Assess, acknowledge and adjust… to the new normal

Headshot of Dr Loretta Poerio.

Dr Loretta Poerio
Mental Health Adviser
Department of Veterans’ Affairs

7 July 2020

When I wrote my first article for Vetaffairs this year, we were in the midst of bushfires. Now, as I write, we are flattening the curve on COVID-19. ‘What next?’ A good question. This year, 2020, has galvanised us as a country, with people risking, and even losing their lives in the service of others. Values that are at the core of Defence culture have been on show across Australia, and the world. There is no doubt that the implications of the bushfires and COVID-19 will reverberate across our communities, and in our homes, for months and years to come.

Tragic events, like the ones we are living through, often shake our sense of predictability, which is core to our sense of safety and our sense of having agency in the world. Worrying about the safety of our family, our home, our business and our community is understandable. These worries can overwhelm us at times, and engender feelings of helplessness, making us vulnerable to poor mental and physical health. With some reflection, and a range of tools, we can manage that sense of being overwhelmed so that we are able to cope with our distress, problem solve and make sound decisions that restore a sense of predictability.

In the first instance, it is important to be prepared for dealing with intense feelings that may arise, seemingly without notice. The level of distress can be mild and short-lived through to severe and chronic.

Early detection, which requires an awareness of what is happening with your body, and proactive intervention, can make all the difference.

Remember, if your level of distress becomes chronic and affects your ability to undertake everyday activities, then professional assistance is required, with a visit to the GP a good place to start.1

Spending time building strategies for dealing with psychological distress can also mean you are better prepared physically, with reduced levels of worry and anxiety, better coping skills and more insight into what to look for in yourself and others.

Understanding how you react to stress, and how others in your immediate environment react to stress, can mean you can nip symptoms in the bud before settling into a spiral of avoiding anything upsetting. For example, drinking more alcohol can become a way of distracting us from distressing emotions, but in the end, this strategy just perpetuates the distressing thoughts you are trying to avoid, which often makes the situation worse.

The GROW model

A proactive problem-solving approach provides options for action by breaking down seemingly overwhelming problems into manageable and logical steps. The GROW model2 is a simple and easy-to-use problem-solving tool. It has four steps:

  1. define the Goal

  2. examine the Reality of the situation

  3. brainstorm the possible Options

  4. establish the Will/Way forward.

Good problem-solving can occur at the individual and group level. It can bring a sense of control, which can often be experienced as diminished or absent. The need for routine, order, a sense of purpose and predictability can be met, at least in part, by proactive problem solving. It helps to ground us in the here-and-now. It can be used across a range of situations and can help us distinguish what we can influence from what we can’t. The message here is don’t waste your time and emotional energy on things you can’t change!

Problem-solving is not just helpful for dealing with practical issues; it can also assist in dealing with the more existential concerns that can arise. The process of defining your goal provides an opportunity to reflect on what matters in life — where you want to focus your energy. Research is showing us that it is the process of pursuing higher-order flexible goal-setting that facilitates a sense of meaning, purpose and wellbeing, and can reduce anxiety. Conscious self-reflection is critical in this process, and in tracking progress towards your chosen goal.

Coming to terms with all that has been thrown at us as individuals and a community, at a local, national and international level, requires a long-term view. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Take one-step at a time, be flexible and have a starting point, no matter how small. This will make that next step seem much more doable, and provide a sense of hope. Being able to anchor ourselves in the moment, breathe, and ask ourselves, ‘What can I do here? / What is the issue?’ and having a model to support clear decision-making is fundamental for our tool bag this year.

Are you ready to take the next step?

Footnotes

  1. Assistance is available through Open Arms, 1800 011 046 or through a referral to an allied mental health professional via your GP if you have a DVA Veteran White Card or Gold Card. Any kind of Veteran White Card entitles you to unlimited mental health care for life through Non-Liability Health Care (NLHC), whether or not your mental illness is related to service.

  2. The model was originally developed in the 1980s by business coaches Graham Alexander, Alan Fine and Sir John Whitmore.