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Caring for our mental health in the time of Covid-19

Caring for our mental health in the time of Covid-19

I am writing this past the halfway point of 2020. At the beginning of 2020, I am sure that very few people (if any) expected the year to have turned out the way it has so far. The coronavirus pandemic has brought about huge challenges for the public health sector of many countries and has greatly increased the risk to the physical health for many of the most vulnerable members of our communities. A somewhat more invisible effect of the pandemic has been the mental health toll that it has taken on many of us. Our individual experiences of the impact of the pandemic on our mental health and well-being would be different to others. But there could be some similar underlying factors that inform these experiences.

In my case, I experienced a bit of a roller-coaster in my well-being in these few short months. I experienced an initial uplift in my well-being, followed by a crashing downturn and an eventual stabilisation. When universities switched to remote teaching, I thought I adjusted quite well to the situation although I had to give up my routine that included studying in the library and exercising at the gym. Studying online was a novelty for me at the time and I found it interesting to use the different virtual meeting tools that people were trying out such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet. I scheduled online lunches and coffee breaks with my course mates. I did yoga with the hugely popular Adriene on her YouTube channel and invited friends to join me online.

I was inspired by the numerous community-focused initiatives around the world that sought to support our frontline workers. Amidst shortages of PPEs, tailors and fashion designers made gowns and coverings for our health workers, some people used 3D printers to churn out face shields and many of us offered to help our vulnerable neighbours pick up groceries.

After this short honeymoon informed by novelty and a community spirit, I was hit by a crushing sense of isolation and loneliness. As a literature major, I am used to spending lots of time by myself reading and writing. However, I have to admit that like most people, I need human contact to thrive. Added to this sense of isolation was the seemingly unending stream of bad news – increasing cases of confirmed infections and deaths.

I eventually found a few ways to manage my anxiety with regards to the coronavirus. So in this post I want to share with you some self-care tips that you might find useful in looking after your mental health and well-being in these challenging times. But first let’s look at some factors that could cause us worries in this pandemic. These factors might seem alarming but it could help us to recognise that these are some of the things that are causing us worries and anxiety. We might also then be able to learn to manage our responses – including our thoughts and emotions – to these factors.

Possible Factors that Could Cause Worries

• Our health and the health of our loved ones.

There are many things we don’t yet know about the coronavirus. However, we know that Covid-19 can potentially infect people of all ages. In addition, older people and people with pre-existing medical conditions seem to be more at-risk of becoming severely ill with the virus. We therefore worry about ourselves or our loved ones or people we know who might be in the at-risk groups. We also worry about unknowingly spreading the virus to more vulnerable people.

As scientists and doctors learn more about the virus, the recommendations from official bodies such as WHO are updated. However, these recommendations might be in conflict with the guidelines issued by the local authorities of your country of residence. Hence, even while we strive to undertake the necessary precautions to protect our health and that of our loved ones, we also often find ourselves stressing about whose advice to follow. Given that measures such as lockdowns and mask-wearing work best when they are done on a collective level, we might also stress about others not following the guidelines which would then increase the risk of the virus spreading.

• Changes in work.

For those whose work can be done from home or remotely, these changes in the way work is done present new challenges. For instance, some might face difficulties in adjusting to the technological challenges of remote working. Some might find the home environment to contain too many distractions and so they might not be able to work productively from home. Others might find working from home to be unbearably isolating.

For those whose work has to be done in-person such as frontline health workers, there is increased stress from caring for patients who are gravely ill. The stress can be compounded by a lack of sufficient personal protective equipment (PPEs). In these situations, health workers are being asked to make a difficult choice between caring for their patients and their own safety.

• Potential economic recession.

Many economies around the world are facing the grim prospect of recession. The global travel industry has been badly hit. As countries around the world closed their borders, air travel declined significantly. People are also wary about being in a confined space like an airplane where viruses could spread more easily. Several airlines have collapsed and industry experts predict many more will face bankruptcy without government support. Restaurants, cafes and high street stores have been hard hit by lockdowns and a decrease in customers.

While small and medium-sized enterprises are more vulnerable in a recession, bigger companies have not escaped unscathed. Established hotels and entertainment companies have seen substantial decreases in their market value, and a number of hotels had to close down.

Many workers especially in the hospitality, travel, sports, entertainment and manufacturing industries have lost their jobs. For those who managed to retain their jobs, it is not unusual to hear of companies cutting pay by 30% or more in a bid to ensure the survival of the business. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic will be worse than the 2007-2008 global financial crisis.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. There are certain sectors that are thriving now and are recruiting more staff. These include supermarkets, glove makers and other PPE producers, and online shopping and delivery services. Many businesses are adapting to the current situation. For instance, some cinemas are converting to drive-in cinemas during the pandemic. Some of these innovations might even catch on and remain after the end of the pandemic.

• Uncertainty of vaccine.
Teams of scientists are working around the world to develop a vaccine. This offers us a glimmer of hope. However, there remains a high level of uncertainty as to if and when we might get this vaccine. This uncertainty could prevent us from making or realising certain medium to long-term plans at this time. We might have to make changes to our plans, which could take us out of our comfort zone.

8 Helpful Self-Care Tips

We cannot control many consequences of the above pandemic-related factors that can cause us worries. However, there are certain practical steps we can take to try and improve our well-being. Here are eight self-care tips, some of which have been particularly useful for me.

1. Ask for help: The most important thing is to know that you are not alone. If you have difficult feelings that are making things hard or causing you to struggle to cope with daily life, please do seek professional or medical help. The relevant medical professionals would be able to advise you on the support and treatments available.

2. Keep informed but minimise newsfeeds: This was one of the most helpful things I did to manage my anxiety about the coronavirus. I initially tried to keep up with all the news about the pandemic but I found the stream of bad news from around the world simply overwhelming and frightening. I listened to wise advice to minimise the coronavirus news I was reading so that I was sufficiently informed but not feeling overwhelmed. I also identified a few trusted sources that I turn to for the news. At the same time, I try and ignore speculations and rumours on social media, and engage with social media in a positive way.

3. Have a routine: Keep up with a daily routine. Try to get up and go to bed at around the same time every day. Try and eat at regular times, and keep up with personal hygiene. I felt a bit lost when I stopped going to the library and the gym – these were two key pre-pandemic anchors of my daily routine. A friend gave me some useful advice on finding my routine and maintaining my productivity. She said I need to step away from my bed because the bed can suck you in (she’s right!). She also suggested allocating chunks of time for working and setting an alarm. This method encourages me to focus during that set amount of time, and ensures I get regular breaks. You can try different ways to structure your day, and see what works well for you. Try and allocate sufficient time for resting too.

4. Eat healthily: Try and eat healthily at regular times. Perhaps one of the silver linings of spending more time at home for me is that I’ve been able to cook more and eat more healthily. I have grown to enjoy looking at cooking blogs and videos, planning for my next meals and trying out new recipes. If you haven’t cooked much before and are now spending more time at home, you can try and cook more. Who knows? You might be able to save money from not eating out as much, and you might even upgrade your cooking skills!

5. Keep active: Try and keep active. When you exercise, experts believe your body releases endorphins that can make you feel good. If you are able to go outside, walking, running and cycling are good ways to exercise and you can get some fresh air. Being at home does not mean you cannot keep active. Doing housework and gardening can keep you active. There are also numerous online exercise videos you can work out to, from yoga and Zumba to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and full body workouts.

6. Stay connected: It is important to stay in touch with your families and friends especially in these challenging times. If it is not possible to meet up with someone face-to face, give them a call or schedule an online video call. If you are stressed or worried, it might help you to talk to family and friends. They can support you, give you practical advice and offer a different perspective.

7. Avoid alcohol and drug use: A problem with using alcohol or drugs to manage difficult feelings is that the effects are only temporary. The withdrawal symptoms will make you feel worse. In addition, WHO says that there is no evidence that drinking alcohol has any protective effect for viral or other infections. In fact, the use of alcohol is associated with increased risk of infections and worse treatment outcomes. In this coronavirus pandemic, alcohol and drug use can impair your judgment and hence prevent you from taking sufficient precautionary measures such as undertaking proper hand washing.

8. Help and support others: Helping others can make us feel valued and needed. Volunteering might help us see the world from a different viewpoint. It might also help us put our own problems into perspective. During this pandemic, are there some ways you can help or support others? Perhaps you can offer to go grocery shopping for people in the at-risk groups. Or perhaps you can volunteer to make PPEs if there is a shortage of PPEs in your community. Take opportunities to show your appreciation to the healthcare workers and everyone working to respond to Covid-19, either online or through your community.

It is important to note that everyone’s experience is different and these self-care tips might only work for you to different extents. In any case, I would say that Tip #1 is my top tip. If you take nothing else from this article, I hope you will at least remember to “Ask for help”.

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