Looking after your mental health during COVID-19

Nick Gendler, a career coach and therapist with particular experience of working with musicians and people in the creative arts, explores how to look after your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.

Being constantly inside, a lack of human contact, losing our routines, worrying, changing our dietary habits; these are all factors that can compromise our mental and emotional wellbeing. While our priority must be to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, our mental health is being compromised while we adapt to these unusual circumstances.

With regard to people’s behaviours around the virus, there has already been a shift from compassion to ‘blame and shame’. For example, people making judgment on how others conduct themselves or complaining that others are not being sufficiently considerate on pavements and in public spaces. This has to do in part with heightened anxiety and the difficulties that arise from changes to our normal life, as well as increased fear as people we know fall ill. It’s our own fears being expressed as anger.

People are reacting to the situation in very different ways. Some reactions are positive – they see opportunities; some are philosophical or stoic – they accept the situation for what it is; some are anxious; and others are experiencing depression. It’s important to be aware that people are reacting in different ways: we’re not expected to see things as others do, and we cannot expect others to see things the way we do. Our specific circumstances and concerns mean we may have a different attitude to the next person, and neither is more or less valid – just different. We need to notice our fears, while also trying to maintain calm, showing care towards ourselves and others.

With that in mind, here are eight steps to think about to help with self-care:

  • focus on what you can influence, not what you can’t
  • see opportunities in the situation you're in
  • try to maintain your normal routines
  • exercise
  • eat well
  • socialise as much as you can
  • consider spiritual practice
  • sleep well

Focus on what you can influence, not what you can’t

The writer, Stephen Covey, discussed this idea in his seven habits of highly effective people. Covey invites us to recognise that there are many things that worry and concern us, and we tend to pay more attention to the things that are out of our control than the things that we can influence. We are all fearful about the spread of COVID-19 but there’s very little we can do to stop its spread, except to be as vigilant as we can, and behave as responsibly as we can. Other than that, it’s out of our control. When you see others behaving irresponsibly, you may feel annoyed - you may even say something, but you're unlikely to change their behaviour, so why allow yourself to become stressed by it?

We fear the unknown, but doubt is okay. We don’t know what’s happening: remember that it’s okay not to know. We are looking for explanations – it's the human condition - we want answers and– need to be in control. The inability to be in possession of clear facts means you can grasp at half-truths, untruths, or anything that allows you to feel as if you know, understand and are in control; but this can also lead to judging others, if they don’t behave according to the ‘truth’ that you have adopted. It's better to focus your energy on making the changes in your life that you are able to make.

Stay informed, but don’t stay tuned into the news all day long – the media tells you about the things you can’t influence, and therefore reminds you about what you don’t have control over, hence over-watching can bring you down. Focus on things that you want to do and make an effort to effect these changes, rather than focusing on things that you can’t do anything about.

See opportunities in the situation you're in

With any additional time available to you, you have the chance to do things, either personally or professionally, that you’ve been meaning to do for a while. For example, how many musicians are going to compose new pieces and record demos at home?

If you have children, you could see this as an opportunity to spend quality time with them – this time together might be something that your children value and appreciate. How many of us feel guilty for not spending enough time with our children? This is your opportunity to address this, and to be with them as much as you want.

There are also things you can do which will be of benefit to you. For example; developing your culinary skills, learning a new instrument or brushing up on your professional skills.

The situation we find ourselves in means that for many of us, we have time to do things we didn’t have time to do before. Time is a gift. Don’t think about how this is restricting you, think about the possibilities.

Try to maintain your normal routines

If you're working from home, try to get up at the time you usually get up; get dressed rather than staying in your pyjamas all day, and eat when you would normally eat. Life hasn’t changed that much; don’t let it feel as if it has. Whatever you used to do, which you feel that you can’t do now, try to find a different way of doing it rather than deciding that you can’t do it altogether. For example your work and social life – we’re all trying to find new ways of working and discovering new ways to communicate with friends and family. That’s not changing your routines: that’s changing the way you follow your routines.

Exercise

Leaving the house to exercise is permitted: for example you can go out for a run, walk or bicycle ride. As exercise can have an impact on our mental wellbeing, everyone should find time for it. If you can exercise daily then do so, otherwise exercise whenever you can.

If you never thought you could get into running, you have a great opportunity to take on the couch to 5k challenge. You have the time and if you see it through, you could be running for 30 minutes, three times a week, within nine weeks. However, remember that exercise doesn't need to be strenuous – going for a brisk walk that gets your heart rate slightly raised is good for the mind, as well as the body.

If you’re confined to your home, or even one room, then stretching, yoga or pilates may be a solution. There are many teachers that offer online classes, plenty of downloadable exercise programmes and online gym sessions.

Another form of exercise that is both enjoyable and easy to do at home is dancing, so put on a bouncy piece of music and dance! Get your adrenalin flowing through your body, and you could even arrange a disco with friends over Zoom or Skype.

Eat well

Panic buying seems to have eased off, but we're still not always able to buy the food we normally would. It’s important to eat a balanced diet for physical and mental wellbeing. You could use this opportunity to cook new dishes, using foods you might not have tried before. The internet can be a useful source to find recipes and this can be a chance for you to eat well, while learning something new, and spending time with your children, partner or housemates by cooking together.

Socialise as much as you can

Contact is crucial. Isolation can be detrimental to your wellbeing, so pick up the phone and talk to your friends and family now that you can’t visit them, especially those who are living alone. You can create WhatsApp group chats with different communities and participate in online conversations. Video conferencing allows you to see and speak to people, and some of these services also allow group chats.

Check in on your neighbours: if you are able to go out, talk to them from a safe distance. We can come out of this experience much closer to those around us, and much more caring towards our friends, family and neighbours.

It’s important to feel connected to others: say hello to strangers as you pass them in the street – acknowledge the humanity of others.

Consider spiritual practice

This isn’t about becoming religious. Those who have faith had it before COVID-19 entered our lives and those who don’t are unlikely to find it because of the virus. Spiritual practice refers to meditation, mindfulness and becoming more tuned in to what’s really important by spending time in contemplation. Quiet, private thought can put our fears and worries into perspective. Some find meditation helps, while others look at nature – even if that means looking out of the window at a tree. The universe is a big place and we are a very, very small part of it. Tuning into your sense of awe can bring inner peace. Being in the moment can mean that we stop worrying about the future for a while.

Sleep well

Good sleep is important for physical and mental health. Just because you haven’t got anything specific to get up for, doesn't mean that you shouldn't go to bed at a sensible time so that you wake up after a proper night’s sleep. This might not be easy, but it is habit-forming. At first, you might find it difficult to get to sleep, or you might wake up during the night, but don’t stop forming that habit. Sleeping in isn’t good for you, and lying on your back for too long isn’t great for your lungs, which is something we need to be aware of just now.

All of the aforementioned eight practices are important for our physical and mental wellbeing. They directly influence our energy levels and contribute to our overall happiness. It has never been more important to pay attention to our self-care. If you take on some of these ideas now, you may even come out of the experience feeling healthier than you have for many years.

Finally, try to stay mentally strong and healthy so you can be there for those who need you.

Stay safe, and stay well.

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