We may think that we have the ability to override our bodies; ignoring those tell-tale signs to slow down and instead keep pushing forward. The reality is that sooner or later, at some stage or another, our body will take back control and when this happens it is rarely pretty!
As counsellors and psychotherapists, we are trained to listen to our bodies, prioritise self care and practice what we preach to our clients. However, in global pandemics, when our safety is threatened and our lives are thrown upside down and inside out, well this can sometimes go out of the window and we may revert back to our old, unhelpful coping mechanisms. For myself, this takes the form of workaholism and this coupled with genuine higher demand for people seeking support...let's just say that by the end of 2020 I was on the fast track path to burning out. Unfortunately for me, burnout coincided with catching Covid-19 and then, just for good measure, a long bout of Long Covid.
Even in those initial days of feeling unwell, with what I thought was 'just a cold', I continued to work until I literally couldn't move from my bed...which is where I then stayed for two solid weeks...graduating to the sofa on week 3. Even then, I refused to stop completely...thinking I could use the bed rest time to catch up on some light-hearted 'trauma training'!
If I am honest, I do feel slightly ashamed that even when I felt poisoned and unable to breathe properly I still would not allow myself to stop. At the same time, I recognise that I am also human and able to show myself compassion. I was so scared of dying from this awful virus that I had to do something to distract myself from the paralysing anxiety I was experiencing. That distraction couldn't be work anymore though and as my migraines and fatigue became worse and insomnia kicked in, I knew that I needed to stop...everything....and go into full healing and repair mode. I was living in a permanent state of flight or flight and my vagus nerve would not switch off. Covid completely messes with your autonomic nervous system, resulting in palpitations, dysregulated body temperature, increased respiratory rate, insomnia, digestive issues, anxiety, panic attacks and dizzyness...to name but a few. It has been reported that there are up to 21 known symptoms!
I knew that in order to heal I would need to move my body out of the sympathetic nervous system into the 'rest and digest' parasympathetic system and that this wouldn't be something that took place overnight. It would require full commitment and permission to stop and concentrate on myself only, not an easy task when you are a mother! So this is what I did and I thought it might be helpful to write about my recovery journey for anyone who is currently battling the early stages of Covid or struggling with Long Covid and feeling scared and helpless and looking for some hope...
Connection - after several miserable conversations with my GP, who could only tell me 'it will take time!', I knew I needed to connect with other people in my situation. Thankfully there were already several Long Covid Facebook groups and it is here where I not only found validation and support but also all the information I needed in terms of how to recover. It is amazing what an accomplished detective you can become when faced with a new killer virus that most medical professionals know little about! The ones I recommend joining are 'Covid-19 UK & Ireland Sufferer & Survivor Support' and 'Yoga and meditation for gentle covid recovery with SuzyBolt'.
Validation - this is such an important part of the recovery process. So many long Covid sufferers have reported being told by medical professionals and those around them that 'it's just anxiety!' or 'the symptoms are just in your head!'. This only serves to feed the anxiety further; a downward spiral of helplessness and hopelessness. Long Covid is very real and whilst the routine medical tests come back normal for most people, the physiological symptoms are still very scary! The fatigue alone (mental and physical) is enough to stop the ability to work for months on end and many have lost their jobs as a result. Finding validation from fellow sufferers and the right medical professionals is a vital part of your recovery. We feel at our safest when we feel seen, heard and understood!
Professional Support - It is my experience and many others that much of the damage caused by Covid-19 cannot be picked up through routine NHS tests. Most GPs can only offer pain relief, sleeping tablets (to help with insomnia) or offer antidepressants. If you can afford private treatment then this is the way forwards in terms of being able to access proper support. Covid-19 throws a bomb into your immune system and any existing conditions or things that might have existed silently in the background suddenly take on a life of their own. Many people co-develop conditions such as POTS, MCAS, HIT, Fibromylagia and other auto-immune conditions. Some of these are short-term and resolve as the immune system recovers which is why seeking the right support is essential! Dr Tina Peers is an MCAS and Menopause specialist and was one of the early practitioners to speak out about helpful supplement regimes for bringing down the inflammation. She is an active member of the global team of experts working on successful treatments for Long Covid.
Heal the Gut - Covid-19 changes the microbiome in the gut and many sufferers report bouts of acid reflux, bloating, diarrhea, constipation and newly acquired food intolerances. Covid causes heightened levels of inflammation across the body and one of the most important ways of reducing inflammation in the body is through the gut and nutrition. Removing food groups such as dairy, gluten, sugar, caffeine and alcohol can help significantly. Many long covid sufferers have also found that removing foods high in histamine and taking anti-histamines can help to bring down inflammation levels and reduce migraines, fatigue and insomnia. Additional supplements added to your diet can also help such as Quercetin, Zinc, Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Iron, Magnesium, Selenium, Niacin (Vit B3) and a good probiotic. Please do not do any of this without consulting with your GP first or working with a nutritionist or a functional medicine practitioner.
Breathe - Covid dysregulates the autonomic nervous system resulting in a disordered breathing pattern. This creates a high respiratory rate, shortness of breath, air hunger, poor digestion, palpitations, insomnia, high levels of anxiety and extreme fatigue. Breathing isn't something I ever had to think about, it just happened, yet an important part of my recovery has been learning how to breathe properly again with the help of a breathing physio. I also realised that I've probably spent most of my life breathing inefficiently; using short, shallow breaths from the chest rather than deep, slow breaths from the depth of my stomach. Correcting my breathing played a huge factor in my recovery as I was able to switch into the parasympathetic nervous system and let my body know that I was safe and secure. Yoga Nidra was also an important part of my breathing regime and something that I incorporated into my daily routine up to 3 times a day! I recommend Ally Boothroyd whose free recordings can be found on You Tube.
Pacing - there is no quick way out of long covid. You cannot fight against it or push through, as you would with an ordinary cold or virus. Do that and you will end up in a constant cycle of relapse! The only way through this debilitating condition is to rest, rest.....and rest again. Now this is a concept that does not come easily to me as I am constantly on the go. At my lowest, I couldn't even stand to cook a meal or read more than a page of a book. I was so fatigued just by breathing and eating! I had to listen to my body as I really did not have a choice and I had to learn my limitations; sometimes the hard way! Pacing is key to long-term and sustained recovery and there is a lot of great information out there from the ME and CFS community. In a nutshell, do less than you think you can and rest more than you think you need. When building up walking again I had to increase my time by a couple of minutes each week....yes, you heard me correctly..each week!!
Time is a great healer and in the case of long covid, never has a truer word been spoken. I am now 10 months in and whilst I am still not back to where I was in December 2020, I am a world away from where I was back in March or April this year. Progress hasn't always been linear but growth and healing never are! I have made some amazing friends and learned so much about myself and my body during this past year. I have also prioritised my own self-care and wellbeing without experiencing the accompanying guilt. I am still prone to slipping into bad habits when it comes to work and taking too much on but I also now know what I need in order to slow down and pace myself more. I also most importantly now trust my body that it will do what it needs to do in order to heal but in its own time and that I must remain patient and compassionate till then.
I lost myself in 2021 but as a result of my experience, I also feel in many ways that I have gained a newer, more assured, more compassionate, more trusting, more patient version of me and am now ready to live this next chapter of my life with a renewed sense of energy and passion!