The world is changing, fast. There’s no doubt that during the Coronavirus outbreak we found ourselves in unprecedented circumstances. Isolation, obsessive hand washing, working from home and the general lockdown have seriously disrupted our normal lives.
Most of us are experiencing more uncertainty-related stress than usually. We worry about our health, our livelihoods, our loved ones, and with phrases such as “in these difficult times” present in almost every article we read, paired with the daily statistics, we experience some level of anxiousness every day. Media are even reporting a world-wide phenomenon of ‘Coronavirus dreams’ reflecting the heightened levels of stress we endure during the waking hours.
So what can we do to help ourselves maintain our mental health?
First of all, it’s useful to understand than anxiety is linked to fears about the future, about what might (or might not) happen, and to the feeling of not being in control. The COVID-19 reality is therefore likely to make us feel distressed.
Once we acknowledge that, and once we normalise it knowing it affects everyone in a similar way, we may allow ourselves to actually feel the pandemic stress for what it is and to know it’s fine to feel this way. Learning to recognise the moments when anxiety strikes can help us gain perspective and feel less overwhelmed.
We can also help ourselves by recognising what we can and cannot control; we’re not always able to regulate external circumstances, but we can learn to cultivate good habits where we feel in control of our personal well-being. Stress isn’t something that we can conquer, but we can recognise and manage it. And although it’s natural that on some days this will be easier than on others, the idea is to stick to the healthy habits regardless.
Hacks to calm the mind The Stress Management Society have been running the Stress Awareness Month in April for the past 28 years and this year came up with a 30-day challenge, encouraging us to manage our stress by carrying out a single action for our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing every day. They also offer useful ideas, such as “perform a random act of kindness - it’s nice to be nice” for every day. Check them out and continue reading for some more stress-busting inspiration.
We are a social species, hardwired for connection. Isolation and loneliness can exacerbate anxiety and lead to depression. Make sure you stay connected with people you love and those who make you feel happy. Use the available technology to video-call family and friends regularly. For many, it’s helpful to discuss upsetting thoughts with people they trust. The loved ones are likely to have them, too, and we may be better equipped to find solutions collectively. Looking out for one another and checking in regularly help us practice our sense of empathy and can even have a lasting impact on our relationships.
Filter the information you consume
Among the extensive news coverage about the outbreak, it’s important to find a balance between staying responsibly informed and limiting the intake of news, which, in excess, can fuel anxiety. This may not apply to you, but if you find that the news is causing you stress, try to stick to trustworthy sources, such as the BBC, the World Health Organisation etc. You may also want to limit how often you check for updates; constant monitoring of news and social media feeds can quickly turn compulsive. The limit is different for everyone, so pay attention to how you’re feeling and adjust accordingly. Think about switching off notifications about “breaking news” if you receive them on your phone. Consider limiting your social media consumption and be careful what you share. Do your best to verify information before passing it on to avoid spreading rumours and creating unnecessary panic.
Create a routine
Since most of the lockdown anxiety is caused by the disruption to routines, we can try and create our own “new normal” and replace old schedules with new ones.
Routines help us feel in control, to generate meaningful action (rather than giving up to avoidance), and we know that action binds anxiety.
Try and set a morning routine for yourself, which may include 5 mins of exercise and a meditation, or whatever works for you and sets you up for a good day. Try to plan regular exercise, meals or calls with friends, so you have things to look forward to. A bedtime routine could help you get a more restful sleep.
If you work from home, blurring lines between work and home life can become a problem. You may want to book-end your working hours with distinctive, regular activities, eg. breakfast before starting work and going for a run at a set time to mark the end of the work day.
Learn something new
Learning is a powerful distraction from feeling consumed by the pandemic anxiety and there are many free courses to choose from right now - whether you choose to learn a new language or crocheting (hobbies which require precise hand coordination are great stress busters because they keep the mind in the moment), you’re bound to find something you’ve always thought you’d enjoy but never had the time to pick up. Check out free courses from the Open University for inspiration.
Look after yourself
A little self-love goes a long way. Eat well, indulge in the art of home cooking and take pleasure in preparing nutritious meals that will boost your immunity. If you can, go outside every day and exercise: walk, run, cycle; if you can't, do a home workout or stream a yoga class - stress doesn’t stick when the heart is pumping.
Enjoy some ‘me time’ too, as extending a little TLC to your physical body can also calm the mind. Why not take a fragrant bath, give your feet a massage or treat yourself to a home facial? Learn and practice ways to calm and centre yourself: meditation, mindfulness, relaxation and breathing techniques are all good examples. Allow yourself to enjoy daydreaming or watching the spring unfold on a daily walk - whatever you choose, try to make it part of your daily routine, there’s a plethora of mobile apps out there to help you.
Consider gratitude exercises (list three things you’re grateful for each morning or evening) - this is proven to improve mental resilience.
If you find yourself with time on your hands (perhaps you’ve been furloughed), looking after others is another way you can introduce meaningful actions to your days, and that can ease feelings of anxiety. As long as you keep the recommended 2m distance from the people you’re helping, joining a local Mutual Aid group, volunteering for Meals on Wheels, donating to your local food bank or simply doing shopping for an elderly neighbour are all bound to make you feel happier and more in control.
What have you found effective in managing your stress levels previously, and can these techniques be used during the lockdown? Have you come up with new COVID-specific ones?