Mental Health in the Time of COVID-19
Involuntary confinement is one of the defining features of this global COVID-19 pandemic. No matter who you are, your perimeter of life has probably been dramatically downsized. Whether you are spending more time on your own or sharing your quarters with close ones (forgive the pun) you are probably having to find a way to adapt to an at least moderately, and perhaps radically, new lifestyle. This new reality is having an impact on many people’s sense of normalcy, and even on their mental health. In response, mental health professionals have been offering techniques to help people cope.
According to a review published in The Lancet using cases of quarantined patients from the SARS other outbreaks (such as H1N1 and Ebola), a good place to start is to ask, what is causing you stress? The answer, of course, can be different for each person. Is it a fear of infection? Frustration and boredom around the lack of physical freedom? Inadequate supplies? Inadequate information? Like in medicine, a proper diagnosis is important before you can figure out how to approach the problem. And if you’re not sure what’s stressing you out, do you have someone you trust you can talk to? Not only can sharing with others help clarify your feelings, but it can be therapeutic in and of itself, because it helps us to feel less alone, more connected.
According to an article titled “COVID-19 Lockdown Guide: How to Manage Anxiety and Isolation During Quarantine” published by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, there are also some concrete measures you can take that might make your time in quarantine considerably easier. The article provides 6 tips that encourage us to focus on what we still do have control over in this crisis.
First, for anyone in quarantine, the article recommends trying to keep a routine, or to add some kind of structure to your day. Doing at least one productive thing in the day can help you feel better overall and having different periods of time associated with different tasks can help prevent the sense of the hours and days all just blurring together. Even rituals such as a daily walk with the dog or a Facetime with Grandma could give you something to look forward to every day. And beyond a single day, you could also try keeping a routine over the week. For example, you might want to spend more time making supper on Fridays or have a special movie night on Saturdays.
Secondly, it is recommended that we should try not to obsess over coverage about the coronavirus. Many of us might have more time on our hands, and as a result many of us are spending even more time on our phones, jumping from one news outlet or social media platform to another, following the endless coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. But we need to watch out for two things: 1) not to stress out the ones around us by constantly bringing up the virus; it might be a temporary stress reliever for us, but be aware of the emotional labour you are asking your counterpart to do; and 2) to monitor the time we spend on social media. According to a study published in Guilford Press, people who spend on average less than 30 minutes on social media tend to feel less depressed and lonely. In this time of physical distancing, live face-to-face, voice-to-voice interaction, which could mean more old-fashioned phone calls, is the most likely to comfort us.
Third, try to keep your environment as organized as you can, and include cleaning up as part of your routine. This should make your house or apartment somewhat less claustrophobic and your space (which is now a limited resource) more optimized. Additionally, you can try to keep different places associated with different activities: for example, if possible, not eating in your bed or working on the couch. According to Professor of Psychology Marty Lobdell, simply having a lamp at your desk that you only turn on during work could increase your productivity.
Fourth, you could try to start doing something productive, but also fun, with the extra time you have with the quarantine. Just like Doctor Horacio Arruda, who is learning how to make the best natas (Portuguese desserts), you now have extra time to catch up on reading Das Kapital or playing guitar.
The fifth tip from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America is to try to reframe your mindset away from one of frustration. According to an article published in UVA Today (a University of Virginia publication), taking the curiosity-oriented “mindset of an anthropologist or a journalist observing a social experiment” could provide much needed distance and reduce stress. If you aim to understand your situation better, you will probably deal with it better.
If you’re living with others, try as much as possible to schedule not only time together but also time apart, in separate spaces from each other. Always being around people can be draining and staying in confined spaces with someone can lead to tensions. While in cohabitation, different times and spaces can be allocated to being alone and being with others, just like in non-quarantine life where you’re not in constant exposure to your family or other roommates
Finally, going outside, according to the same UVA Today article, as well as exercise (perhaps a jog or an indoor workout session) both have many positive effects such as a decrease in depression and a boost in confidence. One technique taught in every 102 and 103 CEGEP gym class is the setting up of SMART goals: make your objectives specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and set within a certain time frame. This method can also apply to any other goals you may have, including navigating a global pandemic.
All these tips encourage us to be intentional with our time. This intentionality ––consciously implementing one or more of these techniques––can transform this quarantine into an experience that, while challenging, is not traumatic, and may even in some ways prove fruitful.
And one last note about a helpful quarantine mindset: the authors of the articles above all emphasize the importance, not just for others but for our own mental health, of thinking about not just “me” but also “we.” Our voluntary quarantine is designed to help others as much as ourselves; that means if you’re stuck at home, you can remember the good you’re doing to those who are more vulnerable and for all our health care workers on the front lines. Same principle within the scope of your family or of your community: helping others (if possible) can both alleviate the struggles that others might be going through and boost your own morale.
The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence in The Lancet
COVID-19 Lockdown Guide: How to Manage Anxiety and Isolation During Quarantine
How to Protect Your Mental Health During a Quarantine