How to cope with mental health in Covid-19 |Expert Advice from Dr.Lihini Wijeyaratne

             

Dr.Lihini Wijeyaratna  (MBChB,Bsc)
  Mental Health is a priority for us.

2020 has turned our lives on its’ heads. Everything that seemed a given, a certainty, is suddenly not. Nothing is assured, plans can’t be made, and going to the supermarket is an anxiety-provoking experience. There doesn’t seem to be a clear path through this pandemic, and things change daily. I am writing this from a quarantined hotel because I was exposed to work. In the space of twenty fours, I was packed and heading to my home for the next two weeks.

Unfortunately, this pandemic threatens to undo many of the advances of the last century- women are taking on most of the caring for children while working from home. Consequent to the effects of unemployment, sickness, and isolation, we are seeing a rise in substance misuse, mental illness, and domestic violence. Those who were struggling before this pandemic are suffering the most.

That’s a lot of worrying and depressing information, and it’s not going away any time soon. So how are we going to cope in this new world of change and uncertainty? Whatever it may be, it is important to find a strategy that works for you, because preserving your mental health and building resilience during this time is essential for seeing this through to the other side, and being ready for whatever that new world may look like.

I don’t claim to have any magic solutions, but here are a few of the strategies I have tried myself or noticed friends and colleagues try out, in no particular order.

Limit news time

The media plays an important role in a time where some may feel that their liberties are being infringed upon. We need the news for facts and updates about the case numbers, trends, and the latest public health measures. However there is a huge flavor of drama, and unfortunately, negativism, that accompanies the news which is distressing for most of us. So limit your news time to once or twice a day, resist the temptation to check for updates on your phone, and stick to the facts.

Meditate

This may mean downloading the Headspace app, or following guided meditations on YouTube, or finding yoga videos to follow. Whatever it may be, meditating for ten minutes a day can help you become more aware of your emotions, focus more on the present, and recognize when you feel stressed. Anything that helps you center yourself can come in useful on a particularly stressful day and helps build resilience over time.

Exercise

Exercising is more important than ever. Many of us have been limited to our homes for a long time. Gyms are closed and people are cautious about going to public spaces. Not only will regular exercise help shed some of those extra calories during lockdown comfort eating, but it’s been proven to do wonders for your mental health and energy levels. If you can’t or would rather not exercise outside your home, find short 20-30 minute routines you can do in the comfort of your living room 3 times a week. And remember any exercise is better than none, so if going for a quick walk every day is where you need to start, then achieving that is an accomplishment.

Take up non-electronic hobbies

The internet is a blessing during this time when we are hyper-reliant on technology for work, leisure, and the practicalities of daily life. However, given that Zoom fatigue is a real phenomenon, and generally, how much time we are spending in front of a computer, television, or phone, it can be a good idea to take up something that doesn’t require technology. This may be something useful like cooking, or healthy like learning an instrument, cross-stitching, drawing, or exercise.

Try to stay healthy

Easier said than done, I know. It’s easy to give in to temptations when we’re feeling stressed and sorry for ourselves. Try to balance this with regular healthy meals, limiting the number of takeaways a week, and maintaining at least two alcohol/cigarette-free days a week. Cooking for yourself can be relaxing when you have nothing else to do, so maybe this is the time to learn or expand your repertoire.

Remember to be grateful

This pandemic doesn’t hold back. We’re all affected in different ways- old or young, rich or poor. Whatever hardships you are facing at the moment, there will be something, no matter how small, that you can still be grateful for- whether it’s your support network, your job, your health, or your pet dog. It’s easy to forget these, but reminding ourselves regularly of the blessings in our lives can help us to keep perspective when everything feels like it is falling apart.

Stay positive

Nothing lasts forever, and this current limbo of going in and out of lockdown cannot last. The way we live will be forever changed, but over time a new ‘normal’ will be established, and we will adapt and make it work. Humans have done it before, and we’ll do it again.

Be patient

The world is scrambling to adapt to a Zoom-based world, online grocery shopping, and distance learning. This will inevitably lead to breaking in period where it can feel like everything is in chaos. Just trying to remember that everyone is stressed and it will take a little time to smooth out the details in your new work/school/social life could help reduce the frustration and emotion that comes with all these changes. The fact is, we are all doing remarkably well in terms of adapting so quickly to a new way of doing things.

Enjoy simple pleasures

If we are mostly housebound, it may be that making dinner, enjoying a cup of tea, or having a chat over the phone is the most exciting this we do in a day. This isn’t a bad thing. Try to take time to appreciate the beauty in these little tasks- we never had the time before.

There’s always a silver lining

I could probably fill pages with the negative effects of COVID-19. The effects are devastating and long-lasting. But as with everything in life, nothing is completely good or bad. In some ways, despite the distance many of us feel from our loved ones, this pandemic has ironically brought us closer. People all over the world have demonstrated wonderful acts of kindness in supporting the vulnerable in our communities. Children are cutting their parents’ hair. Zoom gives us a much more personal insight into our colleagues’ lives (and living rooms). Parents are taking a more active role in educating their children, and also spending leisure time with them. Teaching over Zoom can make students less afraid of speaking in front of big halls filled with their peers. For some women and many commuters, working from home is less stressful and cheaper, and enables a greater balance between family, leisure, and work. And suddenly, it doesn’t really matter where you live- we can be closer. My choir has gone online, and we have people joining in from Thailand and New Zealand. In some strange way, there are more opportunities than before.

Let’s be realistic

You need to think about your mental health. I still have friends who are dreaming of travel plans and weddings. How realistic this is can depend on where in the world you are living in. It’s ok to have hope, so long as you keep in mind that what COVID-19 has shown us more than anything else is that it’s not a good idea to make too many plans. So whatever it is that you are hoping to accomplish, make plans knowing that there is the very real possibility that they will change at the last minute, and have a backup (and insurance) in case. The alternative is to think up a new way of doing whatever it is that you would like to do, keeping COVID-19 in mind- maybe this means a Zoom-wedding or a local holiday instead of an international one. COVID-19 isn’t going away in a hurry, so it’s time to come up with alternatives and get inventive.

Follow the rules

There is a certain amount of stress that comes from feeling helpless in this situation. In the end, managing this virus is a collective effort- what you as an individual will do has a huge impact on your community, and subsequently your country. Ultimately, the state of COVID-19 throughout the world as a whole will significantly determine how our borders and quarantines will work, as well as trade and economic deals. Without sounding too dramatic, we all have an essential role to play in managing this virus. So sticking to the rules that your government is recommending, especially wearing a mask, socially distancing, and washing your hands, has a much bigger impact than you may realize.

Reach out

Pay attention to your mental health. We’re all in the same boat, and sharing our sorrows really can help- even if this means getting your own sorrows in perspective by hearing someone else’s. It’s likely they are feeling the same way. Don’t forget to check-in and offer a friendly ear. Not only are you being kind, but it will make you feel a lot better. There will also be many vulnerable people in your community who may need extra support in different ways, as well as older members of your family. Young people have had a particularly sharp rise in mental illness associated with the pandemic- if you have teenagers, make sure they are coping.

Ask for help

If you feel like it’s all getting on top of you, please speak to someone, be it family, friends, or colleagues. They are there to support you, so don’t hesitate to reach out if you need to talk. If you don’t feel you can confide in any of these people, then ring the helplines in your country, speak to a community or religious leader, or sign up to the plethora of online counseling services. It’s very normal to feel overwhelmed, don’t suffer in silence.

We’re only human – Mental health is important.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s hard to get it right all the time, and feeling sad and anxious is l in these circumstances. We just need to remember that this is a marathon, and there is a light at the end of it all. You’re allowed to have bad days, as long as you make regular efforts to learn to manage these feelings over time.

Make your mental health a priority. We’re all in very different situations, but I hope there is something in this list that appeals to you, whoever you are. Whatever methods you decide to try out, just remember that remains the same forever, and however, our new world will look, what really matters will stay the same.

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