Psychological well-being during COVID-19 lockdown

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

Mariam Salie discusses some ideas on how to manage the uncertainty and anxiety we face in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a busy life, it is often difficult to strike a balance between work, family and our own quiet time. In a crisis, even more so.

I am a wife, a mother, a clinical psychologist and lecturer, and doctoral student. Thus, I wear many hats. My first instinct when the lockdown was put into effect was that finally I would have some time to be productive with my PhD proposal! Of course, this did not happen. I was home with all four of my kids, all day. And while the world was becoming anxious, so too were my kids. 

The first thing we have to remember about the current global crisis is that no one has experience with it. What this means is, none of us have experienced a global pandemic before and neither have we experienced a lockdown situation. This is all new and while trying to come to terms with the situation and all of its effects, we are left feeling quite anxious. This is normal. The anxiety we are currently experiencing is a normal response to a very abnormal situation. When I was able to remind myself of that, I took a deep breath and told myself to be present for the kids and myself and start there.

As a psychologist, we are interested in patterns. We analyse patterns of both individuals and the systems in which they exist. One thing I have learnt is that when a system has trouble, it will expose the system’s flaws. As a South African, I am acutely aware of how this pandemic has exposed our biggest flaw – inequality. We are encouraged to practice good hygiene by washing our hands regularly, sanitizing, and practice social distancing. How does one do this when your basic needs are a priority? How do you add sanitizer to the list when you are barely making it to cover bread and milk? This is the reality for many South Africans. How do you socially distance yourself when your home is merely inches away from your neighbour’s? While South Africa’s middle class were stockpiling, the majority of South Africans were still trying to keep their heads above water. This is the sad reality. My domestic helper lives in one of the densely populated informal settlements in the southern suburbs. One evening she left late and I took her home. I was amazed at the liveliness of her area. Everyone was outdoors, talking and socializing, even the children! People were sharing and it looked like they were having a good time. I sometimes feel like we have lost the sense of community in our bigger suburbs and more urban areas. In these communities, where the spirit of Ubuntu (humanity) is very much alive, how do you enforce social distancing, even though it is integral to flattening the curve of the spread? We face these difficulties in South Africa.

As a lecturer, we have an additional challenge. Classes need to be moved online. Again, the reality of South Africa hits me. A large component of our student population does not have access to computers or internet services. Some of them probably have no access to electricity either. But I am hopeful that as our Presidency endeavours to address the various needs of the country, so too will our Vice Rector address the needs of staff and students and so too must we address our own needs.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

So, while I, and you, try our best to find a new rhythm, adjust to our spaces, and create some kind of normalcy, I will share some tips to help along the way:

  1. News: It is important to stay up to date and follow the news but ensure that you are using trustworthy sources. Limit or schedule your time reading or viewing the news. It is easy to become overwhelmed with all the information floating around. Identify one reliable source and stick to it for updates and check only at a scheduled time.
  2. Stay in touch: Yes, we are confined to our homes and yes, we are only allowed out for essential services or products, but this does not mean we cannot stay in touch with those near and dear to us. Technology is wonderful when it comes to available platforms for interacting. Find a platform that works for you and make contact with friends and family to stay connected during the lockdown. Make it a family/group affair if there is opportunity to do so.
  3. Keep busy: For those who are working from home, try to maintain a schedule and allocate work time. It is difficult to create a balance when there is no structure and we can easily fall into an all or nothing scenario – working too much or not at all. For those not working, it is still helpful to create a schedule and to allocate enough time for activities, hobbies, family time, alone time, exercise, mental health check-in. A mental health check-in can be done individually with an activity or as contact with friends, family or even work colleagues.
  4. Prayer and meditation: In times of crises, some people take solace in their respective religions and find it useful to use prayer or acts of worship as a support and to maintain a sense of hope. Meditation is another useful practice and this can help us reflect, stay focussed and positive as well as contribute to reducing anxiety and stress.
  5. Exercise: Exercise is generally good for the body as well as the mind. During this lockdown period, be sure to include any form of exercise or movement to get the good endorphins active. This will boost mood and energy levels.
  6. Children: If you have children, be sure to monitor them for any change in their regular patterns. Children are naturally curious and they will ask questions (depending on their age), many questions. When engaging with them on the topic be sure to stick to the facts (reliable news sources come in handy here), filter the information and share only age appropriate information, and let them know they can ask as many questions as they need to. If you are unsure about anything, convey this. It is important to model to children that uncertainty is also okay. However, do highlight what is being done to address (in their minds fix the problem) the current situation.
  7. Seek help: Lastly, and most importantly, please do reach out if there is a need for more support. There are numerous resources online for meditation, motivation and ideas for lockdown. There are also various people and places that can be contacted if a mental health need arises.
Illustration by Maria Esteves

Lastly, bear in mind that we are all different and we view the world through different lenses. Therefore, what works for one may not work for another, but do not be despondent about this. Find what works for you. In addition, we all have different realities; we are in different spaces and we have different kinds of accesses. Again, work with what works for you. During the first week of the lockdown, I ended up baking most of the time and we offset this with lots of exercising. Our cycles were completely out: we started our day late in the morning and ended it late at night. This is ok. Sometimes we are so preoccupied with creating a structure according to what others perceive as the norm that we fail to address our own needs. We needed that. We played games, we watched movies and we braaied – a favourite weekend pastime for South Africans. Week two of lockdown, we started to find a routine: we still started our days late in the morning but we started including schoolwork, religious instruction and maintained family time. We do regular video calls with my family – after trying, testing, and finding a platform that works for us. I do not check the news but receive regular updates from my brother who works for provincial parliament so I know his updates are official and therefore trustworthy. Sometimes it takes a while to get it right and that is ok. Remember to be kind to yourself – we are experiencing a global pandemic.

We are entering a phase of life we will look back on for years to come. While many of us are lucky enough to be able to work from home, many South Africans are left reeling from the economic pressure this pandemic has brought and some were downright crumpled. On the one hand, I am grateful for the opportunity to spend some quality time with my children. As a busy, working mother I long for time to do all the things I used to while they were growing up. On the other hand, life as we know it has changed and no one of us, nor the world we live in will be the same post COVID-19. My heart breaks for the havoc this pandemic has wrought, for the deaths across the world, for those who will suffer the most during this time, for families separated and for everyone trying to hold on to that one thread of ‘normal’. I cannot help but feel like we are experiencing a rebirth of some kind though. I have this thought that the world is cleansing itself of all our past destructions and going forward, we will be forced to change our thinking and our behaviour.   

One positive thing that I have noted is that this crisis has highlighted the importance of mental health and I have seen and heard advice sought on many mediums to share with people. I am hopeful that what I have shared here will be useful.

Mariam Salie

Clinical Psychologist and Lecturer,
Department of Psychology,

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Rhoda Salie

    This is such a awesome write-up. With all the uncertainties during lock down this just put everything into perspective.

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