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8 Ways to take care of your mental health during COVID-19

Wilhelm Crous - Thursday, May 07, 2020


During this time of lock down you see a lot being written and published about taking care of one’s physical health during this pandemic (social distancing, washing hands, etc) but not much about how to take care of mental or emotional wellbeing during this time. 

With so much uncertainty about the future and no-one really knowing how this will all turn out, people globally are struggling with anxiety, stress and fear.  In these trying times, leaders must acknowledge and support their staff’s mental health more than ever. Not only is it the right thing to do for their team members, but it is the right thing to do for their businesses. Leaders need to integrate empathy into all of their decisions. (That's one of the reasons why we're hosting an online “Mental Health in the Workplace during Coronavirus Seminar” on 18 June 2020 - you can learn more – here

Clinical Psychologist, Lauren Davis (LinkedIn) shares 8 tools you can use to acknowledge and manage your emotions and mental health during these times. But first it’s crucial to understand what happens to you when you experience anxiety...

The real danger of anxiety

In her article Lauren Davis talks about how fear and anxiety elicit a similar psychological response, fear and anxiety are two different things. Fear is a response to a specific and imminent danger; anxiety is a response to a vague and future threat. Most of our emotional responses to Coronavirus are in the anxiety category. For the vast majority of us, the threat is still uncertain, like a storm cloud of “what if’s” hanging over our heads. We don’t know if we’ll be exposed to the virus or not; if we are exposed, we don’t know if we’ll get symptoms or not; and if we do get symptoms, we don’t know if we’ll able to recover from them. And unfortunately, anxiety feeds on “what if”s and uncertainty. It fills any unknowns with terrifying worst-case scenarios that keep us in a state of constant stress. 

Anxiety is, by definition, a psychological over-reaction that can make the most uncertain, unlikely and potentially manageable threats seem both incredibly certain and absolutely unmanageable. Another problem with anxiety is that it makes us feel helpless, powerless, overwhelmed and paralysed - all of which increase our feelings of vulnerability and make us less likely to take action. 

As humans, we have a need for safety, security and control. We crave familiarity and comfort. We are wired to seek pleasure and comfort and run away from pain. The current situation in the world is the opposite. It’s frightening when things are chaotic and out of control. There is great worry about the future. Anxiety about our health and the health of people around us. It’s painful when we think of suffering and loss. People are experiencing frustration at being at stuck at home. The ground we are on feels shaky. Even though we like to believe that life is certain, it rarely is. The problem with anxiety is we tend to overestimate the possibility of something negative happening to us, and we tend to underestimate our ability to handle it. The nature of the mind is to grapple with things and catastrophise. 

How will your behaviour change when you’re vulnerable and scared? 

There are many ways that we try to make ourselves feel grounded when we are feeling shaky. We avoid pain through food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, constantly checking our phones, obsessively following the news and social media, striking out in anger, ordering people around and obsessively making lists, we binge watch Netflix. We create more drama. The frightened part of us goes into fight, flight or freeze – its survival mode. 

So if you notice you are more irritable, can’t do anything ‘productive’, eating mindlessly or binge eating or if you are drinking, smoking or watching series more than you normally do, it’s normal. We are living in an unusual time. Simple day-to-day life, without a pandemic, leads us to comfort with food, drink, social media, (numbing activities) – so how much more now? If you feel stuck and unable to tackle projects – it’s okay. If you feel confused and that there’s no structure to your day, let it be. Take the pressure off. Especially now, it’s important to practice compassion and kindness for yourself.  

How do you find peace in this uncertainty? 

It's not easy, but Lauren offers 8 helpful tools: 

1. Keep things in perspective: In a situation that’s uncertain, it’s natural to have many ‘what if?’ questions. In the absence of information, our anxious mind will often fill in the blanks with worst case scenarios, which can leave us feeling overwhelmed, helpless, or vulnerable. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to shift your thinking from catastrophising to a more helpful mindset: 
  • What are the things within my control? 
  • Am I overestimating the likelihood of the worst-case scenario? 
  • What strategies have helped me cope with challenging situations in the past that will serve me well during this time? 
  • What is a small helpful or positive action that I can take now? 
2. Limit news and social media: There is so much information floating around regarding the virus that it can be overwhelming. Try to limit your exposure to maximum one hour/day and make sure you’re using reliable sources.

3. Set boundaries: It is perfectly OK to tell people you don’t want to talk about the virus if you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious. Everyone is consumed and generally we are talking about nothing else but if your anxiety is increased as a result, you have permission to either leave the conversation or ask people to please speak about something else. Anxiety is extremely contagious so it is hard to not ‘catch’ other people’s anxiety. 

4. Awareness: Awareness is an important step. It could be that you become aware of anxiety or that you are worrying or stressed. Or you notice that you are scrolling social media, eating or drinking more, being more irritable, struggling to breath, etc. 

5. Acknowledge: When you acknowledge something is happening you could say to yourself “fear is here”, “anxiety is here” or simply label to yourself “I am feeling stressed or worried or anxious”. 

6. Accept: This is an active step of accepting the moment as it is. It may be useful to say to yourself, “This is a difficult moment” or “I am having a hard time right now”. Very often we resist the pain by saying we shouldn’t feel a certain way. This resistance creates more pain. 

7. Allow:  Allow yourself to feel what you are feeling. Notice where you are experiencing it in your body. Is there tightness in your belly or throat or chest? Breathe into it as much as you can, when working with difficulty it’s important only to practice as much as you can and not push yourself. 

8. Attend with kindness: Once you have gone through the above steps, it is possible you may be feeling vulnerable. So it’s important to check in with yourself and see what is it you need or what might you need later? So offer yourself some tender words like you would to your best friend. Something like, “This is hard but we’ll take it one step at a time.” 

Lauren also offers some simple ideas to help ground you when you are feeling shaky:
Everyone reacts differently to stressful and difficult situations.  How you respond to the outbreak can depend on your background, the things that make you different from other people, and the community you live in. People with pre-existing mental health conditions should continue with their treatment and be aware of new or worsening symptoms and address this with someone. Remember to take care of your body, eat healthy, get some exercise and take time out to do activities you like that help you unwind.  Just because we are limited in lockdown, doesn’t mean you should isolate yourself completely or lose those valuable daily connections and interactions with others. A simple phone call, video call or online chat can do you the world of good! Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling. 

We will be hosting an online “Mental Health in the Workplace during Coronavirus Seminar” on 18 June 2020. This one-day online event will give you the opportunity to find out how Discovery, Sasol, ICAS, Momentum (and more) are managing employee mental health during COVID-19 - learn more here.

Sources:
  • Taking care of your mental health during Covid19, Clinical Psychologist, Lauren Davis (lauren@laurendavis.com)
  • Stress and coping, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mental health resources:

If you, or someone you care about, are feeling overwhelmed with emotions like anxiety, sadness, depression or feel like you want to harm yourself or others, here are some resources that can assist:
  • Online toolkit on the SADAG website (www.sadag.org) with free resources, online videos, reliable resources, coping skills, online tools and info on social distancing, self-isolation, etc. 
  • Chat online with a counsellor 7 days a week from 9am-4pm via the Cipla Whatsapp Chat Line 076 882 2775. 
  • SMS 31393 or 32312 and a counsellor will call you back – available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. 
  • SADAG helplines providing free telephonic counselling, information, referrals and resources 7 days a week, 24 hours a day – call 0800 21 22 23, 0800 70 80 90 or 0800 456 789 or the suicide helpline 0800 567 567 
  • LifeLine: 0861 322 322 
  • FAMSA: http://famsa.org.za/




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