As I type, a highly infectious virus threatens to kill a significant proportion of the population unless we successfully curb it’s spread through self-isolation and some idiots are still refusing to quarantine themselves, arguing that it contravenes their ‘rights’. Frankly, if you don’t feel anxious right now it’s because you aren’t paying attention.
Whilst feelings of stress and anxiety are a completely normal response to our unusual and unprecedented circumstances, it’s important we try and curb the impact it’s having on us both emotionally and physically. Stress can cause an excess of the hormone cortisol in our bodies, which increases our vulnerability to depression. It also shrinks our synapses, making us less able to think clearly and work productively. Meanwhile the anxiety chemical adrenaline has been shown to have an adverse effect on our immune system – the very last thing anyone needs, at the moment.
Below are my top tips for managing your mental health and regulating your chemical balance, whilst stuck indoors:
You don’t necessarily have to get up at the same time as you would have done if you were going out to work (in fact, lock down is a good opportunity to tune into your body’s natural rhythms, whether you’re a lark, night owl or have peak productivity in the afternoons), but you should aim to wake up and go to bed at approximately the same time each day.
Sleeping too much or too little can both disrupt mental wellbeing. If you’re having difficulty drifting off, try doing something before bed that uses your imagination, like writing a story or visualising your dream holiday. The imagination is the doorway between conscious and unconscious thought and this should help you feel sleepy.
Whilst we’re currently allowed to leave the house once daily for a walk or run, the danger is that we become more sedentary when we are confined to the house. Physical activity has been shown to be as effective in combatting mild to moderate symptoms of depression as medication, so it’s important to take the opportunity to be active when we can. Many online influencers are creating work outs you can follow at home (including Joe Wicks the Body Coach – head over to his YouTube channel to find out more), but if you’re really short of space then doing some simple stretches is a quick way to release feel-good endorphins.
The situation with COVID 19 changes daily and we naturally want to stay on top of the latest developments and advice. Unfortunately, even if the news your accessing is from a reputable source (and therefore not a sensationalist ‘hot take’ or scaremongering ‘fake news’) hearing it over and over again is going to increase your anxiety. Pick an outlet you trust and check in once or twice per day. You can mute certain key words on twitter, if you want to keep up to date with your online community whilst swerving COVID panic. You’ll also generally find picture or video-based social media sites like Instagram to be a much more positive online environment.
Whether it’s calling to check in on an elderly relative or texting your neighbour to ask if they want something when you venture out to the food shop, contributing positively to the community not only has a positive impact on others, but has also been shown in numerous studies to increase our own wellbeing. Win/Win.
Here’s something not a lot of people know about the nature of anxiety – One of the reasons our brains invent catastrophic future scenarios is not only to help us prepare for if the worst should happen, but also because when we seek assurance that it probably won’t happen, it’s comforting. Therefore, the more you speculate, the more comfort you give your brain when you tell yourself everything will be okay.
Unfortunately, the brain’s fear/anxiety mechanism happens in the amygdala, which is not particularly sophisticated, lives right at the back of your skull and doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined dangers. So the more you do this, the more anxious you’ll feel, the more reassurance you’ll seek and the whole thing will quickly end up being a vicious circle.
Instead, remind yourself that the past is unchangeable, the future unknowable and the only thing we can control is the present…
…Mindfulness can help you to achieve the goal to staying in the moment. The app Headspace is a great introduction to the practice for beginners and is currently offering some free resources called ‘Weathering the Storm’.
Belonging is absolutely crucial to mental health so thank goodness for facetime, Skype, Google hang outs and their ilk. Try to create digital versions of your usual social activities – At first it’s a bit odd looking at a screen whilst drinking a cup of coffee and remembering that the person you’re taking to is incapable of passing you the sugar, but you soon get used to it. Being able to see your friends’ face as you chat will increase your sense of community and genuine connection.