Mental Health in the Covid-19 Crisis
Just over a month ago I remember talking on the phone with a family member in Hong Kong, as the city went into complete lockdown. Now just a few short weeks later I find my physical and emotional space completely consumed by the Covid-19 virus. This is true in both my private and professional life. Whether it be through physical distancing, the inability to go for a walk, the constant bombardment of media and social media articles, fake news, self-help guides, and the ongoing conversations in therapy, the central theme underlying most of my daily interactions is the Covid-19 crisis. As a community we have become experts at hand washing, sanitizing, and trying to keep safe; but what about our mental health?
As a therapist almost every session I have had in the past 3 weeks has touched on the Covid-19 crisis in some way. Through these conversations, my own experience of physical distancing, and articles and videos posted by colleagues and friends I have come up with following tips on managing your mental health during this challenging time. Most of these tips are not new, and you may have seen them before, but they have been the ones that are most helpful to me.
1. Practice physical distancing and not social isolation.
During this time connection is important. Physical distancing does not mean that you need to isolate from those you love and who love you. Set aside time in your day to connect to those around you. This may be via Skype, Zoom, Text, Phone Conversation, Face time etc. This is also important for your children, who may not be able to put into words what they are feeling.
2. Set up a routine.
Structure is essential in maintaining mental health. As much as possible, try and stick to the same sleep and wake up times as you did before physical distancing. Include time for working and time for relaxing.
3. Name your feelings.
During times of uncertainty it is normal to feel a level of dis-ease. Taking some time to reflect and name your feelings can be especially liberating. Once you know what you are feeling, you can make a decision on how to act on it.
4. Limit your access to negative social media and fake news.
In a time where we have unlimited access to news sources it is easy to spend hours and hours reading through news articles from unverified sources. Instead choose one or two reputable sources and get your information from them.
5. Find positive news articles.
In a time of negative news, making a concerted effort to seek out positive news stories and stories of hope can help maintain a balanced perspective on reality.
6. Limit children’s access to social media and fake news.
When talking about Covid-19 around children it is important to be mindful of what we are saying. This means talking honestly and calmly and presenting the facts, in age appropriate manner, with as little sensationalism as possible. As adults, it is important that we are mindful of the conversations we have in the presence of our children as well as when we are talking to them. Little people often have big ears.
7. Adjust your expectations of yourself and others.
This is one of the rare moments where everyone is struggling in some way or another. Whether it be the healthy individuals with situational anxiety, those with underlying undiagnosed mental health conditions, or those with mental illness we all share a common dis-ease with the current circumstances. This dis-ease can result in uncharacteristic behavior. During this time it is important to be gentle on yourself and others while maintaining firm boundaries. Chances are you are not going to be as productive as you had planned to be, especially with the added challenges of working and educating from home.
8. Maintain healthy boundaries.
Healthy boundaries are essential in daily life, and continue to be essential during this time. This includes physical and emotional boundaries. Taking a few moments each day to “self-care” is essential in this time. This is even more important for parents as their mental health has a direct impact on their ability to care for their children.
9. Be consistent and gentle in disciplining your children.
Children respond well to predictability and routine. The more predictable you are as a parent the easier it is for children to stick to the boundaries. It is, however, important to remember that children often struggle to express their emotions as words. As such, fear, worries, nightmares, tantrums and acting out can be expected. Try not use this time to introduce major behavior changes. Rather focus on creating a consistent and emotional connection.
10. Play with your children.
As mentioned earlier, children often struggle to express their emotions in words. Quality time spent playing can create a safe place for children to process negative emotions. This might include games like doctor-doctor or games around staying home and isolating.
11. Ensure a work life balance.
For those of your who are working from home, it can be challenging to maintain the boundaries between work time and down time. Setting aside a separate physical space can assist with this. If you are unable to do this, try and create a specific ritual to start and end the work day. When the work day is done, close your computer and focus on self-care and family relationships.
12. Pay attention to your physical health.
Maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine is essential to mental health. Try and eat 3 balanced meals a day and include at least 30 minuets of exercise in your daily routine. Also be mindful of your alcohol and substance intake.
13. Pay attention to your mental and spiritual health.
As with your physical health, it is important to be intentional in your care for your mental and spiritual health. This can take on various forms for various people and includes connecting to your chosen community, ensuring you take your medication as prescribed, and engaging in activities such as meditation and yoga or your preferred spiritual practices.
14. Find something you can control.
In moments of anxiety and overwhelming emotions there can often be a feeling of complete powerlessness. Finding small aspects of our lives that can be controlled, such as organizing the bookshelf, can provide an anchor in the chaos
15. Create a worry list.
Often times when overwhelmed with anxiety it is useful to create a list of all the things you are worried about. Once you have completed this list divide it into things you can control and those you cant. Develop a plan of action for the things you can control and practice acceptance for the things that are completely outside of your control.
16. Help others.
There has been an overwhelming response worldwide of those willing to provide help to others during this challenging time. Find a way that you can help those around you. This will help give you a sense of control and create meaning in a challenging time.
17. Practice gratitude daily.
Keeping a daily gratitude journal can help you keep perspective on life as a whole. Take a moment each day to write down 10 things you are grateful for. Taking a moment to appreciate the beauty that surrounds you can be beneficial to surviving in trying times. This may be the sound of your child laughing, your favorite tv show, a beautiful piece of music, or an art work. Appreciation of beauty reminds us that even in the darkest of times there is light and hope.
18. Try a long-term project, but without pressure.
This pandemic is not a productivity contest. This, however, doesn’t stop you from taking steps towards a goal. Wanted to learn a new language, or play an instrument, now is a good time to start. However, be gentle on yourself if you don’t achieve all you set out to do. Your doing the best you can.
19. Find a creative outlet.
Someone influential in my life reminded me of an important nugget of wisdom recently. That in response to fear we can either be creative or engage in destruction. Fear exists within our primitive brain and often sparks a fight, flight, or flee response. In responding to this fear with creative activities we allow for an alternate expression of these emotions.
20. Divide your quarantine into manageable pieces.
The old saying applies, the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Viewing quarantine as a whole can be a daunting experience. However, when we break it down into manageable chunks these become easier to navigate.
21. Ask for help.
In times of crisis underlying mental health challenges and relationship difficulties are often highlighted. Remember that you are not alone. If you are on medication and seeing a therapist keep up with their as best you can. If you have never asked for help before there are a range of mental health care providers in both the public and private domains who are available during this time. There is no shame in seeking help.
22. Utilise the resources around you.
In entering the lockdown period a concern was raised regarding abusive relationships. During this time resources are available for those in abusive relationships. Being in the same premises as someone who is abusing you for prolonged periods of time can be especially challenging. Please reach out for help in a safe way.
23. Adjust to a new normal.
There is a lot of uncertainty around what will happen following the lockdown. These outcomes, for now may be outside of your immediate control. Developing a set of coping strategies to help prepare for life after lock down may be beneficial in making you feel prepared for what lies ahead.
24. Have a plan of action.
Having a plan of action for both a physical and mental emergency can help you feel more prepared and more in control. Create a mental health care kit including essentials for managing your mental health should a crisis emerge. Similarly, should you become sick having a plan regarding the care of your household, pets, children, and elderly dependents can help ease anxiety so you can focus on your recovery.
25. Remember that we are all in this together.
In times of physical distancing it is important to remember that those around you can relate to how you are feeling. There is a collective understanding of the loss that we are experiencing. It’s okay to grieve, but remember that you are not alone. We are all humans, responding as best we can to an inhuman experience.