How to help your mental health during the pandemic crisis
It probably comes as no surprise to hear reports that many people have or will experience heightened levels of anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic. Barely a few weeks into lockdown, we continue to adjust to new realities and grieving the loss of old ones. Most of us are just simply trying to manage our daily lives by taking care of our family and friends (in the real or virtual worlds), coping with any financial fallouts and adjust to a new way of living.
The stresses which are related to COVID-19 are probably the result of a mix of negative feelings such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. As individuals, we react to stress both in adaptive and maladaptive ways.
It is possible, as individuals that if we respond in an adaptive way we can emerge from this crisis displaying post-traumatic growth.
It may sound naive, given we are currently in the middle of a crisis and with no end in sight, to believe this can be a likely outcome. Yet as individuals, we may well find we have the ability to rise to a higher level of functioning once the pandemic ends.
And, I for one, believes personal growth is possible and achievable after the pandemic.
How we respond to a crisis is often an indicator as to how psychologically well-equipped we are when it's over.
Let's start with an obvious, yet useful reminder during this time. It is vital to maintain good habits like eating healthily, undertaking exercise and connecting with others, whilst getting plenty of rest and sleep. If we can maintain these habits and keep ourselves on track, we can enhance our chances of reducing the risk of experiencing long term health issues as a result of the coronavirus epidemic.
As ever, timing features strongly in how well we cope. When we experience major stressors in our lives such as divorce, death, loss of employment, loss of health and these events happen over a relatively short period of time, there is a greater risk of slipping into depression. Quite simply, life seems so overwhelming. We do not have the inner resources to function on a day-to-day basis. The future looks bleak and we feel lost and stuck. So, it follows that if prior to the pandemic we were experiencing such traumas and we had yet to work out how to recover from them, we are more likely to feel the added stress of what is happening now.
We are in lockdown and we may be seeking ways to cope such as self-medicating on alcohol or drugs or other addictive behaviours like online gambling to numb the pain and give us an escape from our troublesome thoughts. And if this develops into a regular habit so as to become a 'need' it can soon embed itself into a maladaptive way of coping with stress in the long run.
In a crisis we tend to turn to external information - 'news feeds' in the modern parlance - to help us cope. We are feeling anxious, so we are searching for answers which will reduce these worrying thoughts and feelings. Take, for example, someone who has been dismissed from their work. Even though they no longer go to work, they continue to keep in touch with former work colleagues to 'catch up'. This is a sort of 'news feed'. They scroll through texts and emails from work and continue to try to interact in something which is no longer part of their life. Holding on and unable to let go can cause distress and feelings of resentment and anger can creep in.
On a larger scale but with a similar effect, the 24/7 news feeds on the pandemic can create similar trauma (often referred to as a 'vicarious trauma'). By interacting with the 'news' updates in whatever form they take, we risk 'living' the experience of what devastating effects COVID-19 is having on the world and people around us. 24/7 news cycles and endless streaming through all kinds of platforms can activate 'fight' or 'flight' responses. This can lead to traumatic stress as the brain interacts with a barrage of information on a daily basis with which it cannot cope.
The way we respond to a negative external event can trigger changes in the body such as the increase of heart and breathing rates, muscle tension and blood pressure. These 'new' physical health conditions can manifest themselves up to two to three years after the event (in this case a pandemic).
There can be a delayed reaction from the psychological fallout, risking physical health problems and a lengthy recovery from both which can last for years.
If we are to protect ourselves from experiencing such trauma, we can take action by limiting our news coverage and choose outlets which are responsible and reliable. Limiting our exposure to distressing images is recommended too.
It is also important to accept the way we feel. As this is a time of both personal and collective trauma, feelings such as fear, anxiety and anger are normal because the current information is too overwhelming to process just now. As in any crisis we need to reduce our time streaming for the latest update. We also need to call time on watching individuals who undermine the public health effort to tackle COVID-19. It can be psychologically harmful to watch people argue and bicker whilst ignoring the facts and the research (the impact on our mental health is similar in any crisis).
We can also help ourselves by being aware of when our emotions seem to be getting out of hand. Being emotional is natural during this time of crisis. Unfortunately, a lockdown can be the perfect environment which reinforces rumination, overthinking or negative automatic thoughts. The good news is we can counter our self-fulfilling prophecies (eg 'I am going to get COVID-19 and I am going to die') by focusing on rational thinking ('statistically this is not likely to happen and I am putting into practice all the safety measures and reduce my risk').
Practising positive self-talk can calm the nerves and help keep our emotions in check.
At a time of crisis, we need to hold onto all our internal resources as tightly as we can so it helps to keep away from people we find emotionally draining. It is important to spend time (real or virtual) on those who display healthy behaviours.
Self-care is so vital right now.
We can seek out and accept good, uplifting company, take exercise, get plenty of rest and sleep and pursue any creative hobbies which are healthy and healing escapes. We each have our own different needs and we need to know what they are and how to get them met. This helps us each build our own, unique inner resources at a time of crisis - just when we need them most.
Meditation can also help keep us calm and focused in a healthy way. Practising daily for 10 minutes can reduce anxiety and stress. By accessing our peace of mind quicker and easier our negative state of mind has less chance to become embedded in our thinking.
If we apply some of the above suggestions, once the pandemic is over, we have a good chance of discovering we have, in fact, built resilience, developed a self-awareness and a newfound confidence in keeping our own mental health, well, healthy.