ASK CATHY: How to find hope when it all feels hopeless

13 August 2020


Whatever your life looks like right now, you’re likely experiencing some extremes. Extreme anxiety. Extreme isolation. Extreme responsibilities. We’ve all got them. So no matter who you are – or what you do – you are definitely not alone.

That’s why this month, we sat down with our very own Cathy Caballero (virtually, of course) for her insights, tips and advice on how to find hope in this seemingly hopeless time. As a business owner and mum of three (with a fourth on the way), to say that Cathy has her hands full would be an understatement indeed.

Q: Let’s start with the second round of lockdown in Victoria. How has this impacted clients at Positive Psychology Centre?

This time around, people aren’t coping as well. In the first lockdown, everyone had more hope. But this one has brought increased levels of anger, frustration, hopelessness and exhaustion – probably because no one knows when things will improve.

Coming out of the first – where we had to manage the demands of work, home-schooling and financial stress – was a relief. Returning to some level of normality brought hope, so having to revert to harsher conditions has been overwhelming to say the least.

This has all been exacerbated with the increased financial stress that harsher restrictions have had on industry closures and the resulting job losses.

Q: What key pieces of advice can you share with our readers who may be facing mental health challenges because of the lockdown?

Firstly, establish a solid routine. Within this routine, aim to keep a balance of things you have to do (like work or home-schooling) and things that are important to you (like spending time in nature). Also think about how you can do the activities you previously loved, at home.

Next, think about the collective. Support those around you by checking in with friends, neighbours and family. There are a range of ways you can remain socially connected even without being face-to-face.

The next is a little harder: practise acceptance of your situation, try to remain hopeful and maintain an optimistic mindset when thinking about the future. This is easier said than done, so you might want to consult a professional who can also help you develop constructive responses towards distress.

Q: Seeing a psychologist is a good idea in theory, but is this affordable considering many people are suffering added financial stress as a result of the pandemic?

The Victorian government has recognised the significant and ongoing impact that the situation is having on people’s mental health.

To address it, they’re offering individuals who have used their existing 10 Medicare-subsidised psychology sessions access to an additional 10 sessions.

Q: Does this mean the government is offering more mental health support now than during the last lockdown?

When Australia was first hit by the pandemic, the government responded by making psychology sessions available via alternative telehealth means. Originally, this was only permitted under special circumstances. This meant individuals could continue accessing psychological support via video conferencing and telephone.

It wasn’t until the second lockdown that the Medicare-subsidised sessions were extended.

Q: You’re a business owner and a mum with three young children. How has the pandemic affected you personally?

The pandemic has certainly brought significant stress to various aspects of my life.

In addition to my role at Positive Psychology, I also lecture psychology at Deakin University. And my workload has increased significantly across both roles. On top of that, I am home-schooling two of my three boys which compounds this challenge tremendously.

So in any one day, I am a mum, a school teacher, a psychologist, a lecturer and a business owner. (Oh, and a wife too of course – sorry, Pete!)

Owning a business during COVID-19 has been beyond difficult – so I empathise with everyone in the same situation. As a business owner, you already carry risk, and the pandemic has introduced threats we’ve never had to deal with before. Just keeping on top of the constantly changing rules and restrictions is a full-time job in itself.

With all these competing demands and so much more work, it’s easy to become cognitively overloaded. Normally, there are clear boundaries between each role, which allows us to perform them more effectively. That’s why we may not be able to operate at the same levels we did prior to the pandemic.

Q: How have you been managing these stressors personally?

I don’t think it matters much what your personal circumstances are – this pandemic has brought challenges for everyone.

But for me, maintaining perspective and thinking of the broader impacts on our community has been helpful.

Being there for other people who are facing challenges has also brought me meaning and purpose. Helping others makes us feel like we’re contributing to something (even if this looks different from what it might normally). And as a psychologist, I can vouch for this firsthand.

Just as importantly however, I am also trying to seek and accept help from others. I’ve asked for help both on a personal and professional level, and there’s no shame in doing so.

Finally, I am also focusing on mindfulness and gratitude to keep an optimistic frame of mind.

Q: We hear you’re due to give birth to your fourth child any day now. Congratulations! What emotions are you going through as an expecting parent in the middle of a pandemic?

For us, this pregnancy was as unplanned as COVID-19. And it certainly has felt like a strange time to be pregnant.

Knowing that I am in a high risk category, I felt a lot more vulnerable than I might have otherwise. Plus, due to the many roles I’ve been juggling since March, I’ve also felt busier than ever. In a way, it has felt like my pregnancy has had to take a back seat while we’re all in survival mode.

One of the stranger aspects is that many people I usually see socially don’t even know about my pregnancy! I’m expecting there will be friends from the kids’ school and sporting activities who might’ve missed it entirely.

Q: What advice would you give other new parents for drawing on their support networks in the face of lockdown and social distancing restrictions?

I can understand that for first-time parents, this situation is incredibly daunting. You already experience significant changes when you initially become a parent – and much of the learning that occurs through social connections isn’t available now.

Referencing the saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, we’re now unable to lean on our villages, and this can present some real challenges.

However, whether you’re a first-time parent or not, support is always key. So it’s a matter of being a bit flexible and creative in how you access it.

Firstly, I suggest being more intentional and proactive in reaching out for support. Be open and honest about any emotions you’re experiencing. And never assume that your family, friends or even health professionals are ‘too busy’ or have ‘enough on their plates’ to help out. You’ll be surprised how willing people are to lend a hand. Plus, maybe you can return the gesture when they’re in need down the track?

Also be sure to speak to your obstetrician, midwife or family doctor about what support might be out there. The other day I learnt about a midwife who’s providing private services to parents in my area via home visits. Just remember, you don’t know until you ask.

Lastly, join a mother’s group. While not running in the usual format, virtual get-togethers with others on the same trajectory as you are a helpful way of connecting and sharing. Facing difficult times together can establish comradery, and you may find yourself developing closer friendships than you might under normal circumstances.

Q: Can you tell us about specific support that is available to parents during lockdown – whether it be with births, home-schooling or otherwise?

When it comes to births, I’d advise parents to research the extra support hospitals can offer them. For example, they may be able to access specialised staff to take on support roles or help ease their anxieties.

In terms of home-schooling, get in contact with your child’s school. Let them in on your circumstances and challenges. Teachers may be able to assist your kids differently, with modified or alternative activities.

It can also be useful to join online groups and local community initiatives on social media. The support groups promote local businesses and exchange information (like local farms delivering fresh fruit and veggies) – while the community initiatives often share acts of goodwill, which can be heartening and inspiring.

Q: What can Positive Psychology offer anyone who is feeling the negative effects of COVID-19?

At Positive Psychology, we recognise the importance of keeping our staff, clients and broader community safe from a mental health perspective.

At a time of hopelessness, this can be challenging.

While counselling can’t replace losses or remove personal challenges, it can help you manage them more effectively. We can offer coping mechanisms for getting through uncertain times, building hope and helping you feel less alone.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Cathy. We truly appreciate the knowledge and advice you’ve shared. All the best to you and Pete for the healthy birth of your fourth child!