10 ways you can protect your mental health during the pandemic.

mental health Mar 14, 2020

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, many of us are feeling increasingly anxious. The uncertainty can be hard to tolerate especially for those of us who like to feel in control over our lives. While feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty are quite normal during a pandemic, there are some things that we can do to protect our mental and emotional health as this global crisis plays itself out.

Here are some suggestions:

1.     Get your news from trustworthy sources

Everywhere you turn, there are horror stories about worst case scenarios and what may happen if the pandemic continues the way it has been progressing.  

While it may be helpful to stay up to date on the current situation, we need to make sure that the health news is from a reliable source. If we rely on and react to all the panicky phone calls, media posts and WhatApp forwards from other anxious people, we will likely increase our own anxiety and the sense of loss of control.

The truth is that no one really knows how this is going to play out and we have no control over it. What we do have control over is how we receive and consume information about the pandemic. So go ahead and choose one or two sources of information that you will rely on (such as World Health Organization) and give yourself permission to ignore all others.

And the same applies when forwarding or circulating any information that we may receive. Please do confirm that it is from a reliable source. Open and read the information for yourself before forwarding anything. Ask yourself if anything new or helpful is to be gained by forwarding this information to others. Doing so will ensure that we are not in fact causing more fear and panic in addition to what is already out there.

2.     Limit media consumption

Even if the news updates are from a reliable source and they are verified we will still need to limit our exposure to them to preserve our sanity.

Being bombarded with anxiety inducing news all day reinforces our sense of loss of control and helplessness and feeds our fears of worst-case scenarios.

A research study showed that people who repeatedly saw images of the Boston marathon bombing had a greater incidence of PTSD (trauma) than those who were actually present at the scene.

So, while it can be tempting to sit glued to our screens consuming the same depressing news again and again, let us remind ourselves that doing so is not going to change the situation nor is going to help us cope better.

What will help is to be intentional in setting limits to media exposure. This means recognizing and taking charge of how much news you can consume without being overwhelmed.

Once or twice a day news updates (preferably not the last thing at night) are more than enough to keep you updated on what is happening. If you find yourself being consumed by breaking news updates, change the channel or intentionally step away and go do something else.

3.     Recognize and do what you can to minimize risk

The most helpful thing we can do practically is to follow the health guidelines that are being circulated by government and health officials. Even if we are personally at minimal risk, we need to recognize that by not following guidelines, we may be putting others who are more vulnerable in harm’s way.

Let us do what is needed in terms of

  • Taking care of personal hygiene
  • Limiting travel
  • Limiting exposure to crowded places 

Once we develop an action plan and start taking action, we are focusing on things that we do have control over. This increases our sense of agency over our own lives and gives us something practical to focus on instead of worrying about things we have no control over.

4.     Resist the temptation to follow the herd

There are likely to be people who are panicking around you. While others seem not concerned at all. Both are normal reactions to unknown situations. Not paying any attention leads us to take unnecessary risks while panic makes us to do things which make little sense and do nothing to help the situation. A prime example of panic-driven behaviour is the hording of household items (especially of toilet paper!!) that we see currently going on.

Before heading out to stock up just because others are doing so, please take a few moments and take stock of your supplies. Chances are that most of us will be okay even if we have to isolate for a couple of weeks. There is no need to hoard enough things for the next year. Food and water supplies are not likely to run out. Stockpiling enough hand sanitizer for a small village is NOT going to help in anyway and may likely make the situation worse as others cannot get a hold of supplies that we are stock piling.

So, when you notice the panic rising, take a breath. Acknowledge and name the feeling. This simple step allows us to get our thinking brain back on track. And then step back and asses what you really do need to survive isolation if needed before heading out to the grocery store.

5.     Use the time extra time well

Many of us will have find ourselves with unscheduled time over the next few weeks as public events, work and social gatherings get postponed or canceled. It can be tempting to binge watch Netflix at this time. This will not increase our wellbeing.

Instead, how about tackling a project from our “someday list”. Something that we have been telling ourselves that we will do “when we have more time”. Well, we now DO have more time!! This is it. This is the time to tackle a long put off project, whether it is cleaning out that closet or getting started on our book.

One of the quickest ways to manage our mental wellbeing is to tick something off our to do list. It gives us something engaging to focus on. And accomplishing tasks or projects will ensure that we do not feel that we are wasting time and have nothing to do.

6.     Practice good self-care. 

When things are stressful, it is tempting to let go our self-care. However, keeping (or increasing) our self-care routines such as eating well, moving frequently and getting enough sleep are key to helping us stay as physically and psychologically healthy as possible during stressful times.

Keeping physically active is especially critical to optimizing our emotional wellbeing. There are many creative ways to stay active even if we cannot go to the gym: doing jumping jacks, running up and down the stairs or setting up an obstacle course in the basement are just some ideas.

At stressful times, many of us will start asking big questions about the meaning and purpose of life. To answer the soul’s calling, we need to find ways to nurture our spirit during stressful times, especially since we may be cut off from our faith communities.

How about exploring a piece of spiritual literature that you have always wanted to dive into but did not have the time to do so?

Let us remind ourselves of the practical benefits of self-care: that taking care of ourselves helps our immune system stay robust and helps fight infections.

7.     Keep some routine even if you are at home

The novelty of freedom to do whatever we want all day will likely wear off quite quickly. We know from research that when people stop doing their normal activities during stressful times, it can have a pretty profound negative effect on their mood.

So try to keep as much normalcy in your day as you can, still waking and sleeping at usual times and doing work during the day, even from home.

Maintaining routines of working, eating and sleeping at the same time can provide structure and be an anchor of comfort when life is unpredictable.

8.     Stay in touch

One of the most distressing things about this pandemic perhaps is the recommendation for social isolation to stop its spread.

As human beings, we yearn connection to others. Our bodies, our minds and our emotions are programmed to seek soothing touch when we are stressed. Hugging and other forms of physical affection are known to soothe us at a physiological level by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Withdrawing from human contact or social isolation, on the other hand, is a known risk factor in decreasing physical, mental and emotional health. In these strange times, we are being asked to do exactly those things that are not good for us in many ways.

When we have scheduled activities such as work or gym, we do not need to make so much of an effort to connect with others. It just happens automatically as part of our regular day. In the age of social distancing, we will need to be more intentional and find ways to connect with others on a daily basis through technology.  

9.     Reach out to others

Reaching out to help and support others is a way to lift everyone, including ourselves. It turns out that what matters most in social connections is “reciprocal social support”. This means that giving and receiving support help both the doer and receiver of support.

In fact, there is very interesting research to suggest that volunteers and other “good doers” benefit more from acts of kindness than the recipients of those acts. Supporting others has physical benefits (such as lowering blood pressure) in addition to being a very effective way of improving our wellbeing and managing feelings of helplessness and anxiety. It also adds meaning to our own lives and gives us a sense of purpose.

So go ahead and do something good today and every day. A random act of kindness. Reach out to offer support in kind or through words to someone struggling. Call someone who is self-isolating and connect with them. If you have stockpiled supplies, offer them to friends and neighbours. Spread good news. Be a force for good in this world. Take on a big problem to solve in this world.

10.     Start a gratitude list

When there is so much stress and trouble over the world, it can be easy to forget the blessings that we continue to enjoy. This does NOT mean that we do not acknowledge that things are challenging and that they are VERY challenging for many people across the globe. It simply means that we balance the picture by pausing and noticing the blessings that we do continue to have and enjoy.

So start a list of things that are going right in your life right now. Things that you are grateful for. Things of beauty (physical and spiritual) that you notice around you. Words and people that inspire you.

Notice them. Acknowledge them. Give thanks. Notice how it makes you feel.

The reality is that there is a lot that we cannot control and there is continuing uncertainty about how things are unfolding on a daily basis. The reality is also that are still many things within our control, such as the choices we make on a daily basis to nurture our mental and emotional wellbeing and make meaning for our lives during this time.

Which are you going to focus on? What are you doing to maintain your wellbeing during this period? I would love to hear your ideas.

 

 

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