Concerns about mental health in the current coronavirus pandemic appear to be largely voiced as a postscript to the more dramatic coverage of the risks posed to our physical health, and indeed mortality. But the impact on mental health could have a much longer term effect, and be equally damaging in terms of days lost at work, reliance on stretched health services and reduced quality of life. Ideally we need to be thinking about our mental health now, as we adjust to this new normal of lock down, restricted freedom of movement and separation from friends and social activity. I don’t mean just thinking about it in terms of another thing to worry about, but putting as much in place as possible to safeguard our mental health and monitoring it to know when we think we are in difficulties and might need professional health.
Let’s take the monitoring first.
Currently thinking that things are not OK, and feeling like you have lost control of your life, is an acceptable reaction to the current situation. But feeling like nothing will ever be OK again, and that the world is a terrible place is less acceptable, and may mean you are finding it difficult to cope.
Likewise making gradual adjustments to accommodate changes in your day to day circumstances could be a healthy reaction to the situation. But feeling that every day this becomes increasingly unbearable is less healthy.
You might just need to discuss these feelings and fears with a friend or a loved one, but if they persist you might need to voice them to a counsellor. Also be aware that currently things can change from OK to not OK very quickly. One day we feel quite chilled about having all this time to ourselves and fewer everyday pressures, then something triggers a massive feeling of anxiety and panic which is almost unbearable. The truth is most of us are still adjusting, and therefore carrying around considerable levels of anxiety just under the surface, despite our relaxed exteriors. We are hyper vigilant, trying to work out what is going on and how we should react. Here self-awareness is key. Checking in with yourself about how you are really feeling and allowing yourself to have periods of frustration, anger, sadness or panic are all important at the moment.
So what can we do to try and help ourselves with these challenges the current situation brings for our mental health?
One of our biggest enemies to our mental health currently is the risk of lethargy. This is where we submit to the “Great Unstructured Day,” possibly not bothering to get dressed or have plans or tasks, or even eat at regular meal times. It may feel attractive initially, and may even be backed by a logical “What’s the point?” argument, but ultimately it leads to a kind of paralysis and depression that can be difficult to move from.
Instead we need to counter this risk with our new structured day. This will not be as full or free ranging as our “old” days, but should contain at least one of each of the following elements:
Home based exercise routine e.g. online workout class, personal fitness routine, skipping in the garden or whatever gets you moving
Work related tasks eg working from home, work projects, home maintenance jobs, cleaning, gardening, something that ideally gives you a sense of achievement
Out the house exercise – this is your one allowable hour of exercise outside which is extremely important for your mental health to reassure yourself the real world and familiar things are still there, and you can access them, albeit with social distancing
Relaxation or meditation – try to get into a routine of doing breathing exercises, yoga, or listening to a mindfulness podcast such as Headspace at least once a day
Engaging with people – this is really important if you are in lock down on your own that you make the effort to talk to friends and family more than usual, even though it is on the phone or online with systems like Skype or Zoom or by letter
Distraction – we all need at least 30 minutes or more a day when we do something for fun which takes our mind off the Coronavirus and associated issues. Watch an old film, a comedy programme, read a book, listen to music, draw or paint, knit, sew do woodwork just absorb yourself in a wonderful distraction.
Eat well and manage your alcohol intake – cooking balanced meals, and if possible eating with other people, even by Zoom or whatever, is very therapeutic and important for your physical and mental health
Finally we all have to manage our intake of News very carefully in the current situation. Do not overload yourself with live News and be particularly careful with material on social media or videos sent to you by friends and claiming to tell the truth about the pandemic. Make sure you know what you need to know about government restrictions, and consider whether it would benefit you to know more.