How to stay mentally well during Coronavirus / COVID-19

| Lee Sharp | Blog

As a psychologist I am aware of the intensity of initial fear among the public and among health care professionals in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak.  The dread of what might be to come and for how long that might last is as worrying as what we are actually dealing with in the present moment.  The current Covid-19 pandemic is, for modern times at least, new territory in its nature and scale.

What we think about it, and how we act in response, significantly impacts both our own well-being, that of our family and the well-being of our communities.

I recently stepped away from working predominantly with individuals to focus full time on educating groups within organisations on mental health and well-being and have been thinking a lot about what the best response to Covid-19 would look like, for the average individual and have come up with the following:

  • Focus on what’s best for everyone, not just you (because that’s what’s best for you).

  • Follow the recommended precautions, even if you think it’s “overkill.”

  • Include helping others as part of your Covid-19 game plan.

Focusing on everyone rather than yourself was highlighted when a meme was recently doing the rounds.  It made a critical and scary point that if people hoard all the hand sanitiser and bars of soap, this might result in other people having none.  Having loads of soap for yourself but none for your neighbours or people close to you will work if you never leave the house or have any contact with anyone ever again.  But this is unlikely to be the actual case and therefore when out, you might encounter someone who had no access to such things.

We therefore could consider what we might need to do for all the people in our communities.  To ensure that everyone can be prepared and have access to needed resources.

But I am not going to be critical for thinking of ourselves first.  I think it’s very natural in the face of such a threat of something like this, which after all, is most likely a built-in survival mechanism originating from evolution.

But if we really stop and think about it, we might realise that this built in mechanism might be misreading the actual situation and that the best way to “save ourselves” is likely to stop the spread of it (or at least slow it down).  That takes us working together and thinking of each other.

The second recommendation relates to following the recommended precautions even if you think they are overkill.  Certain occupations result in becoming a compulsive hand-washer. Doctors and other help professionals and those working with food are often reminded to wash hands frequently and to not touch ones face.  However, it is possible that like the majority, we do not have such well drilled habits. These kinds of habits however really matter if we have any hope of keeping transmission risks low.  

I therefore don’t care whether you think hand washing, or recommended social distancing, is silly or not.  Please think of other people. When you don’t wash your hands, it not just about your hands and about whether you get sick. If you get sick because of poor hygiene practices (or even worse because you couldn’t be bothered) it will not just be unfortunate for you, but you will likely infect others.  Some of these others may not have the same robust immune system that you do. Do not pretend that you are living in a vacuum.

The third recommendation was to take really good care of yourself physically and psychologically.  For obvious reasons you want your immune system to be strong right now. So, to assist physical help, ensure you have good sleep hygiene (good quality and enough time asleep).  Exercise properly and stay healthy by eating healthy foods whilst avoiding things that hamper the immune system, such as high sugar foods or poor sleep and rest hygiene.

Now without wishing to risk contradictions, it is ok to have a reasonable supply of non-perishable healthy foods and supplies on hand (where possible).  This will mean that in the event of a compelled isolation, you can provide your body what it needs. It is worth reminding yourself that it is useful to have things like soups and herbal tea around.  But as discussed at the outset, avoid hoarding as this can have a significant negative impact on some people.

But physical wellbeing is just one aspect.  It is evident that people are suffering high levels of anxiety and this is likely to have a worsening impact as this issue goes on.

Therefore, be aware of your anxiety levels.  I am trying to stay informed but even as a psychologist, there can come a point where you just need to stop reading about it (or watching the news).  You could consider this, especially if it really upsets you. Intense fear and worry increase release of stress hormones.  This may also interfere with sleep and proper rest, all of which suppress the function of your immune system.  It’s important to stay calm, to be rational about your fears and guard your thoughts from running away with you.  This requires proactively taking care of your mental health.

My next blog will address this specifically.

Finally, was my recommendation to include helping others as part of your Covid-19 plan.

As stated, it is very normal to think of protecting yourself and your family initially.  However, we are social beings and one aspect of wellbeing can be gained by helping others.  Therefore, be mindful of your community. I encourage you to keep an eye out for the more vulnerable and how you can help them and others.  We are already hearing many examples of people helping their neighbours.

How might you contribute to the strength and well-being of others beyond your immediate family, particularly if things get worse.  Of course, this should not involve ignoring guidelines around public safety or exposing yourself to risk. But thinking how to and actually helping others will lift your own feelings.  The more we keep each other in mind as we navigate this time, the better the chance we have at minimizing the damage to us all.

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