• Sharon Cunliffe

Top tips for your mental health during the Coronavirus pandemic

There’s no question that the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is causing mass disruption across the world. We’re all living in scary and uncertain times. We only have to take a look in the empty supermarket shelves to see that panic and anxiety are fraught. With no one really knowing when or where this will end, the innate desire to survive and the need to cling on to some element of control, is causing people to accumulate mass grocery supplies for their future.

At the time of writing, to help reduce the spread of this disease the government placed unprecedented restrictions on our freedom of movement. This meant that people are only allowed to leave their homes to shop for basic necessities, partake in one form of exercise daily (such as running or walking), provide medical or care needs to a vulnerable person or go to work in a job that is absolutely vital. Although the government recognises that outside activity is fundamentally important for physical and mental wellbeing, social distancing of at least two meters needs to be adhered to at all times. The situation is changing daily and its important you regularly check the latest advice from the government.

It’s crucial that we take this advice seriously, but this has meant many individuals have had no choice but to live in social isolation and with many having the addition of financial crisis hanging over them, the importance of looking after our mental health and well-being at this time is paramount.

So, here are some tips to support you, your friends and family to look after your mental health and well-being during this challenging period.

Create a new daily routine:

We all function better when we have a routine. However, with social isolation in place this may mean that our usual routines have gone out of the window. The thought of being in isolation for up to twelve weeks can understandably precipitate anxiety and the feeling of dread. Although it can be tempting to fall into a pattern of unstructured, passive patterns of behaviour, this has been shown to feed anxiety and depressive disorders. Therefore, why not try creating a new routine with the resources available to you. When you consider this routine, it’s really important to be mindful of your mental well-being, because as much as we may love our families, living on top of each other 24/7, will at times test even those with the most tolerant of patience.

A good sleep routine isn’t only important in protecting our immune system, but is very closely connected to our mental well-being. Although it may be tempting to get up late, as much as possible, try to stick to a regular sleep pattern. Getting up and going to bed at the same time each day, helps to regulate the circadian rhythm (the internal sleep-wake cycle). This not only helps us to sleep better but has many mental health benefits. These include optimising our cognitive functions such as decision making, concentration and attention levels, emotional resilience, problem solving and our ability to be more patient during testing moments. It also means we are more equipped to deal with already underlying mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.

Every day ensure you get up, get showered and get dressed. Although there’s absolutely nothing wrong in having the odd pyjama day, doing this continually can have negative consequences to your mindset. Our brains very much function via association. Since we’re born, we’re taught our pyjamas are bed wear. They’re something we put on to relax and unwind at the end of the day. Getting dressed, even when you aren’t leaving the house helps send a message to your brain that it’s time to get on with the day and to be productive. Getting dressed will make you feel better. It isn’t just about how you look, it’s about your ability to self-care. Looking after yourself and doing everything you can within your power to help yourself feel better at this time, is vital.

Maybe there are some household or DIY jobs you’ve been wanting to do for a while, but haven’t found the time to do them? This can not only be a good time to get these ticked off your to-do list, but the satisfyingly good feeling we can encounter from being productive, has been shown to increase the release of endorphins (the feel good hormones). Think about activities or hobbies you enjoy doing, such as reading, gardening, listening to music, baking, brain puzzles such as Sudoku or crafts. Also try to ensure you spend some time during the day doing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, gentle stretching exercises or yoga. There are plenty of videos and podcasts online to choose from.

Healthy body, healthy mind:

Research suggests our diet impacts as much on our mental health as it does on our physical health. Try to include a high range of healthy foods in your day-to-day diet (such as fruit, vegetables, lentils grains, pulses, essential oils etc). This won’t only improve you immunity, supporting you in staying as well as you possibly can during the pandemic, but additionally fuel your energy levels and cognitive abilities. Although it might be difficult to find your favourite and familiar ingredients in the supermarkets at this time, why not turn it into a challenge and test out new recipes with the supplies you have. It’s also important to eat regularly in order to prevent your blood sugar from dropping which can lead to you feeling tired, irritable and depressed.

In addition, it’s important to stay hydrated. Try to drink at least 6 glasses of water daily, this will benefit both your physical and mental health. Likewise, although there’s nothing to say you can’t enjoy the odd cup of coffee, try to moderate your caffeine intake. High doses of caffeine (five plus cups a day) can increase tension, nervousness and anxiety. Also, in such extreme circumstances, it’s easy to turn to alcohol to escape the stresses and loosen up. Again, although there is absolutely nothing wrong in having a tipple or two, bear in mind that alcohol is a depressant and can exacerbate the effects of already present conditions such as anxiety or depression.

Social Isolation doesn’t have to mean imprisonment:

As much as the government is advising us to avoid unnecessary social contact and confined spaces, this doesn’t mean we have to stay prisoners in our own homes. Yes, we have to be sensible and this is especially true if you have any underlying health issues which make you more vulnerable to the risks, however getting out of the house for some gentle exercise once a day can be incredibly beneficial for your mental well-being. Or alternatively if you’re fortunate enough to have a garden or even a balcony, make the most of it. Fresh air has numerous physical and mental health benefits.

If you live in a quiet area go for a walk, just remember not to stop and chat for lengthy periods of time to neighbours or friends. And if you do chat, keep at least a two meter distance and avoid kissing and hugging. If you live in a busy area and don’t mind being up at the crack of dawn, go for a walk then. There can be something incredibly serene, when the streets are empty. Appreciate the moment for what it is. Be mindful and notice the nature, the sounds of the birds and the colours of the trees etc.

Walking not only has many physical health benefits (such as increased energy levels, better quality of sleep, lower blood pressure and heart rate), but increases the release of endorphins (the feel good hormones) which have been shown to improve aspects of mental health such as increased levels of self-perception, self-esteem and positive mood states and additionally lower levels of negative emotions such as stress, anxiety and anger.

Try to avoid over exposure to the latest media news about the Coronavirus outbreak:

Although it is important for us all to keep up to date with the latest Coronavirus state of affairs, over exposure to such news can cause extreme distress and feed an already present anxiety disorder. If you find that the constant barrage of news is too much for you or you are obsessively checking the news for the latest information, finding ways to control this exposure can be beneficial. This may mean limiting yourself to a set period of time that you allow yourself to listen to the news or search the internet (such as 15-20 minutes a day). Alternatively and if possible, have a trusting family member or friend who is more able to cope with the news, give you a daily update of any changes they feel will be useful for you to know. They can then filter what they tell you in order to prevent your anxiety escalating further.

Additionally, most of us have our phones on us 24/7, therefore if you are getting regular notifications about the Coronavirus from news apps, either turn off the notification setting or temporarily uninstall the app. Likewise, if you notice friends on social media keep posting negative updates or misinformation and this is causing you stress, again either unfollow them for now or unfriend them. It may sound harsh, but if these things are precipitating your anxiety and stress levels, it will benefit you in the long run.

If you do want to keep up to date with the latest news, always make sure you are reading trusted sources such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UK Government (Gov.uk) and the National Health Service (NHS), all of which report the latest statistics and guidance.

Staying connected:

Being in social isolation doesn’t mean you can’t stay connected. We are social creatures after all, and having social support during challenging times can be a great source of comfort. Having contact with our friends and family shapes almost every aspect of our everyday lives. It is so entwined with our identities, our sense of purpose and belonging, and plays a huge part in both our physical and mental well-being.

There are so many ways to stay connected from telephone conversations, emails, messaging using social media such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram and Houseparty. These forms of social media can also be used for video calling. Some people have even been setting up private groups using these forms of social media, to create community groups within neighbourhoods, group exercise classes, group cookery classes or tutorials, book clubs. Houseparty even gives you the added addition of playing games, which can be fun for all ages. If you put your mind to it, there are numerous ways to stay connected. You could even go old school and write the odd letter.

As much as possible, try to stay positive and avoid over sensationalising during this social contact. If you’re already struggling in social isolation and feeling anxious about the Coronavirus, the over sharing of negative content isn’t going to help you. Yes by all means let off a bit of steam, but try and keep the contact as light hearted as possible. Talk about what you’ve done that day and what you’re looking forward to when the pandemic is over and life gets back to a sense of normality.

Watch out for negative thoughts:

The media is rife with the negative consequences of the Coronavirus and although it’s important for us to stay informed and take the pandemic seriously, such information can result in getting stuck in a cycle of constant negative thinking about the situation. Any cognitive behaviour therapist will tell you that negative thoughts, lead to negative feelings, which isn’t good for mental-well-being.

So, during this pandemic, try to focus on the positive things in life. Now I know this might seem impossible given the current state of affairs, but positivity is one of the most successful strategies we can utilise to help us cope in a crisis. Practising gratitude can be a useful way to foster positive emotions.

Try to think about the small things that have occurred during your day that have made it that bit nicer, that bit more bearable. Such as a warm shower, a hot cup of tea, a call from a friend, seeing a robin from the window. There are so many small aspects of our day-to-day living that we over look, that we take for granted. Now more than ever, it’s important we bring these to the forefront of our minds. The more we look for the positives, the more we will find them. By taking some time to process and appreciate these small pleasures in life, we allow our brain to release a boost of the feel good hormone serotonin.

If you would like to learn more on the benefits of gratitude please read my blog on this subject.

Finally:

Try to take some comfort in knowing, you aren’t in this alone, because one way or another this pandemic is affecting the whole world. Although there’s no doubt some are more affected than others, try to remember that if we are all sensible and respect the latest government guidelines as best we can, there will be an end to this and our lives will regain some normality.

However, in the meantime, if you’re feeling extremely anxious or overly concerned about the Coronavirus and your emotions are becoming overwhelming, think about a trusting family member or friend who you could talk to. It is useful to bear in mind how they are dealing with the current situation themselves. I would try to refrain from talking to someone who has the same fears as you because this may reinforce your own negative thoughts and fears about the situation. A friend who is able to see the situation from a sensible and rational perspective and reassure your concerns would be advisable. Alternatively, talking to a qualified psychotherapist or counsellor such as myself, can help you to explore your fears and develop useful coping strategies to deal with the situation in a healthier way. Given latest government advice, I offer online or telephone therapy sessions at flexible times. Please contact me today for more information.

The Samaritans also offer an emotional support service 24 hours a day, 365 days a week for free. They can be contacted from any telephone on 116 123 or here online.

Whoever you turn to for support during this time, just remember there’s no shame whatsoever in admitting you’re struggling and asking for help.

“Be strong enough to stand alone, smart enough to know when you need help, and brave enough to ask for it”.

(Mark Amend, Author)