Fire prevention is better than fire fighting when it comes to health

Back in March, when the coronavirus lockdown was still in its infancy, we published a blog post on adopting a proportionate and appropriate approach to the COVID-19 outbreak. At the time and in subsequent posts we were still talking about the lockdown in terms of weeks, highlighting why the situation was making so many people feel uncomfortable.

Now, following Boris Johnson’s latest update on the pandemic, we know that new, tighter rules are likely to remain in place for at least the next six months unless there is “palpable progress”. Regardless of what the tougher restrictions mean for people’s day-to-day lives there is now a definitive psychological shift from a short- term situation to at least a medium-term, if not longer-term situation. This means that there is a heightened impact to us all, knowing that there is still no real end in sight.

That’s why it is important right now to keep an eye on those around you ‒ friends, family, colleagues, loved ones, etc. ‒ as well as yourself and look for signs of struggle.

Remember, feelings are information (both emotions and physical sensations), which is why we need to pay attention to them and look out for any signs that something might be going wrong. On the other hand, feelings also let us know when things are going right, enabling us to more easily identify what works for us and what we need.

It could be a cold sore rearing its ugly head, pain in your neck or feelings of nausea and sickness. You might also be feeling more short tempered or you may feel overwhelmed because you’re worrying about your health (both physical and metal).

When it comes to health, the bottom line is your physical and mental health are so closely linked that problems affecting one often manifest themselves via symptoms in the other. The fact is we are all struggling under the current conditions to some extent. If you don’t think you are, chances are you are in denial. 

The Helpful mission is to look at mental and physical health together and look at health holistically, full stop. One of the gauges we all have to get a sense of our health is feelings. They provide a great indication of how you are doing right now, whether that is in terms of your thoughts, emotions or physical sensations. 

How to look out for yourself and others amid the Covid uncertainty 

With a longer lockdown rules review timeframe now in place, there is a greater chance that you and the people around you are experiencing unhelpful thought patterns, such as snowballing and mental tennis (which we’ve looked at before in this blog and this one). Let’s not forget that Covid updates were being issued every three weeks in the spring, but now we find ourselves looking at 6-month window. This alone has an impact on the amount of uncertainty we’re facing and, in turn, how we feel.

The sad reality is that more people than you might think are living with a mental health issue and the impact of the current situation is likely to be taking its toll. Indeed, according to social movement Time To Change, one in four people (or 25%) will experience a mental health problem this year (like anxiety and depression).

In other words, if you are in a team of 10 at work, at least 2.5 of your peers will be struggling with their mental health at any given time. The same also applies among your friends and family too, including you.

As we referenced in a previous blog [here], as many as 60-80% of GP consultations are related to stress. That’s a claim made by Dr Rangan Chatterjee in his book “The Stress Solution”, highlighting just how widespread a problem stress is both in terms of mental and physical impact.

Dr Chatterjee’s findings are supported by research from the Mental Health Foundation, which found that 74% of UK adults felt so stressed at some point in 2018 that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Likewise, research from the UK Health and Safety Executive shows that 44% of work-related ill health is caused by stress, depression or anxiety.

Although we may think that health issues is something that happens to other people, these statistics show beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is an experience that we all share to a lesser or greater extent. All of us struggle with our physical and mental health at some point and the ongoing lockdown situation will likely exacerbating this for us all.

Looking out for signs early on has never been more important

Learn to recognise the signs that you and people around you are struggling

By recognising the early indicators, you are setting yourself up well. Consider this: It is often said that fire prevention is significantly better than fire fighting – most people would agree with that, right? So if you smell something burning and see smoke, you immediately recognise these as potential signs of fire. In the same way your feelings alert you to potential issues in terms of your health.

So just like you take the time to change the battery on your smoke alarm because you know how important it is to get that early indicator to prevent fire from spreading, the same applies to your health.

Have a think who in your social circles could be struggling at the moment? Is it Bob? Is it James? Is it Katie? Someone else? You? What let’s you know?

A helpful way to consider how the people you know are doing is by checking their indicators. We use green, amber and red lights to symbolise how a person is doing, much like the dashboard indicators in a car.

Here are some common indicators to look out for. Remember that we’re all different so get curious and find what’s relevant to both you and those around you.

When someone is green, then they are doing alright:

  • They are more than likely walking tall
  • Consuming enough water each day
  • Are on top of their tasks (both household and work)
  • More likely to laugh at jokes
  • And taking care of their personal appearance

When someone is amber, though, they are starting to struggle:

  • They’re probably walking less tall
  • There’s a good chance they are not drinking enough water
  • They could be moving faster, talking faster and/or eating faster
  • Beginning to struggle with sleep
  • And are more likely to be delivering at a different level at work. Now this doesn’t mean to say they will be underdelivering. Working longer hours and/or being super productive are also amber warning indicators, so be sure to look out for them.

But when someone is red, they are really struggling:

  • Likely to feel there isn’t enough time
  • Reluctant to accept help, feeling like it’s all on them
  • Experiencing headaches, cold sores, stiff shoulders, appetite changes
  • Withdrawing or isolating, more short-tempered and/or the lights are on but nobody’s home
  • Looking unkempt, dishevelled, bags under their eyes, messy hair (when it’s usually immaculate), unshaven (when they are usually clean shaven)

When it comes to family, you may notice that children are more lethargic or more energetic. Adults might change their communication patterns e.g. go from never texting, to texting lots or vice-versa. Perhaps someone who changes their clothes every day begins to wear the same ones afew days running. Or maybe someone you know is consuming a lot more coffee than normal. All these small changes could be signs of them struggling.

Take the time to observe your friends, family and colleagues to see who could potentially by feeling the effects of the lockdown right now. Start by writing down the dashboard indicators we talked about earlier and have them close by so they act as a reminder of what to look for among your colleagues, friends and loved ones. Don’t forget your own!

Make a note of what you are seeing and begin to build a picture of how people are coping so you can hopefully identify anyone who’s struggling (including yourself).

To give you a real life example, we worked with a company a few years ago that used to buy biscuits for its staff on a weekly basis. One day the operations manager there was apologising for being out of biscuits and that there had been a run on biscuits lately. We got curious and as we followed the clues it transpired that during deadlines (the company had 3 main deadlines a year) biscuit costs were significantly higher than the average. In other words, people tended to eat more biscuits when they were struggling and under stress. Together we came up with the ‘biscuitometer’ as a gauge to monitor staff wellness. When the biscuitometer went to amber his job wasn’t just to buy more biscuits but also to inform the leadership team and HR.

When you or someone close to you is struggling, stress is one of the most common things you’ll experience and it can lead people to do all manner of out-of-the-ordinary things, as well as lead to overwhelm.

To help you deal with stress and overwhelm, I have created two meditations on the Insight Timer app. I hope they provide you with some relief and you find them helpful:

How to deal with Covid uncertainty without going into dismissal or panic

Build a helpful habit

First and foremost, you need to build a habit of checking your dashboard for warning signs. Whether that’s warning signs that you are struggling or warning signs that someone close to you is struggling, the key is you need to check on a regular basis i.e. make it a habit.

Some people may find it helpful to set a reminder in their phones or take advantage of an app like HiFutureSelf, others might prefer a note on the fridge. Whatever works for you. The key is to work on building the habit so checking the dashboard becomes something you do without even thinking. Our How to build habits that last blog has lots of useful tips and information to help you with this.

Invest in awareness

The key to all this is spotting the signs when someone is amber before they turn red. Unfortunately, by the time someone has reached red it’s already now obvious and ultimately needs a bigger intervention than it would have at amber. 

Think of the dashboard you’re using to spot when the people around you are struggling (remember that includes you) like the dashboard in your car. If the brake fluid light turned orange on your car dashboard you’d take it to a garage and get it checked out, right? You wouldn’t just keep driving or, worse still, remove the fuse for the light so it goes away.

Exactly the same applies with your people dashboard. Take any amber signs seriously and don’t sweep them under the carpet in the hope they’ll get better on their own. Unfortunately, though, we are so attached to the fact that everything will be okay, we sometimes ignore amber signs for fear of:

  • Feeling negative or being perceived as being negative
  • Feeling paranoid or hypochondriac or ‘weak’
  • Or press the snooze button and thinking that we’ll deal with it later (we don’t have the time right now)

Have a chat or ask someone to keep an eye on you

If you spot any amber signs, consider talking to the person in the first instance. A simple way to start the conversation could be by saying:

“I noticed that you are doing more/less (delete as appropriate) <insert activity> than usual. I’m curious and concerned about you and how you are. What’s going on for you?”

Often just starting a conversation can really help someone open up about how they’re feeling, providing them with a vital release. Similarly, if you are noticing amber signs with yourself, ask someone close to you if you can talk to them about how you’re feeling. Oftentimes people will be more than willing to listen and feel privileged that you chose them to ask.


When you’re struggling with stress and overwhelm, it can be helpful to re-triangulate the situation. 

In our blog on Managing risk and overwhelm with animals and triangles, one of the things we looked at was how you can address overwhelm using the triangulation technique. It’s particularly useful when it’s tasks that are causing you to feel overwhelmed. You have a list of stuff that needs to be done and you can’t begin to figure out how to approach them.

Think in terms of time, tasks and resources:

Triangulating Time / Tasks / Resources

Now it’s important to realise that it’s difficult to re-triangulate on your own because you will inevitably associate a high level of risk with not completing the task. But the reality is that most tasks have some leeway somewhere that allows you to re-triangulate them.

Remember the different animals we used in the aforementioned blog to assess risks?

  • A cat – Stroking it doesn’t present too much of a risk. The worst that could happen is you’ll get bitten or scratched. You’ll probably take the risk.
  • A dog – Similar but slightly more risky. Could result in a nasty bite that requires you to have a tetanus shot and a couple of stitches, so you’re likely to take the risk.
  • A wolf – There’s no way you’re going to stroke a wolf without first putting on some protective gear to minimise any potential injuries.
  • A tiger – Even those with a particular fondness of these magnificent cats aren’t going to jump in and start engaging with it without professional support and advice.

On your own you will likely see everything as tigers and shy away as a result, which isn’t helpful. Talking it through with someone means you’ll get a better perspective and are more likely to be able to make more constructive and helpful choices. In this last blog we talked about the power of listening and being listened too.

Be kind to yourself and others

The most common underlying feeling, you and others who are struggling throughout all of this, will be fear and worry. Try to respond with kindness, while being respectful of the feeling of fear/anxiety. What you don’t want to do is dismiss it completely, nor do you want to let it consume you. The trick is to find and occupy the middle space. That’s because feelings of fear often have some merit, but they can also be disproportionate and unhelpful. 

Being kind and saying it’s understandable can be helpful. If we weren’t bothered at all by feelings of fear and anxiety that would be slightly worrying – we’re only human, after all. Moreover, one of the telltale signs of denial is saying there is no fear or worry, and subsequently not taking the appropriate action to manage the risks that we are facing.

Knowing the indicators, checking in and responding when you can nip things in the bud means that you and those around you are stronger and more agile to deal with whatever comes your way.


Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.

All the best, Thor

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