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COVID-19 and mental health

We are in the midst of something none of us have ever experienced before. It’s challenging to know the right thing to do. The measures taken to prevent further spread of COVID-19, such as lock-down practices, might seem extreme. However, it’s essential to keep the virus from spreading further, which could lead to a rise of cases that could challenge the health system’s ability to cope.

The global emergency is triggering anxiety and depression. It’s essential to talk about mental health, particularly at a time when we’re all experiencing collective anxiety. I’m a psychologist but I haven’t practiced my profession over the past seven years. What I’m about to tell you cannot replace professional help. Instead, I am writing as a person who’s been struggling, for 18 years now, with a depressive core that gets triggered at different periods. I regularly face anxieties. I’ve been participating in therapy for 3 years now. I think it’s about time that we destigmatise the conversation around mental health. Now, most of the population are facing mental health challenges, some of them for the first time. It’s OK to talk about them. There’s no shame in expressing them and, despite ‘social distancing’ you really are not alone.

I follow psychoanalytic therapy, but I realised that I need additional resources for the time being. I started practicing a well-known modern cognitive behavioural mindfulness method called RAIN. Recognition is the first step in order to overcome the overwhelming emotions of fear, sadness, stress, loneliness, despair, emptiness, shame, anxiety and panic. It’s important to slow down and ask yourselves ‘How am I doing? What am I feeling?’ Recognise what’s happening for you. Identify difficult emotions instead of running away from them. It’s completely normal to have these feelings. We all feel emotions in different ways.

I know how difficult it can be to allow these emotions to be felt when you actually want them to go away. Allowing yourself to feel them doesn’t mean indulging them. It’s more like a validation: facing your feelings instead of suppressing them.

Anxiety can make you feel short of breath, tight in the chest, give you cold shivers and muscle contractions. Ironically, these are some of the symptoms for the virus as well, although the main diagnostic criteria are a new continuous cough and a fever. When you’re feeling these sensations, investigate them as if you were experiencing them for the first time. Put aside the predefined connections you have with these feelings. Instead of thinking, ’I have felt this before, and it had horrible consequences‘ or ’I know these symptoms are due to COVID-19’ just observe without linking them to your judgements and conclusions. Feel the anxiety instead of pushing it away, and nurture yourself with self-compassion.

If a loved one were experiencing the same situation, what would you tell them? How would you speak with them? Talk to yourself exactly the same way as you would to them. If it’s challenging for you to talk to yourself, then find that one person who inspires you and who you admire for their courage and listen to a speech they’ve given or read something they’ve written. Take notes, and read them back to yourself during this stage of self-nurturing. Exercises such as focusing on deep breathing, lying down, or covering yourself with a thin blanket to feel secure could also help. Different kinds of coping mechanisms could be helpful for you. I strongly advise that you reach out for help with the guidance of a professional if you can.

You don’t have to go through this by yourself. It’s essential to ask for help. Accepting the need for therapy doesn’t make you weak: it means that you’re strong enough to ask for help. Many therapists have moved to online platforms due to the requirement for social distancing. Perhaps you can reconsider your budget and cut down on some costs in order to afford therapy.

Self-isolation doesn’t necessarily translate to complete social distancing. You can be physically away from your loved ones, but the magic of the internet connects us all. For instance, my close friendship circle and I organized our traditional Chicken Sunday Dinner via videoconference the other evening. We all dressed up for the occasion as if we were really going out: ties, dresses. I even put on red lipstick and high heels.

It’s also important to set some boundaries. I’m not used to digitally communicating with many people constantly, so I have limited my interactions to scheduled calls once a day. Our minds can be over-stimulated with the flow of information. False information is particularly worrisome. I limited my source of information to the World Health Organisation, and I read it only once a day. I don’t check the news. I don’t go online and read feeds on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. I turned off all my notifications. If you find it challenging to read news, you can ask a trusted person you know to brief you as needed.

People will tell you that you need to have routine, to distract yourself by watching TV or reading, to go out for a walk, to exercise, to wake up early, etc. You do not have to do any of these things if you don’t feel comfortable. This advice often comes with pressure. Pressure leads to guilt. The norm doesn’t define your standards: you do.

I’m an author, and no, I’m not working on my second book at the moment. I used to have two gym memberships, and no, I’m not exercising at the moment either. I’m already someone with a delayed circadian sleep phase. I go to bed late and wake up late. It’s completely OK to do so. I’m aware of my privilege in that I can work from home and keep flexible hours. I get enough sleep and do my job properly within my current non-routine. As long as you feel good about yourself, your days don’t necessarily have to be in sync with the norm.

I redirect the energy that I saved from setting boundaries. I cook and bake a lot. I started making my own candles. I do natural skin care routines. This definitely is not the time to feel guilty for eating or for not exercising. I focus on activities that have an immediate purpose. This keeps me grounded. It helps me pass through that moment and prevents me from worrying about the future. Purposeful moments help me get through day by day.

What’s important to understand is that everyone has their own way of being in a stable mental state. What works for you doesn’t always work for everyone else. Please don’t feel guilty because people might judge you for not following their advice. You matter the most. Take good care of your mental and physical health, stay physically away from people if you have the ability to do so, keep up your hygiene, and remember: this is not forever. At some point it will all be over.

Further resources:

Online therapy platforms

Affordable therapy

Self-Help Psychology Tools