The global coronavirus outbreak has led to an unprecedented number of people self-isolating to prevent spreading and/or catching COVID-19. Medical experts have recommended “social distancing” as the most effective way of preventing the spread of the disease, and the government has announced tight new restrictions on most of our daily lives, such as only leaving your home to collect food or medicine or carry out daily exercise. Dr Arthur L Caplan says to “stay indoors, stay away from others as much as you can, and get your food delivered. Minimize your trips out for medicine or to the grocery store. Bring your hand sanitizer and use it all the time. Don’t shake hands. Don’t use paper money. Get ready to do a lot of television watching. You should call your shut-in parents and so forth.”
Whether you are one of the vulnerable people recommended to isolate for 12 weeks, or somebody in good health isolating for the mandated 3 weeks to prevent spreading the virus to others who are more at risk, self-isolation (although necessary) can unfortunately have a devastating impact on mental health.
Loneliness has been found by researchers to be as harmful to your long-term health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions are likely to develop and/or be exacerbated during periods of social isolation. Whether you live alone or with others, you are likely to experience some of the negative effects of isolation over the coming weeks. With this in mind, we shall look at some of the most effective ways that you can stay mentally healthy during this difficult and unprecedented time.
Take Care Of Your Surroundings
The physical environment that we live in plays a significant part in our mental wellbeing – and even more so when we are isolating inside the home! Keeping your living space clean and tidy is especially important for most of us at the moment. You might be surprised by how much of an effect simply tidying your messy desk has on your mood, especially if you are working from home and spending many hours sitting in front of a computer.
Keep a Routine
Keeping a good routine is a method that has proven highly effective, not only in improving mental health in general, but in reducing stress and confusion during times of anxiety and worry. As easy (and perhaps even tempting!) as it may be to lose track of the time and not follow a consistent sleeping pattern during isolation, it may be harmful in the long run.
If you are working a job with designated hours, this may help you maintain a routine – and even if your hours are flexible (for example, if you are self-employed), it may still be of benefit to you to write down your own daily routine that suits you! If you are working set hours, you may still be susceptible to poor mental health, especially if you simply close down your work applications and then stay sitting at the computer for the rest of the evening streaming videos or gaming. Make sure that you vary your activities – for some, this may be as simple as moving into another room and reading a book, or cooking a meal in the kitchen.
The following steps can also be included in an effective daily routine!
Keep Your Mind Occupied
There are many ways to keep your mind occupied. It is helpful to keep informed of current events, although for most of us, it is best to avoid checking the news and/or social media 24/7. Make time to watch television or films and read books on topics unrelated to either your work or the coronavirus pandemic – it is important to allow yourself to be distracted some of the time, otherwise information overload can lead to stress and fatigue.
Using your time to learn a new skill can be extremely rewarding as well as distracting – and you never know, you may end up with a new hobby, or even calling, to continue with after the end of isolation! Whether you are drawing, painting, learning a musical instrument, learning coding or computer programming, gardening, or any other practice, it has been proven that learning new skills has a significant positive effect on mental wellbeing and confidence. Puzzles such as crosswords and sudoku are also believed to assist the logical processing functions of the brain, as well as decreasing the chances of developing conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
Look After Your Physical Health
Keeping physically healthy is a vital part of keeping mentally healthy. Although you won’t be able to go to the gym, there are still various exercises that you can choose from to suit your needs and level of physical ability. You may be able to go out walking or running – although the current rules only allow exercising outdoors once a day, and staying at least 2 metres away from anybody else. You should also avoid touching things outdoors – virologist Jonathan Ball from the University of Nottingham says that “no matter where you go, just always be aware that any surface potentially could be contaminated with the virus”.”If you have any exercise equipment in your home, such as a treadmill or exercise bike, it may be beneficial to set aside a certain time each day to use these. One thing to keep in mind is not to blame yourself for not meeting any fitness goals during this time – especially as most people will be in the same boat!
Your diet is also important – take care not to overeat or undereat, and ensure that you maintain a balanced diet. Eating disorders such as anorexia and binge-eating disorder are common side-effects of mental health issues like depression and anxiety. If you are worried that you may be in danger of this, there are resources on the NHS website that you should use. Another common side effect of these issues is substance abuse – whether it is overusing alcohol or any other substance. Help with alcohol or other addictions can also be found on the NHS website. If you are taking medicines prescribed by your doctor, ensure that you keep taking your prescription during isolation.
One often overlooked aspect of physical health is sunlight. Even if you cannot leave your property, sitting on a balcony or in your garden for even a few minutes a day can be invaluable – sunlight is proven to provide Vitamin D and melatonin, which play a huge role in regulating moods and sleeping patterns!
Physical Distancing Doesn’t Mean Social Isolation
The term “social distancing” can be somewhat confusing, which is why the World Health Organisation is now encouraging the use of the more specific phrase “physical distancing”. While physical distancing is vital to prevent the spread of the virus, social connection is more important than ever before. Humans are a social animal, and most of us need social contact with others to stay mentally healthy.
There are plenty of alternatives to the traditional methods of socialising. As well as using the phone and social media, apps such as Houseparty allow you to have group video calls with your friends and loved ones. Online gaming and livestreaming are other ways of keeping in touch with others, and maybe even meeting new people.
It is also important to check on older relatives, especially if they are unfamiliar with these technologies. Although it is not recommended to visit them physically, regular telephone calls and messages will most likely be appreciated, and could even be vital to them!
It is important to remember that many people that you know will be struggling with mental health at this time, and that you may well be able to provide them with much-needed social support. Offering someone support (even if it’s just a chat about their day) does not just help that person – it will most likely be of benefit to your own wellbeing as well. Looking after each other is more important than ever.
Help Your Local Community
Unless you are a “key worker” (such as NHS staff, social and support workers, transport staff, utility providers, and those involved in the production and distribution of food), it can be easy to feel useless in a time of crisis, which can have a negative effect on the self-esteem and lead to depression.
Thankfully, there are ways that we can all help, even if we are not on the “frontlines”. Key workers are likely to be extremely stressed and overworked, leading to mental health issues of their own, and we can do our bit to help them even if we are in isolation! Look after and support your friends and loved ones who are key workers, whether that is through social support or through volunteering your services in other ways such as delivering food and supplies to them (after ensuring that it is safe and permitted to do so and correct precautions are taken, of course).
Other ways that you can help your community include donating money and/or food to local foodbanks (such as the Worcester Foodbank), which are in unprecedented demand due to the recent sharp rise in unemployment and precarious employment caused by the coronavirus outbreak. If you are looking to provide social support to vulnerable people, Age UK are currently looking for telephone volunteers to provide social interaction and friendship to those aged 60 and older.
A number of Facebook groups have also popped up around the country to keep communities connected and informed – joining the Worcestershire Coronavirus Support Facebook page is a good way to stay in the loop of any ways that you may be able to help the community. Postcards such as this one can also be used to volunteer your services!
It’s Okay Not To Always Be Okay!
During the next few weeks/months, many of us will experience stress, loneliness and/or other mental health issues. Remember that this will pass, and don’t blame yourself for feeling upset or worried sometimes – it’s okay not to always be okay!
If you are struggling with your mental health, you should reach out to someone – either a friend or loved one, or alternatively you can call the Samaritans on 0330 094 5717 or email them at email@example.com.
If you are suffering from domestic abuse during isolation, you can contact Victim Support on 0333 554 8543, or request support at https://www.victimsupport.org.uk/help-and-support/get-help/request-support
If you need advice on issues such as housing, benefits, employment, or landlord-tenant disputes, you can contact the Citizen’s Advice Bureau on 0344 411 1303, or at https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/.
If you are concerned about your employment situation and/or your tenant’s rights if you are renting, it may be a good idea to consider joining a union. There are a variety of unions to choose from, depending on your employment sector (this guide from Unionize details some of the options and how to choose the right union for you). If you are concerned about your rights as a tenant, unions such as the Tenants Union and ACORN may be of help.
Most importantly of all, remember to look after yourselves and each other – though we may be distanced, we must stay connected!