It feels like a cliché to call the last year difficult; it’s been a once in a century global health catastrophe that has closed economies, deprived so many of the ability to provide for their families, taken the lives of over almost 130,000 Brits (at the time of writing), and left so many of us feeling isolated and anxious. For many parts of the world, the horror lies ahead. As we contemplate the impacts, there is much to learn from former hostages and the strategies they have developed to endure captivity, maintain mental health and build wellbeing.

The mental health and wellbeing impact of the pandemic

Given what we’ve been through, it’s not surprising the pandemic has left mental as well as physical scars: the latest figures from the ONS show that twice as many adults as normal (19%) have feelings of depression right now. For some groups, the numbers are much higher: 29 per cent of 16-39 year-olds, 39 per cent who are disabled, and one quarter of women and those living alone. A year of isolation, uncertainty, loss and worry has taken its toll.

If there are any silver linings to the pandemic, enhanced awareness about mental health and wellbeing must surely be one. We’ve all felt it, seen friends suffer, and – at last – we are becoming more comfortable talking about it. The scale of the mental health deficit has created a mental health dividend: awareness. The experience of the pandemic has equipped us with one of the key skills we need to recover from it.

What I’ve learned from hostages and their strategies for surviving captivity

When we entered lockdown, I drew on what I’d learned from a group of people who know more than most about enduring isolation: hostages. Over the last two decades, I’ve supported scores of former hostages, helping them to rebuild their bodies and minds and get back to a new normal following months or years of isolation, torture, starvation, and hopelessness. Their strategies for surviving captivity helped me to get through my own ‘captivity’ of sorts.

Hostages have often told me that surviving captivity equipped them to ‘survive survival’ when they got home. As we cautiously emerge on ‘Freedom Day’, there’s so much we can learn from hostages about how best to recover safely, rebuild our lives and learn to deal with our newfound freedom. Hostages offer five resilience strategies to help us move on from the strangest of years.

Keep on moving – exercise is a source of mental and physical strength and wellbeing in captivity

When Jude Tebbutt was kidnapped by Somali pirates, she was determined to do whatever she could to stay healthy. She couldn’t control what she ate or whether she would have access to medicines if she got sick, but she could remain physically active. She wrote in her memoir, A Long Walk Home, “Was there a way for me, even in these cramped, dark, deprived conditions, to keep active? Mulling it over, I began to pace out the length and breadth of the room. And, curiously, just walking round the space of my confinement made me feel a little better, somehow.”

For the entirety of her six months of captivity, she walked around her small room for half an hour on the hour for 12 hours per day. Not only did this keep her moving, it gave structure and meaning to her endless days, a sense of control, and feeling the ground under her feet kept her connected to herself. It also physically exhausted her, which made sleep so much easier.

For some hostages, movement of any kind is impossible. Theo Padnos, held by an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, describes being kept standing upright in a small cupboard, his hands tied behind his back, feet shackled. Michael Scott Moore, who was held for two and a half years by Somali pirates, told me how strange it was to try to run for a tram in his home town of Berlin weeks after his release, only to find his legs couldn’t move because he had lost so much muscle.

For some, the physical challenge ahead will be the after-effects of COVID symptoms. For most of us, thankfully, our biggest problem is resuming our normal exercise routines and getting used to being busy and active again. If most hostages can maintain an exercise routine against the odds, we have no excuse.

Maintain a routine – structure in your day helps to maintain wellbeing

Every hostage I know that has survived captivity well, established and maintained a routine from day one, difficult when you have no choice over when you eat or go to the bathroom. They also worked hard to maintain the structure after they were released.

Terry Waite was held for five years in Beirut in the late 1980s and spent the majority of his captivity in solitary confinement. He has talked to me about how important a routine was, and recently shared his advice on coping through the pandemic, “Keep some form of programme, a schedule for the day. That’s one thing that I had to do when the whole day stretched before me and I was there in the dark. I still had to form some kind of plan of how I was going to think, how I was going to exercise – what little exercise I could do on the end of a chain.”

For most of us, one of the hardest things has been filling the long, endless days that seem to stretch on forever. As choice returns and commitments outside the home resume, it’s important we hold strong to the routines we have created over the past year to ensure our new freedoms don’t overwhelm us. Routines are at the bedrock of wellbeing.

Stay connected – relationships are critical for mental health

You might think this is impossible for hostages, but they find creative ways to stay connected to loved ones – through memories or imagined conversations. One former hostage told me he mentally drove the route from home to his daughter’s house every morning during captivity to feel connected to her.

John McCarthy – held in Beirut with Terry Waite – revisited family lunches in his mind, remembering who had been there and what they had talked about. When he ran out of real lunches, he started to make up imaginary ones. Amazingly, he was able to use these lunches to come to terms with his mother’s death, telling psychiatrist, Professor Gordon Turnbull, “Through this medium I was able to discuss my mother’s illness with other members of my family. You see, I knew she was dead. I’d heard it on the radio. This helped me to come to terms with it. I gradually excluded her from the lunches. I did it deliberately. We talked about things. We said our goodbyes. Little by little, she disappeared from the room. It was my way of mourning her.”

Social contact is one of the most powerful protections against anxiety and depression. It also helps to determine how well you will recover following a stressful experience; those with low social support are more likely to go on to develop PTSD. Now is the time to hold even closer to you the people you know you can rely on to listen and help.

Check in – show you care

Mental health doesn’t hold the stigma it did just a few years ago, and our awareness and willingness to engage has accelerated during the pandemic. Connections are a protective factor, but the quality of contact matters, too. We need to know that we can turn to our friends, they will listen, and we can rely on their help.

Supporting hostage families, I often felt frustrated I couldn’t do anything materially to change their circumstances. I seemed to spend my time listening, looking out for their welfare, following the case with them, and only occasionally had the chance to do something practical. In time, I came to appreciate that what felt passive and impotent to me was making a huge difference to them.  

Too often, “how are you?” is a greeting rather than a question. I learned never to use these words; they encourage a default “fine”, rather than a messy and honest response. Instead, I’d ask, “how is today going?” Time limiting the inquiry opens things up. “Well, today is ok, but last week was terrible” would create an opportunity to talk about why things had been bad and what had changed to make them better. A simple change of words signaled it was ok to share the dark as well as the light.

We need to look out for family and friends over the coming months. Experiment: deviate from the usual greeting, and see the difference you can make.

Keep things in perspective – if hostages can survive captivity, we can get through a pandemic

People often assume my work with hostages was difficult. Sure, there were bad days; the hostages that didn’t come home, the false hopes dashed, the agonizing and faltering journeys back to health.

Mostly, it was uplifting and joyful; I witnessed people touched by the worst of humanity find the strength to become the best of humanity, who survived and moved forward without anger or malice. To witness that and play my small part was a privilege and an honour.

The most important gift hostages gave me was perspective. Even on my worst days, I think to myself, well if this is as bad as it gets, I’m doing ok. I’ll always remember a former hostage – who’d been held in a hole under the ground, shackled and in pitch darkness for six months – telling me about the time he hit horrendous traffic on the beltway outside Washington DC. “I called my therapist,” he told me, “to tell him I was stuck in traffic, and how amazing that felt. To be free, to be able to experience the frustration, it was just the best feeling in the world.”

Some people have had it really bad during the pandemic; they have lost loved ones, been seriously ill themselves, experienced financial hardship, or suffered isolation. Most of us have had a tougher year than normal. We will get through this. Most people who experience adversity get better without the need for more formal interventions, like medication or counseling. Even a majority of those who go onto develop PTSD will eventually recover. Humans are pre-programmed to survive – hostages have demonstrated that to me over and over.  

Terry Waite likened his process of recovery to a deep-sea diver’s journey back to the water’s surface. Moving fast can be dangerous. Go slow and steady, one step, one breath, at a time, and you’ll get there calmly and safely.

We have so much to learn from former hostages like Terry – let’s apply these five strategies for resilience and wellbeing as we emerge from lockdown and build our new normal.