DR MAX PEMBERTON: Honestly, there were reasons to be thankful in 2020 

This year has been pretty miserable, there’s no doubt. But some wonderful things have happened, too. Yes, we’ve seen panic buying and rule-breaking, but also some of the best aspects of humanity.

As we edge towards New Year it’s normal to look back and reflect. This year, let’s remember things to be thankful for. When you start, you’ll be surprised how many there are — big things like the hard work of NHS staff who kept going and carried on despite the uncertainty and fear. But also small things: the selfless gestures, the thoughtful acts, the kindness of strangers.

I’ve certainly been the beneficiary of those. There are two people in particular I’d like to thank: Victoria and Charles. Back at the beginning of the first lockdown, I found myself accidentally homeless. Just as lockdown hit, I was in the middle of a major flat renovation with no electricity and no running water. Until then, my partner and I had decided to remain living there while work was going on, and set up an inflatable mattress in the corner of our empty, building site of a flat.

NHS psychiatrist Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) says that there were many reasons to be thankful in 2020

NHS psychiatrist Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) says that there were many reasons to be thankful in 2020 

We convinced ourselves it was an exciting camping trip and started to use the gym for showers. Then the pandemic hit. The gyms were closed on a Friday and that evening we realised we were in a serious situation.

I was about to be redeployed to a Covid ward and now couldn’t even wash my hands when I got home. My partner has an inherited liver condition and was supposed to shield.

It’s easy to forget how uncertain and confusing those early days of the pandemic were. The following morning my partner left to live with his parents and that weekend I used friends’ bathrooms. But by the Monday, rumours of a full lockdown began to circulate.

The builders told me they wouldn’t be able to work, leaving me in a flat with no internal walls, no running water and no electricity. Even public conveniences were closed.

A slow panic started to come over me. What was I going to do? At work, I mentioned this to a nurse who looked shocked: I had to get something sorted for this evening, she urged me. 

These included big things like the hard work of NHS staff who kept going and carried on despite the uncertainty and fear

These included big things like the hard work of NHS staff who kept going and carried on despite the uncertainty and fear

But since I was working with Covid patients, I didn’t want to stay with friends or family in case I infected them. We’d been asked not to stay with other doctors or nurses in case we caught it and we all had to stay off work. My choices were limited — even hotels were closing. 

Then suddenly, out of the blue, I got an email from someone saying she’d heard of my plight and would like to help. She had a five-bedroom townhouse in Kensington that was empty — would I like to stay there?

I sat staring at the screen as I read and re-read the email. Could she be serious? Someone I didn’t know would be willing to give me her house to live in? And so it was that, later that evening, I was met by the housekeeper and welcomed into a home owned by people I’d never met. They said they wanted to do their bit to help.

Reader, I lived in their very nice home for months — remember, at the start we had no idea how long the lockdown would last. Eventually, the NHS provided me with accommodation and my flat renovation was finished, so I could move back, but if those strangers hadn’t come to my rescue when they did, I don’t know what I’d have done.

And there were many more kindnesses. I wouldn’t have wished for this pandemic, but while we all feel a bit dispirited and downhearted, let’s remember that there’s a lot to be grateful for still.

This isn’t just being Pollyanna-ish. It’s actually an established tool psychologists use, called ‘gratitude therapy’.

Given the reports of hospitals filling up, we have to get the Nightingale Hospitals running. Health bosses say one of the main obstacles is not enough staff, because so many are off sick or self-isolating. Let’s give front-line staff the vaccine they need to keep doing their jobs — and fast. 

It comes out of a branch of psychotherapy called ‘positive psychology’, which has become increasingly popular in recent years. It’s quite a shift from traditional psychotherapeutic approaches which tend to focus on the problems people have. Positive psychology, by contrast, focuses on exploring what is going right for you and encouraging you to think about things you can be grateful for. It is an important weapon in the arsenal to tackle life’s difficulties.

Countless studies have shown a robust association between high levels of gratitude and long-term mental wellbeing. Focusing on the positive helps to reduce toxic emotions such as anger, frustration, envy and regret.

Research has shown that saying thank you to the people in your life helps solidify friendships and form new relationships, meaning people have better social networks. This helps to stave off loneliness and improve mood. It also helps to improve empathy and decreases interpersonal conflict.

Advocates of gratitude therapy recommend people make a conscious decision to set aside a block of time each day — say, 15 minutes — during which they reflect on the positive things in their life.

The key is taking time to really think about everything you are grateful for, which is why it’s recommended that you actually write down a list in a ‘gratitude journal’.

Yes, 2020 has been strange, and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing the back of it, but let’s try to see past all the fear and anguish and think, instead, about the good things.

Why I’m a Dry January convert

Fifty Shades Of Grey star Jamie Dornan has revealed he's temporarily quit alcohol after overindulging in lockdown (stock image)

Fifty Shades Of Grey star Jamie Dornan has revealed he’s temporarily quit alcohol after overindulging in lockdown (stock image)

Fifty Shades Of Grey star Jamie Dornan has revealed he’s temporarily quit alcohol after overindulging in lockdown.

So many of my patients have confessed to the same thing and want to cut back, so I’m advising them to do Dry January.

To be honest, until a few years ago, I was never a great fan of it. It always struck me as a daft idea that in some way you can make up for drinking too much over Christmas by stopping for a month. That’s not how the body works. If you’re worried about your drinking, far better to try to make a commitment to moderate it in the long term.

But I’ve reassessed my disdain for Dry January and have given it a go the past few years and am going to do it again this time. I think the real benefit of it isn’t with your physical health, but your mind. Firstly, it helps people recognise if they do have an alcohol problem. But it also shows them all the positive things of not drinking, for example improved quality of sleep. If you think you need to have a break, why not join me?

This Christmas, more than ever, I’ve enjoyed indulging in my favourite films. It’s A Wonderful Life has to be up there. There’s something very profound about it — a man in despair wishes he had never been born, only to discover the wonderful impact he’s had on the lives of others.

It reminds us that a life lived looking out for others is the most wonderful life we could hope for. My other favourite is The Muppet Christmas Carol. Oscar-worthy performances from Kermit and Miss Piggy. It never fails to raise a smile. And that’s what life is all about, surely?

Dr Max prescribes… THEATRE ON THE SOFA 

If, like me, theatre is one of your passions and you've been missing it, the National Theatre's new streaming service will come as a welcome new year bonus. Pictured: Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus

If, like me, theatre is one of your passions and you’ve been missing it, the National Theatre’s new streaming service will come as a welcome new year bonus. Pictured: Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus

If, like me, theatre is one of your passions and you’ve been missing it, the National Theatre’s new streaming service will come as a welcome new year bonus. 

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus, Helen Mirren in Phèdre… so many gems, and all available to watch in your own home. New titles will be added every month.

ntathome.com

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