The mental health challenge of the coronavirus disease
The Coronavirus challenge is unprecedented in my lifetime and presents us all with uncertainty and vast challenges for the health system. None of us yet knows how or when it will end and it feels as if the worst is yet to come. The challenge of mental health is great for everyone. This piece aims to give some tips to try and maintain optimum mental health and wellbeing in these very testing times.
I went running on the track in my local park today because my usual visits to the gym are on hold. I felt tired, angry, ready to give up. It is much harder outside than on the treadmill, with the wind resistance and it is an unwelcome disruption to my weekly routine. I don’t like change and this sort of change is particularly unwelcome. I ground to a halt and started walking around the track, feeling sorry for myself. This is too hard; when is this nightmare going to end? How is it going to end? Maybe I deserve a holiday from the exercise as compensation for everything we’re facing? But as we psychotherapists are apt to do, I thought about giving up on exercise that is good for me and asked myself ‘Is this it? Is this coronavirus going to defeat me at this early stage?' And so I slowly picked up the speed again and resumed running, getting home feeling grimly pleased with my accomplishment.
At a time like this, we have to dig very deep to find the resilience to get through this.
Coronavirus: Looking after your mental health
Adaptive v maladaptive strategies
It is all too easy to give in to our maladaptive coping mechanisms such as overeating, drinking too much, shopping (although many shops might close soon) or even gambling. These are short-term solutions which will probably make you feel better in the moment but when that passes you will be left with regret and remorse. And feeling bad about your previous day’s behaviours is harder to face than waking up better for having resisted the urge to self-medicate. Likewise, it is not a time for abstinence – the more you try to give up your guilty pleasure the harder it will be. Try for moderation, be kind to yourself, and if you give in to your urges, punishing yourself with draconian measures will only make things worse. You know your limits so try to stick to them.
Be productive. Keep working if at all possible – keeping your mind and body active has real benefits. Where you can, keep up your routine, however loosely you usethe phrase ‘keeping up’. Try not to spend hours on the sofa watching box-sets and anxiety-based news. If you find yourself with more time on your hands than usual, develop adaptive strategies to help you. Now is the time to put into action the things that have been on the back-burner such as learning to cook or taking up a new language.
If you are the sort of person prone to low-mood when adversity or disaster strikes this is a time to try to shore yourself up against the gloomy, negative thinking that you usually resort to. In many ways, the virus gives us license to feel terrible – there’s no magic cure and no end in sight. There’s nothing to feel cheerful about. Many are facing losing employment or struggling to pay bills, but spiralling down into hopelessness or being the voice of doom won’t help you or the people around you. Try to be realistic about your situation. Perhaps you’re able to work successfully from home, perhaps you’re now able to spend more time with family that wasn’t supposed to be. Look for the silver linings in this because you will find some.
For the anxious amongst us, it is a particularly testing time. Those with a history of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are being triggered by all the obsessive handwashing and sanitising that has been ordered. For those who have had help for their obsessive cleanliness, it must be very counterintuitive to have to start it all up again. This is not easy. For those who are prone to excessive negative rumination, the current situation is a real breeding ground. Ruminating has its origins in fear and uncertainty. Anxious people, therefore, like certainty because it helps them feel in control. The best you can do during these times is to challenge the negative and irrational thoughts, including catastrophising, rigid and binary thoughts. And listen to those around you who have a calming and reassuring presence. Try not to dismiss what they are saying. The practise of mindful breathing, which takes you away from your head and into your breath, can be extremely powerful. It is one way you can bring a non-judgmental and compassionate aspect to your fearful ruminations.
Contact with others
At this time we should be particularly mindful about our relationships. If we live with others, this could be a difficult time; living at such close quarters and for an indeterminate time. Cabin fever can give way to flare-ups, arguments, irritability and tempers as we become frustrated with things and with little to do in the way of getting out. Those living on their own might begin to feel isolated and alone. As people turn inward, dating in person and through apps will probably be out of the question. Maintaining contact with others is crucial to keeping up our spirits and mitigating the loneliness. Try to find a friend you can talk to on a regular basis, not by text but talking. Hearing someone laugh or cry is immeasurably better than an emoji. And whether you are talking on the phone or in-person be kind, be compassionate. Small acts of altruism can help those less fortunate than ourselves and can stimulate our endorphins. Everyone is struggling, but with some mindful thinking, we can keep ourselves emotionally buoyant and relationally fulfilled.
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