How to look after your mental health and wellbeing in the midst of a global pandemic | Dr Nick Lake

Nick Lake

These are testing times for all of us. All the more reason to pay attention to our mental health and wellbeing, says psychologist Dr Nick Lake.

First off, I want to name how I think we're all feeling. It's difficult, strange and deeply troubling. COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down.

We all function best when life is safe and predictable. It's how our brain processes and learns things in an efficient way. It helps our immune system and our ability to thrive. Coronavirus threatens this, both from a physical health point of view but also because of its huge social and economic impact. It would be surprising if we weren't all feeling anxious. 

So what can we do to look after our mental health and wellbeing? Here are three thoughts from me:

1. All of us will be struggling in some ways because of the impact of coronavirus. That's normal. So please don't view yourself as weak or that you aren't coping if you are feeling unsettled by this. We are all unsettled. It affects everyone, whether we’re old, young, rich or poor.

2. Each of us has the resources available to us to come through the other side of this, particularly if we view it as an opportunity to do things differently.

3. There is a lot we can do for ourselves to help manage the emotional impact of the virus. Focus on creating a sense of control, connecting to others and developing a sense of meaning and purpose.

Creating a sense of control

Remain informed by listening to the news, but limit it to help maintain balance and perspective. If we're not careful, there's a risk of getting caught up in a sense of drama and crisis. Sometimes, it's good to step back.

There are lots of resources out there online. We've collated many of them on our public website.

Follow government guidance. Exercise regularly. Maintain your sleep patterns. Wash your hands after you have been out. Be proactive in addressing any specific worries you might have about, say, finance or employment.

Work out what you can’t control, perhaps through talking this through with your most rational friend or family member. Try to let any worries related to things that you can’t control wash over you. Sometimes this can feel easier said than done (many of us will have tossed and turned in the middle of the night thinking about problems that can easily feel that they are becoming all consuming). Talking about things is always – always! – a good thing to do.

Maintaining social connections

Social isolation – while essential – presents a challenge because we are social creatures who have survived the last 200,000 years by being protected within our tribal structures. We have evolved to coexist in these tribes, so when we are not able to be with others and within our communities it can make us feel additionally vulnerable. This is why it's so important to stay connected to your family, friends and other networks – whether by talking on the phone, using digital technology or even writing a letter (remember them?).

Developing a sense of meaning and purpose during periods of isolation  

It's really, really important to create structure in your day, setting out tasks you need or want to accomplish, making proactive decisions on what you can use your spare time for if you are isolating at home. The seven pillars are worth remembering:  

1. Movement
2. Rest and sleep
3. Nutritious food
4. Relaxation
5. Developing meaningful goals
6. Contact with others
7. Attending to your spiritual needs.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – we need to look after each other

This is particularly important for our incredible staff working across health and social care to keep vulnerable patients feel safe and supported. Clinical staff are working tirelessly to do this. At the same time, non-clinical support services are working round the clock to support them.

In this context, it's really important we do everything we can to support each other. Be kind. Keep talking. Take a break. Remember it's OK not to feel OK all of the time. We need to pace ourselves and make sure we don’t burn out.

By showing compassion and kindness – to each other and to ourselves – we will come through this together as a community. As difficult as things feel for all of us right now, I remain hopeful we can do this.

Dr Nick Lake is director of psychology and psychological therapy at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, a member of the Mental Health Network. Follow the trust on Twitter @withoutstigma 

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