Since February 2020 with the growing COVID pandemic, the world has been going through an unprecedented change – with countries going in and out of lockdown; varying government restrictions that at times seem difficult to comprehend; uncertainty in the political, financial and employment arenas; and people experiencing hardship and loss on varying levels – loss of loved ones, loss of employment, financial security etc. It seems that everything is a struggle and outside our control. Hence, it is no surprise that mental health issues have been skyrocketing and recent research has indicated a much higher prevalence of mental illness and psychological problems.
Despite the gloom, there are simple things that we can do to maintain our mental health and build our resilience during these times.
It is known that engaging in any form of exercise is good for boosting energy levels, becoming healthier, increasing clarity of thought, boosting mental wellbeing and sleep better. Exercise can be in many forms including body strength training, stretching and going for a walk; or investing in a pedometer and ensuring that we achieve 10,000 steps a day. It is even more beneficial when it can be done in nature as spending time in nature also helps ground us; and getting a friend or family involved (whilst also following government guidelines).
2: Good Sleep Routine
Aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Studies have shown that a poor night’s sleep contributes to suboptimal mood the next day. Sleep deprivation also impacts memory, slows body metabolism, possibly increases weight gain and weakens the immune system. Simple strategies to cultivate a good sleep routine include setting a timer to go to bed and allocating 30 minutes to an hour for ‘unwind time’ where there is no focus on work / watching TV and switching off any technology (phones, iPAD, laptop and TV). Instead, it could be time for self care – a warm shower and doing some stretches prior to going to bed in a dark room.
3: Hydration, Nutrition and Supplements
It is important to stay hydrated and drink water. Previous studies have shown that being well hydrated, lowers the risk of depression and anxiety. Instead of depending on the sensation of thirst, check the colour of your urine (dark means not drinking enough), dry mouth, feeling stressed – would suggest the need to drink water. Clearly it is important to know what the optimal level of water intake is and that would vary individually and would depend on the temperature outside and inside, height, weight, how much one has eaten and exercise level. It’s best to fill a bottle of water (and refill) and to sip throughout the day.
Start being aware of eating habits and aim to eat more healthily – increasing portions of vegetables, fruits, fibre and depending on dietary choices – fish and meat. Explore home cooking or start honing cooking skills – it can be fun and act as a stress reliever too.
Also explore whether supplementation of diet with multivitamins is needed. I’ve often added vitamin C and vitamin D supplements to my diet.
It is also extremely important to remain compliant with any prescribed medication (for physical health and mental health conditions).
4: Meditation / mentalisation exercises
Numerous studies have documented the benefits of regular meditation. Even 5-10 minutes of meditation or mentalisation exercises have a positive effect on mental health – reducing stress, low mood, anxiety; lowering blood pressure and improving concentration. There are many apps, websites and YouTube channels that provide guidance of different styles of meditation and mentalisation exercises. A good way to ensure developing meditation / mentalisation exercises as a habit is to anchor it to a morning routine – for example, meditating first time in the morning and in the evening, just before switching the lights off to go to bed.
5: Social contact
Human beings are social creatures. Hence, social isolation and loneliness is known to have a negative impact on our mental wellbeing. During the current pandemic, in keeping with government restrictions, there has been a reduction in face to face contact among family and friends whether locally, nationally or internationally. One way to maintain our mental health is to ensure that we continue to prioritise healthy relationships and maintain contact with family and friends and anyone in our support network. This can be done by scheduling regular and frequent phone calls and video chat using the many video chat technologies available. If one has limited people to turn to, a possibility could include developing new friendships through online forums and considering virtual volunteering opportunities within the community.
6: Planning the day
Day planning helps us develop a conscious effort in being mindful and prioritising people and things that matter. It also enables us to have an overview of what we can achieve in the day without over-committing and under-delivering which could lead to increased stress. For a parent that has to home-school young children, day planning helps identify suitable blocks of time for supporting one’s children during their school activities vs work commitments that may require intense focus. Planning of the day also creates a structure during the day, helps one stay focused with increased clarity and ensures a work-life balance which is extremely important when there is increased prevalence of working from home.
7: Working on little projects/exploring new skill set or hobby
Engaging in a little project be it an old niggling task, exploring a new skill set, house improvement project or decluttering project helps to stay mentally focused and fend of boredom. This activity could be scheduled in the day or during the week and any accomplishment, even small, contributes positively to one’s self achievement, self-esteem and self-confidence.
8: Self care
During this time, it is important to spend time looking after yourself. This can come in many forms including a simple coffee or herbal tea time, watching a favourite film, getting creative, reading, spending time with pets, singing, dancing, a hot shower or bath, digital detox or anything that makes one feel happy. It has been shown that self-care techniques help in managing stress, promoting mental wellbeing and helping manage symptoms of many mental health problems as part of a therapeutic plan.
9: Open to getting help and support
It’s truly okay to ask for help. Often I have advised my patients of the importance of knowing their relapse indicators (signs / symptoms that their mental health is deteriorating) and their crisis plan which summarises the easily understood steps to seeking help with useful telephone numbers. I think the concept equally applies to all of us in all areas of our life.
If there is an area we are struggling in – be it our mental state (increase anxiety, preoccupation with news and conspiracy theories, mood disturbances, negative cognitions – sense of hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness), increase in potential problem behaviours (alcohol use, drug use, online gambling), worry about our finances, the stress of wondering whether we are facing eviction or where our next meal will come from – it is important that we seek help and support. As adults, we often feel that we need to create a veneer that we are okay even if we are not because we don’t want to be seen as failing – but it takes a bigger person to admit that they are struggling and to get help and support that they need.