The coronavirus pandemic is driving levels of disruption, change and uncertainty that are utterly unfamiliar. Few people have experienced such upheaval before. Isolation and uncertainty can erode mental health. It’s crucial to take care of your mind right now. This is particularly challenging when many of the things that have underpinned your mental wellbeing are no longer an option.
Anxiety is a normal evolutionary response to threat. It is designed to protect us. However, our anxiety mechanisms evolved at a time when the threats we faced were typically immediate, physical danger, such as bears or snakes. Our body responds to perceived threats with the fight-or-flight response- by pumping adrenaline to prepare us for action. Although the threats we face today- infectious disease and economic uncertainty etc.- do not call for an immediate physical response, our body still responds as if they do.
As such you may be suffering from persistent high levels of stress hormones and tension, which can have debilitating effects on mental and physical health. But that doesn’t have to be the case. There are plenty of simple and effective ways to diminish anxiety and maintain a healthy mind during these difficult times.
Stop inadvertently fuelling your own anxiety
People often engage in safety behaviours that offer short-term relief from anxiety but intensify it over time. You might be compulsively checking the news and social media to keep track of things. But when you’re feeling anxious your mind naturally hones in on perceived threats, and by gorging on alarming news you are fuelling further anxiety and reinforcing this vicious cycle. Limit your news consumption to 30 minutes or less. For important information stick to reliable, rational resources, such as John Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center.
Tweak your social media exposure. Unfollow accounts and friends who post alarmist content, and focus more on interesting and uplifting sources.
Humans crave certainty and right now that’s just not possible. (Is it ever?). By accepting uncertainty you don’t have to generate unnecessary suffering.
Put the breaks on
In fight-or-flight, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. The parasympathetic nervous system restores our body to a calm and balanced state. It is like a parachute that brings us down for a soft landing.
Breathing techniques are a quick and easy way to activate that parachute.
Our breathing is quicker and shallower when we’re tense. By taking deep breaths into your belly, and lengthening the outbreath, you can quickly restore balance to your nervous system and soothe anxiety. Try this a few times throughout the day.
Thoughts are not facts.
It’s not outside events that drive our feelings and behaviours, but rather our interpretations of those events. We can’t always change what’s happening, but we can change the way we think about it.
At times like this, we might fall into a number of thinking traps. We catastrophise, predicting the worst case scenario and ignoring other, more likely possibilities. We think in black-and-white terms, seeing things as completely terrible rather than in shades of gray. We get tunnel vision, honing in on specific details and neglecting to see the bigger picture. These all fuel fear and misery.
But it’s possible to become aware of your thinking, evaluate it and reframe it.
You can ask yourself:
- What’s a different way of looking at this situation?
- Is this all bad or could I see some good in this?
- What’s the worst case scenario? What’s the best case scenario? What’s the most likely scenario?
- What would I tell a friend in this situation?
You can reframe your thoughts like this:
“This is a horrible situation and I can’t take it.” → “This is a difficult time but there are plenty of things I can do to make it more manageable, such as supporting friends and family and practicing self-care.”
Ground yourself with the senses
Anxiety is all about the future, and the future only exists in your mind. As such mindfully grounding yourself in the present is a powerful antidote.
Use the senses to do this.
The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is quick and effective.
Take a moment to notice:
5 things you can see
4 things you can touch
3 things you can hear
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste (if you can’t taste anything use your imagination to create something)
Take a moment to appreciate each of these senses as deeply as you can. This can take you out of compulsive thinking and give you a moment of stillness.
Remind yourself that right here right now, you are OK.
You could take this as an opportunity to give meditation a try. Even just ten minutes a day can make a difference to levels of stress and wellbeing. Headspace and Insight Timer are good places to get started.
Exercise releases endorphins and other neurotransmitters which help diminish anxiety, insulate you from stress and generate a sense of wellbeing.
With many countries in lockdown, you might need to get creative.
Bodyweight exercise offers an endless array of interesting progressions to challenge yourself.
You could give yoga a try. The Down Dog yoga app is now free until 1st May and fit4thefight matches locked down PTs with locked down clients, if you are looking for guidance and support while exercising at home.
A regular routine secures a sense of reassuring structure during uncertain times.
Waking up and going to sleep at the same time maintainsyour circadian rhythm which is conducive to good mental health.
If you’re off work, avoid the procrastination vortex.
Working from home
This can be a blessing but also a substantial mental health challenge.
A few tips for people new to it.
When you work where you live it’s easy for the lines between work and life to blur.
Keep strict time boundaries. When you don’t have that leaving the office ritual it is easier to allow work to bleed into the rest of your time so you never truly switch off. Maintaining time boundaries allows you to properly relax and recharge. Make sure you shut off your work at least a few hours before bed so you have time to let go and unwind.
Have a dedicated work space. Whether that’s a separate room or a specific desk, this helps to separate work from the rest of your life. It allows you to walk away at the end of the day and have that same sense of disconnecting. If this isn’t possible, clear your work away when you’re done so it’s out of sight and out of mind.
Keep up small talk with your colleagues. Small talk around the office can help foster a sense of connection. That may be lost when you work from home and interactions are more minimal. At the start of calls or video conferences, take a few minutes to check in with each other and maintain that sense of human connection.
Stress hormones can spike cravings for sugary comfort foods. These do give you a brief bump but a crash follows. Fluctuating blood-sugar levels can fuel further cravings, irritability, anxiety and may actually intensify stress.
Loneliness cuts an estimated 15 years off your lifespan, a similar impact to being obese or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Connection with other people lowers stress levels, which has a whole range of knock on benefits, including better immune system and gut function.
So connection with other people is crucial, especially at a time like this.
In lockdown connection obviously looks a bit different. Dinner with friends on Zoom. AA meetings via Zoom or In The Rooms. WhatsApp call volumes have doubled in countries heavily hit by the coronavirus.
Helping others is a powerful way to foster connection. 750,000 people responded to an NHS call for volunteers last week.
By helping others you also help yourself. Research shows volunteering is linked with better mental and physical health, better self-esteem, life satisfaction, lower depressive symptoms, lower psychological distress and lower mortality.
Reframe lockdown as an opportunity
This is a difficult time. But there are plenty of things we can do to make it more manageable by refreshing our connection with ourselves and deepening our connections with others.