a super-coping surge, and then the waters recede or the fires are out — the crisis ends, and we slog our way through kind of clean-up and trying to find our new normal...

As this current crisis continues, Brown explained that:

...we are not going to be able to depend on the adrenaline surge for this, because it's going to outpace us.

No Release

Instead of just missing some of the coincidental social interactions, we are using the same tools we use for work for almost all of our social interactions. Video conferencing has replaced getting out for a quick coffee break, grabbing a beer after work, or just catching up. Our extracurricular activities have been limited. There are no beaches, no parks, and we certainly can’t take advantage of the upcoming patio season. Few if any of the activities that we used to shake off work for the day or the week are available. For relaxation, we are turning to the same tools we use for work, further eroding the work-home boundaries.

The Specter of Past Trauma

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Overwhelming or traumatic experiences call for coping responses. As a result, we may instinctively disconnect from our emotional experience, try to overcompensate for what we perceive as our faults, and we may even store the distress in our bodies. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ When these external disturbances become a pattern, we often begin to anticipate danger even when there is none. Our body is on high alert in an attempt to manage the confusing and overwhelming pain we felt in childhood. This anticipation sets in as anxiety.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Whether or not trauma is a frequent occurrence in our adult life, anxiety can persist in the long term for individuals with a history of trauma. Hence, wey will carry our childhood coping strategies in stressful situations and our everyday lives. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ We might develop learned helplessness that is not a true reflection of our abilities, but rather a projection of that real helplessness that was experienced throughout childhood. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ When we are in an anxiety loop, it can feel as if there's no way out, and as if we're trapped in the cycle of fear and panic. ⁣ ———⁣ When we're in a loop or our body is being hijacked (left brain "rational brain is offline), here are 3 steps that can help engage the left brain.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 1. Mindfulness: Notice your feelings, thoughts, reactions and body sensations. Observe with a non-judgemental awareness of what's going on in the moment.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 2. Curiosity: Investigate with interest and care. Ask questions like, "What is this reaction telling me? What do I need most right now? What part of me is reacting right now? **See post on Responses to Perceived Threat** What grounding tool can I use now?⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 3. Compassion: Have a sense of warm, kind, positive regard toward yourself.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Lastly, if you're looking for additional support, you might want to work with a therapist who uses a bottom-up approach to help calm your nervous system; like sensorimotor psychotherapy, EMDR, somatic experiencing and neurofeedback.

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For those that have suffered certain types of trauma in their past, the current pandemic may be bringing those old feelings rushing back to the surface. Donahue explained that those who have felt trapped in the past, perhaps because of overbearing parents or abusive relationships, may feel triggered by what is going on today. Government lockdowns and the restrictions on freedom of movement may bring up emotions that you may have felt were behind you. There are a lot of people who are feeling an increased emotional response to what is going on today due to events in their past. 

Past Trauma - Victoria Donahue

Stages of Grief

Donahue talked to me at length about how the familiar stages of grief are overlaying reactions to the pandemic and the related lockdowns.

There are those who are denying the reality of the pandemic and the danger it poses. There are those who refuse to cede control and remain angry. There are those that are bargaining with themselves, hoping it will be over by Easter, by the May long weekend. There are then those who despair at the loss of income. 

In moving through these stages, there is also hope that we can take charge of our feelings of denial, anger, and despair. Moving on to the last stage of grief, we can accept what is happening, we can accept our own emotions and reactions, and try to move on, to plan for the future. Acknowledging the depth of your own emotions is difficult, but it is the way out of anger and despair.  

Strategies for Staying Positive

According to Donahue, acknowledging the depth of your own emotions is difficult, but it is the way out of anger and despair. It is a fine balance, though. You shouldn’t be forcing yourself past the stages of grief. You should be allowing yourself to feel emotional, without wallowing in despair, which isn’t healthy. 

So, what can we do while we work from home to take better care of our mental health?

Feel Emotion

As Donahue stresses, the first step is to allow yourself to feel emotion. Be ready to accept your emotional reactions. Particularly if you’ve experienced past trauma, your reactions may feel like overreactions, but give yourself time to move through the grief-like stages. Being hard on yourself isn’t going to help you adjust. 

Be kind to yourself. Being vulnerable and being strong are not mutually exclusive. 

Practical Suggestions for Working From Home

Donahue and I also discussed a series of much more practical suggestions for working from home.

  • Get ready as if you had to go out to work, e.g., shower, get dressed, and eat breakfast.
  • Plan your day. Having a plan starts your day with a sense of stability. You can see your day laid out in front of you. 
  • Don’t over-schedule your day. Decide what really has to get done. You don’t have to do two days worth of work and clean the kitchen as if the queen was coming for dinner. If you’re already feeling anxious, you only need to make sure things are good enough. Don’t pile on. 
  • Use your old commute to work as downtime. If you had downtime on your commute with podcasts, reading, or radio, take that time to yourself now as well. Give yourself the freedom to indulge in your own downtime.
  • Set up a dedicated workspace, if possible. Use that space for work and separate it from your non-work time to create firm boundaries between work and home.
  • Take a daily lunch break and unwind. 
  • Schedule analog breaks. Don’t just switch from emails and editing to IG for a break. Give yourself a different kind of stimulation.
  • Set a number of hours of work per day and stick to it. 
  • Take time off when you hit your threshold.
  • Turn off your device notifications outside of working hours to avoid getting pulled back into work. 
  • Exercise. Studies are conclusive that exercise helps with chemical imbalances related to anxiety.

Anxiety-Reducing Solutions During the Pandemic

Stick to a schedule. Donahue insists that we should not forget that those around us might need routine as well. If you’re taking care of elderly parents or children or living with a partner, we can help mitigate their feelings of anxiety and depression by sticking to a schedule.  

Limit news intake. If you’re experiencing anxiety directly related to the pandemic, it might be time to think about limiting your daily news intake. Donahue is not suggesting that you tune it out completely, but watching or checking in with the news several times a day or checking the news right before bed can increase your anxiety.

Include self-care in defining success. Freelancers and many others who find themselves out of work or no longer competing for contracts may be having a really hard time defining what success or productivity looks like these days, Donahue wants to remind everyone that self-care should be considered part of success. Being productive should go beyond planning for post-pandemic business and include setting goals for your own mental and physical wellbeing. Mental health isn’t a nice to have, it’s a must-have. Give it its place in your planning.

Ensure social interaction include visual or auditory cues. The human nervous system actually craves interaction with others. Most of us who don’t get social interaction will find ourselves increasingly anxious. Research also shows that most of us need interaction that includes visual or auditory cues. If familiar visual cues aren’t available, if you can’t see a smile, a smirk, or hear a laugh or sarcasm, our nervous system climbs to high-alert as part of an attempt to interpret foreign interactions. 

Whereas texting and email don’t have the capacity to share tone or facial reactions, tools like video conferencing do. By seeing familiar visual cues, like smiles and eye movement, the nervous system can settle rather than ramping up its attempts to determine tone from communications like text. 

Related to this, having interactions with others wearing masks can be somewhat disorienting. After all, masks cover half of your face, effectively reducing the available visual cues by half, again, upping the stress level of any interaction. Clearly, health is important, but when it is safe to do so, have interactions that don’t cover your face. If you must, I’d suggest making sure your eyes smile. After all, as photographers, aren’t we used to ask our subjects to be more expressive?

Keep feeling those emotions and be kind to yourself. Last, and to reinforce Donahue’s main point, there is nothing wrong with feeling anxious. In this time of uncertainty, these feelings are normal. Don’t beat yourself up for being too tired today to do anything. We need to have compassion for ourselves.

Reach out to your support network and communicate. And, if you find yourself in need, don’t forget that there are mental health professionals, like Donahue, ready to talk by video conference. 

Lead image provided by John and Veronica and the world is my office.

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2 Comments

Walter Kovacs's picture

A really valuable article; any amount of conversation around these issues is a good thing. Thank you for posting.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Thanks Walter! Appreciate that!