By Dr Nicola Cogan, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, NHS Lanarkshire/Psychology Lecturer, University of Strathclyde & Dr Liza Morton, Counselling Psychologist/Psychology Teaching Fellow, University of Strathclyde.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we all need to protect our mental health and wellbeing. We face great uncertainty, and in the words of the First Minister for Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, ‘Life will change significantly’. How can we protect our mental health and wellbeing at such challenging times?
The following are 10 evidence-based tips, originally published in the Glasgow Herald and Evening Times on 21st of March 2020.
1) Accept uncertainty
Reducing the need for certainty will reduce the drive to worry. Worry creates the illusion of certainty–you might think it prepares you for the worst-case scenario such as contracting coronavirus or loss of loved ones, but certainty is an impossible thing to achieve in life and worrying only gives a fake sense of control.
2) Structure and routine
Having a structure and routine to your day, and scheduling your week ahead, can help motivate you to get tasks done such as home working, sharing housework chores, childcare and preparing lunch. Set a boundary between work and rest time. Having a routine wake/sleep cycle can help ensure you get restful, quality sleep to let your mind and body re-energise.
3) Reduce sedentary behaviour stay physically active
Time spent sitting down could have a negative impact on mental health and wellbeing. Reducing sedentary behaviours such as watching TV, screen time while sitting down and increasing physical activity levels can help maintain mental health and wellbeing. The mental health benefits of physical activity are well established: depending on your current fitness levels, this can simply be a case of less sitting, light activity such as housework or gardening, or mode rate to vigorous activity such as cycling or running. Avoid excessive exercise, which can have an adverse effect on your mental health.
4) Healthy eating and hydration
What you eat affects not just your physical health, but also your mental health and wellbeing. Eating a well-balanced diet rich in vegetables and nutrients may be associated with feelings of wellbeing. Limiting alcohol and caffeine intake can also help reduce stress and anxiety. Dehydration very quickly affects how you feel and think. Drinking water keeps your brain from having to struggle against the effects of dehydration, which can be the result of high stress levels, allowing you to think more clearly.
5) Normalising distress
Feelings of distress are a normal response to difficult and challenging life events. Anxiety is a normal response to uncertainty. Sadness is a normal response to loss. Anger is a normal response to injustice. Right now, you may feel anxious, scared, confused, sad, angry and perhaps many other emotions. This is normal. Normalising the distress can be the first step in finding better ways to cope.
6) Maintain social connection
Stay socially connected with family and friends if you or they need to socially distance or self-isolate. Technology can help you stay connected with others and the online environment can help you stay connected with work colleagues if working from home. If tensions rise at home, try and tell yourself that you are all coping with an incredibly challenging situation–choose your battles wisely.
7) Limit exposure to constant social media
You can alleviate distress by limiting exposure to the avalanche of constant 24-hour news and media relating to the coronavirus pandemic. Set limits on the amount of time you spend on media coverage and try and avoid ‘fake news’ by only accessing credible sources.
8) Schedule pleasant events
Engaging in daily activities that you enjoy and that cultivate pleasant feelings such as reading a book, painting, baking, having a bubble bath is critical for well-being and effective in reducing stress. Reward yourself for the tasks you get done.
9) Manage stress and anxiety
Reducing the physical symptoms of stress can help improve the way you think, feel and behave. Practicing controlled breathing techniques can help reduce stress and anxiety. Such techniques affect both psychological and physiological. Visual imagery can also increase optimism and cultivate positive emotions.
10) Being kind to yourself and others
Higher levels of self-compassion -kindness, common humanity, mindfulness -have been found to be strongly related to fewer mental health symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and stress. Self-compassion is linked to positive psychological factors such as psychological well-being, motivation, life satisfaction, optimism, and happiness. Be kind to yourself and others as well as learning to notice and challenge critical thinking. Helping those most vulnerable can help you cope and feel you can do something positive at this time.
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Dr Liza Morton