Safeguarding your mental health during a pandemic

Evidence-based suggestions for being kind to yourself and others.

Ingrid Rewitzky

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

Daniel Page makes some evidence-based suggestions for coping during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has led to unprecedented disruption to the normal way of life for people around the globe. Attempts to contain the pandemic have caused fundamental changes to the way of life for individuals around the world (Diamond & Willan, 2020). Social distancing and self-isolation are strongly advised, or mandated, in most countries, with many people restricted to their homes by law. During this time, it is normal for our sense of resilience to feel frayed as we are overwhelmed with concerns about the spread of the virus and its impact on our health, our family and friends, the country, and economy. Stressors include concerns about the duration of quarantine, fears of infection, frustration and boredom, inadequate basic supplies, inadequate information, financial loss, and stigma (Brooks et al., 2020). The pandemic not only affects physical health, but also mental health and well-being (Brooks et al., 2020). University staff and students alike have concerns about research interruptions, funding or employment status, the transition to e-learning, and the impact the pandemic will have on the year’s outcomes. It must be accounted for that common mental disorders among university students are already very high, with a prevalence rate of typically around one-third (Bantjes et al., 2019).

The mental health effects of COVID-19 might be long-lasting and deserve serious attention. In an attempt to safeguard or even improve wellbeing and health (both physical and mental) during these unusual times, I have provided some evidence-based tips that one can use during self-isolation (Diamond & Willan, 2020; Dickerson, 2020; Fiorillo & Gorwood, 2020; Zhai & Du, 2020).

Manage your expectations and your stress. The cognitive and emotional impact of the pandemic on your productivity, concentration, and motivation should not be underestimated. Take it easy, adaptation will come as you settle into a new rhythm. Be proactive and set realistic goals for yourself and build a solid routine. Routine is the name of the game; it helps to manage anxiety and will aid in adapting to the “new normal”. Create clear boundaries between work and non-work time. Working in short bursts with clear breaks can be helpful. Remember to take time to do something fun and enjoyable, you are not a robot.

Meeting your basic physiological needs is of utmost importance. Prioritise your sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene and try to eat well. Be conscious of the inclination towards indulgences that may disrupt healthy behaviour. Be active, physical activity is safe and beneficial, any level of physical activity is better than none (Haseler, Crooke, & Haseler, 2019). During lock-down the usual opportunities for physical activity are reduced. Sedentary behaviour for long durations is bad for one’s health, standing for a while or taking a walk is good for physical and mental well-being (Biswas et al., 2015). Walking or running maximises the quality of time spent outside. As an added benefit, if you have a park nearby or area of natural beauty, the fresh air and nature does wonders for your mental and physical health. 

Know your red flags and stay in the present. Distress can manifest in physical sensations, thoughts, feelings, and actions. Mindfulness is the act of taking notice and being present in the moment, it can improve well-being and reduce anxiety. So be mindful and try to identify if you are tense, struggling to concentrate, feeling frustrated, and/or compulsively eating chocolate. These are some of my own examples; and unfortunately, they feed into each other, amplifying and spiralling downwards. The key is to address one aspect of the “feedback loop from hell”, breathing exercises or meditation are great tools and they help to deescalate the cycle, enabling you to take back control. Remember to take each day as it comes, be present and focus on the things that are within your locus of control – control the controllable (Hanrahan, 2017).  

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Positive self-talk and affirmations can be a helpful and healthy buffer against negative cyclic thoughts, which are so easy to fall prey to, during these uncertain times. Try to catch yourself when using negative self-talk – we are often overly critical during times of stress and these thoughts can often be automatic and unnoticed. Practice to recognise these thoughts. Stop the thoughts. Breathe. Redirect the thoughts to positive self-talk and affirmations. Compassion towards self and others requires practice and presence.

An important aspect of mental health is maintaining our social connections. We may be isolated at home, but we are not truly alone – reach out to family and friends. Meaningful interactions with others may promote a sense of identity and self-worth. Whether you are extroverted or introverted, we all need connection with others. There are virtual groups and clubs for books, coffee, and writing; as well as support and work groups for students and colleagues to chat about their day-to-day matters or very specific topics. There are online games, you could host a quiz night, or jeopardize the happy family dynamic by beating everyone at virtual risk or monopoly – all in the name of fun.

The pandemic has offered us an opportunity to come together in the face of adversity. To find a common purpose and to contribute towards society or some greater goal. During this difficult time giving can seem impossible, especially if you are struggling, but there are many ways and means through which giving may be actualized. Connecting with the neighbours and offering to do their shopping run, or volunteering your time and skills to a worthy cause. Whether you are growing flowers in your yard for your neighbours table or donating food, sharing will help develop your sense of self-worth and potentially make a difference for someone facing their own struggle. 

As an academic, or student, investigate what available resources your institution offers, there are often support groups and free mental health services (Zhai & Du, 2020). There may be a financial hardship fund and care packages or hampers available through student services. Remember that you are part of a virtual village, your peers and colleagues are going through similar challenges, reach out to them as they may be able to help you transition your study and social life online. Seek out academic support from your supervisors, lecturers, or research advisors if you have any fears or concerns – like graduation or reaching research milestones.

Prevent information overload, minimise consumption of news about COVID-19 that cause you to feel anxious or distressed. Seek informational updates at specific times during the day (once or twice), and only from trusted sources (like the World Health Organisation COVID-19 page), so that you can take practical steps to protect yourself and loved ones. Seek facts as these can help minimise fears, whereas rumours and misinformation cause anxiety. 

Most importantly, seek professional psychological or psychiatric care or consultation if the distress you are experiencing is becoming too invasive and hampering your health and well-being.

Daniel Thomas Page

Doctoral Candidate, School of Psychology
Founding Member of Positive Youth Development Foundation.

Bantjes, J., Lochner, C., Saal, W., Roos, J., Taljaard, L., Page, D., . . . Stein, D. J. (2019). Prevalence and sociodemographic correlates of common mental disorders among first-year university students in post-apartheid South Africa: implications for a public mental health approach to student wellness. BMC Public Health, 19, 1-12. doi:10.1186/s12889-019-7218-y

Biswas, A., Oh, P. I., Faulkner, G. E., Bajaj, R. R., Silver, M. A., Mitchell, M. S., & Alter, D. A. (2015). Sedentary time and its association with risk for disease incidence, mortality, and hospitalization in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med, 162(2), 123-132. doi:10.7326/M14-1651

Brooks, S. K., Webster, R. K., Smith, L. E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., & Rubin, G. J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet, 395(10227), 912-920. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(20)30460-8

Diamond, R., & Willan, J. (2020). Achieving Good Mental Health during COVID-19 Social Isolation. Br J Psychiatry, 1-6. doi:10.1192/bjp.2020.91

Dickerson, D. (2020). Seven tips to manage your mental health and well-being during the COVID-19 outbreak. Nature. doi:10.1038/d41586-020-00933-5

Fiorillo, A., & Gorwood, P. (2020). The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and implications for clinical practice. Eur Psychiatry, 63(1), e32. doi:10.1192/j.eurpsy.2020.35

Hanrahan, S. J. (2017). LifeMatters: Using physical activities and games to enhance the self-concept and well-being of disadvantaged youth. In A. Brady & B. Grenville-Cleave (Eds.), Positive psychology in sport and physical activity (pp. 170-181). London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Haseler, C., Crooke, R., & Haseler, T. (2019). Promoting physical activity to patients. BMJ, 366, l5230. doi:10.1136/bmj.l5230

Zhai, Y., & Du, X. (2020). Addressing collegiate mental health amid COVID-19 pandemic. Psychiatry Res, 288, 113003. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113003

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Michael

    Great article, well written and insightful. Sometimes we just need to take a step back and make ourselves aware of our current state of mind.

  2. The Dad

    Jnr Dr Page, it is with dismay that I read your very well presented Article but I need to present to you the essence of the art ( D Page 2020), of being the Dad:

    1).Manage your expectations and stress : Are you married?
    2).Take it easy : I could be arrested for shop lifting!
    3). Be Proactive : I am constantly thinking of ways to escape
    4).Routine : I eat chocolate on a daily basis!
    5) Create Clear Boundaries : Our hose allows me to be at the other end; revert to Item 1).

    I sought internal psychological help and have mastered the art of believing I am pregnant which allows me to ‘Breathe and Swallow” ( J Page 1955),

    You are welcome to recite me in any further journals!!

    The Dad

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