Coronavirus and your mental health – self-care tips this autumn
Here in the UK Coronavirus has become part of our everyday lives. In the wake of the outbreak back in March, how we work, the way we socialise, and our relationships have likely all been affected in one way or another. During the summer months, the milder weather and longer days have helped us, as a nation, to facilitate socially distanced activities outdoors, such as bike rides, visits to the park and alfresco dining.
Lockdown may currently be lifted but as the rainy weather of late reminds us; autumn and winter are around the corner and there is still a lot of collective uncertainty about what is to come. Safety measures for managing Coronavirus and policies are changing at what can feel like a near-constant, rapid pace.
Work with what you can control
In times of uncertainty, it can be helpful for our mental health to shift focus on what we can control. While there might be frustration or anxiety at things you feel you cannot do in a post Coronavirus world, tuning in to what you can have agency over is potentially empowering.
Self-care is more important than you might think
The term self-care might be something you associate with brands trying to sell you expensive candles or bubble bath. But if we take a minute to look at the definition at its core we can see it is potentially far more significant in our lives:
- the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one's own health: "autonomy in self-care and insulin administration"
- the practice of taking an active role in protecting one's own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress: "expressing oneself is an essential form of self-care"
From these definitions, we can see that self-care is the bedrock of good mental health especially in times of acute stress. Self-care is often one of the first things to be lacking when people are struggling with depression or anxiety.
Tips to help with your mental health this autumn
Get into a routine
Having a routine where possible keeps us regulated and the brain happy as it likes repetition. People often think routines are boring or restrictive, however, and so do not engage with them. When I see clients for a multitude of reasons I often ask about their daily routine. Waking up time, bedtime, personal hygiene, meals, work, leisure activities and rest.
Many people who come to counselling have fallen out of practice or don’t have a daily routine. Implementing structure in our days gives us a sense of control and cultivating healthy habits is a day in day out practice; the repetition is what makes them stick. Having a routine can also decrease feelings of overwhelm and help us avoid procrastination.
Colder weather means it is really tempting to stay indoors more. However, it is important to get outside for fresh air and daylight. If you can invest in a waterproof jacket for wet weather, do so. That way you can get outside for a daily walk even if there are showers. If that is not possible for you due to mobility issues or chronic pain, try and go outside for short periods that feel manageable for you. Sitting on your front wall having a warm drink or time in your garden might be some things you can try. If you cannot go outside sit close to an open window, where you can see the sky.
Get healthy foods into your daily diet
Increase your intake of fruit and vegetables where you can. These can be canned or frozen if fresh is too expensive and they are still really good. Where possible be mindful of the number of foods you eat with high sugar, salt or fat content. If you like cooking and have the time, there are lots of free resources to be found online for cooking on all different budgets. These include many grab-and-go options you can make to fit healthier eating around your busy lives and work commitments.
The benefits of exercise on our mental well being are well documented. People who are able to exercise regularly are generally happier and feel more emotionally stable. Find a form of exercise that you enjoy. This will help you to be more consistent in making time for it in your life. There are lots of free exercise videos to be found online that require no equipment to do.
Get smart about your news intake
The daily news cycle can feel overwhelming. With the news so readily accessible on our phones and through social media it is easy to fall into a pattern of 'doomscolling' for hours reading negative stories. This isn’t good for anyone’s mental health! If you are prone to overthinking or anxiety it is especially important to be smart about your news intake. Some people might find it helpful to allow themselves one news break a day to avoid ‘checking’ or if you feel like you don’t want to look at the news at all that is completely fine. Do what feels right for you.
Get connected to others
We need each other. There is countless evidence to show that connecting to others forms an essential part of our mental and physical well being. We don’t tend to function well without others in some capacity and a sense of belonging is often linked to increased self-esteem. Social distancing and restrictions on groups getting together have meant that vital interactions have not taken place. And I think many people have felt the effect of this over the past five months. Disconnection, isolation, and loneliness have become part of too many people’s lives.
Technology has been a big help in remedying this and where possible if you cannot meet with people over the autumn and winter months connect with them in other ways. Schedule video chats, make phone calls and write letters. Getting a letter through the post could absolutely make someone’s day who is feeling isolated and who perhaps does not have technology in their life.
Where possible seek to connect to people outside of your family and friends also as not everyone has a support network to lean on. Make time to have passing conversations with neighbours, perhaps small interactions in line at the supermarket and if you have the time to spare consider volunteering. Volunteering can have a positive effect on your mental and physical well being, helping others makes us feel good! And there are so many people in our communities that need help right now.
Get self-aware about your alcohol intake
Habits are formed quickly and can be hard to break. Studies show that nearly a third of the UK public are drinking more than usual during the pandemic. While alcohol can be seen as something to help us unwind in stressful times, increased use has a number of knock-on effects. You may find it affects your sleep. While you can go off to sleep sometimes more easily after a drink you are more likely to wake in the night as it begins to wear off. This may leave you sluggish throughout your day. Increased alcohol use also puts stress on our relationships, heightening disagreements and making conflicts more likely to occur. Alcohol is a depressant and so if you are feeling anxious, low in mood or having negative thoughts it is likely to increase these unwanted sensations.
When having alcohol, the key is to drink mindfully. Keep track of how many drinks you have had and be aware that you are drinking so that you don’t find yourself consuming drink after drink. This can be easily done when you are engaged in watching the television, talking with friends or checking social media. If you find yourself using alcohol as an unhealthy coping strategy and struggle to quit or go back to your regular intake, please seek professional help through your local alcohol recovery service as soon as possible. These services are free to get help from.
Some reasons to try journaling for five -10 minutes a day.
- Getting our thoughts down on paper is a way of separating them from our selves. We are not our thoughts but sometimes that is easy to forget!
- It is a release. Be it of stress or anxiety, frustration, or anger. To hash it out on the page just for us can be liberating.
- It is a way to self soothe and regulate.
- It can be fantastic for organising thoughts and avoiding feeling overwhelmed. Writing things down can make them clearer and allow us to look at the bigger picture.
- Journaling is expressive. Perhaps you find expressing your thoughts daunting. Journaling our thoughts can increase our communication skills with others over time.
- Journaling is proven to keep our memory sharp and even boost our immunity!
Get familiar with a daily gratitude practice
Focusing on what we have and what is good, however small it may seem, can be hugely beneficial especially if we are experiencing pain and difficulty. This isn't to try and trick your mind into believing your problems aren't there. But taking five minutes out of your day to write down a few things you are grateful for can give you some respite from troubling thoughts, keeping you going when times are hard.
Get outside support for your mental health
We are living through collectively stressful times, and many of our ordinary coping strategies are not working for us. Seek outside help when you need it. There are times in our lives where we require some independent help from a qualified professional. When we simply are not able to manage things alone or perhaps, we recognise that having the support to work through something is the best thing for us. Many counsellors are working online these days as well as in person. So if you aren’t able to access in-person counselling there are options available to you.