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How To Look After Mental Health In The Time Of Coronavirus

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Infectious disease outbreaks can be bloodcurdling. Coronavirus (COVID-19) seems to have suddenly appeared and plunged the world into an unprecedented uncertainty – as it can affect anyone anywhere, regardless of their name, age, gender and ethnicity. There is no reliable treatment or vaccine so far. Individuals and governments are relying on prevention, including lockouts, until we get there.

Pandemics are not just a medical phenomenon; they affect individuals and societies on many levels, and cause huge disruptions.

As concerns over the perceived global threat to life and economy have grown, people have started hoarding food, medical supplies and other items of daily use. Stigma and xenophobia are also creeping into public life as the relentless news of the pandemic is taking its toll.

Panic and stress have been linked to outbreaks. You might be worried how coronavirus could affect your life as this includes being asked to stay at home and avoid contact with other people. This could not only feel difficult or stressful individually, but also adds to panic, stress and the potential for hysteria in public. This can often be followed by anxiety-related behaviours, sleep disturbances and lower perception of health status. It can also adversely affect those already living with conditions like anxiety disorder and OCD.

Psychiatrists are uniquely placed to help their patients and the larger community. After all, they understand the potential impact of this virus and can help deal with its threat. While staying informed, many things can be done by people themselves to support their own mental health and wellbeing.

Here is my review of seven tips to look after your mental health during this crisis.

Be practical:

Following gossip and hearsay can only fuel nervousness as widespread panic can complicate efforts to manage the outbreak effectively. Try to imagine the impact the Coronavirus is having all over the world, and how you can help by keeping yourself and others safe. Do your best to stay calm and follow government advice, particularly around observing good hygiene. Access and only follow quality information about the virus to stay in control. The consensus so far is: to stay home and only go out when absolutely necessary, keep social distancing (2 meters apart), wash your hands more than usual for 20 seconds with soap and hot water, keep hands away from your face, use a mask if you or someone you are approaching has flue like symptoms, and use tissues if you sneeze and dispose those quickly and safely.

Acceptance:

Having a low level of anxiety is good for you as it makes you take precautions by engaging in health seeking behaviours. Please observe and accept such feelings rather than trying to ignore them. If you are self-isolating; remind yourself that this is a temporary period to slow the spread of the virus. Your effort is helping others in the community avoid contracting the virus. If you get very anxious or stressed, let other people know that you are struggling. Breathing exercises and relaxation techniques (easily found on the internet) can help you cope and feel more in control. There are lots of other ways that can help you relax. These include engaging in: arts and crafts (drawing, painting, sewing), DIY, playing music, singing, writing, yoga, meditation, prayer. It would also be helpful to keep bad habits like smoking and drinking under control. 

Keep in touch:

Try and create a different tempo of life by getting in touch with others in different ways. Instead of physically meeting, use social media, e-mail or the phone, as these are safe ways of keeping close to the people you care about. When getting in touch with friends and family though social media, try not to sensationalize things for them. Always use reliable sources of information, and regulate your social media activity by blocking/muting accounts or people who are growing your anxiety. If you are worried that you might run out of things to talk about, plan to watch a film or read a book individually so that you discuss it when talking to each other. You may become a part of WhatsApp group communications to receive updates on your local situation and also use it as a support network. Also, listen to light-hearted stuff on the radio, YouTube or podcasts if you find your home is too quiet.

Have a mind-map:

You need to think and plan how you would like to spend your time during this crisis. Keep following your ordinary routine as much as possible to avoid “Decision Fatigue”. Get up at the same time, follow the morning routines, and go to bed at your usual time. However, if you are not happy with your usual routine, this might be a chance to do things differently. Develop a new daily routine in which you try reading more, watch movies, exercise indoors, and make good use of the internet. Build some physical activity into your daily routine. Exercising at home does not need to be complicated, e.g., cleaning, dancing to music, going up and down the stairs, following online exercise workouts, and being generally on the move. Also, try and rest, and view this period in your life as an unusual break from the rat-race out there.

Family time:

Involving family and children in your plans for good health and well-being is really important. Educate your children about the outbreak and support them without causing an alarm. Minimize the negative impact of the information by explaining facts to them and by avoiding over-exposure to the coverage of the virus on media. It is good to agree on a household routine. Try to give everyone in the family a say in this arrangement. It may be difficult but good to respect privacy and try to give each other some space. Open the windows often to let in fresh air. Try spending time sitting on your doorstep, or in the garden if you have one. Try looking at the sky out of the window or balcony or from your rooftop. This would give you a sense of space. If at all possible, regularly change the rooms you spend your time in.

Get busy:

If you find that the ongoing news coverage of the spread of virus is causing you stress, it is important to limit its intake. Think about switching off, and perhaps deciding on a specific time to check the news updates. Keep your brain occupied and challenged by reading books, magazines and articles unrelated to the outbreak. Listen to folk music, watch old films and do puzzles. There are lots of apps that can help you learn new things, such as a language or other new talents. Try having a clear out at home by sorting out your possessions. Donate the extras or sell them online. You could also do with a digital clear out – delete any old files/apps, upgrade software, and change your passwords. Do leftover admin tasks that you haven’t got around to, for example changing your bank or phone company.

Ask for help:

The news about coronavirus can significantly affect mental health but especially for those with a history of mental illness and/or a serious physical health condition. As a stressful life event, it can trigger relapse of a stable psychiatric disorder. If you are overwhelmed by these fears, and it is affecting your home and work life, you need to acknowledge and realise that it could be due to anxiety, obsessions, loneliness, and/or trauma (due to being in quarantine). Let someone know while you try to deal with it by practicing acceptance, distraction, mindfulness, helping others, and taking prescribed medications. If these interventions do not work, it is time to get in touch with a psychiatrist.

The writer is a Political Psychiatrist based in London

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