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The effects of a pandemic on our mental health


How are you doing?

No really, take a moment to stop reading this, sit still, and really think about it.

How are you doing?

This is, for most people, the strangest time they have ever lived through. A time where homes became places of work. Where whole city centres closed their doors and streets fell silent. Where refusing to hug the people we love became an act of love in itself. A moment in time where everyone’s lives were changed in some way. A global event.

How have you been coping with it?

Such moments impact us in different ways, and it’s important that in the busyness of trying to carry on our daily business, we don’t ignore the impact on our mental wellbeing. Focusing on how we continue to work during lockdown, how we do our shopping, all the practicalities of day to day life can take precedence over everything. However being a pandemic creates a perfect storm of elements that can have a terrible effect on our mental health. I want to focus on three areas for this post; fear, loneliness and isolation, and change, as these are I think the three biggest areas.

Fear

How did you feel the first time you saw people wearing face masks on the streets? Or the first time you heard of a death in your city? The moment when you coughed for no apparent reason?

Fear and anxiety are a part of everyday life, they serve a useful function, they help us to be aware of potential dangers and to act accordingly. They focus our attention on what’s important to us. However when that becomes amplified to the extent that we struggle to function, it’s having a negative impact on our lives. Right now, there can seem like a lot of things to be afraid of. Getting sick, or someone close to us getting sick. Losing our jobs. What the world will look like on the other side of this. All of these things can seem out of our control.

It’s normal to feel scared, to be afraid of the unknown and the uncertain. This is especially true when we’re going through a period of change, where our usual norms are being disrupted…

Change

As humans we’re surprisingly good at adapting to change. We just don't like it very much.

In part that’s because our basic human need is for safety. We need safety before we can do anything else. Imagine throwing a ball a couple of feet in the air and catching it. Sound easy? Now imagine doing the same thing while standing near the edge of a tall building. Think you could still keep catching it? We need safety to be able to focus on other things.

Safety comes from a place of certainty. If we know how things are going to be, we feel safe. We understand our world through these thousand different consistencies. We know that a green man on a pedestrian crossing means the cars are seeing a red light, and they will have stopped. We know an elevator goes up and down, not side to side. We know that when we turn the hot tap we’re going to get hot water come out, not maple syrup. We know that objects fall to the floor not float upwards. When we go to a karaoke bar someone will always sing Bohemian Rhapsody. These certainties give us a sense of safety in the world.

When we go through change, those certainties can change too, subtly or sometimes completely. When we feel unsafe, we go back to experiencing fear. It’s not uncommon for people going through change to experience a “flight, fight or freeze” response - our autonomic nervous systems response to fear and anxiety. This is often why people push back against change - “I just don’t like it”.

Isolation and loneliness

Here’s a quick question for you. What condition do you think is responsible for reducing life expectancy by up to 30%, is as bad for our physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and makes us three times more likely to experience depression?

Would probably have been a harder question if I hadn’t included the title “Isolation and Loneliness” directly above it wouldn't it?

There is no bigger threat to our mental and physical wellbeing, in my opinion, than isolation and loneliness. And this was something that was an issue long before we went into lockdown. Back in 2018 The British Red Cross surveyed the British public and found almost a third of people said they regularly felt lonely. A third of people. This was before we were told to stay in our homes.

Of all the legacies of Covid-19, the impact of months of being shut away from social connections, loved ones, friends and supports, is going to be the one to have the most lasting effect. Because the more we feel lonely, the more we withdraw. It creates a spiral effect that can lead to increased mental health issues, poor physical health and loss of opportunities to correct the spiral.

We’re biologically wired to connect with other people. It’s in our nature, even those of us who see ourselves as introverts. We need some level of social interaction for our wellbeing. Without it we’re more prone to poor physical and mental health.

So what can we do about these issues?

Firstly, recognise that you’re not alone in this. There are many, many people who are struggling just like you might be. You’re never as alone as it might feel.

Secondly, reach out to someone and talk. A friend, family member, your doctor, a therapist, the dog, cat….whoever. Talk about what you’re feeling. Getting our thoughts out of our head and sharing them gives us a different perspective on things. It can make things which seemed all consuming feel that little bit more manageable.

Journal about it. Write your thoughts and feelings down. It doesn't have to be page after page every day. Just a few sentences, a couple of paragraphs maybe. It’s great for again getting your thoughts out of your head, but also for seeing patterns. Always feeling lower on a Monday? Why might that be? Feel better on the days when you do some exercise? Is that related? You can also use it to log the things that have gone well, or that made you feel good. That way when you’re having a bad day, you can remember that it’s not ALL bad. Which brings us onto…

...Remember that life is naturally up and down. Good days and bad days. We all have them. If you find you’re having a bad day, you are allowed for it to just be that - one bad day. Try not to feel that one bad day means that the next few will also be bad.

Get out. No really, get outside. Research shows that exercise can be as beneficial to depression as taking antidepressants. It doesn’t mean you have to go for 10 mile runs, just a walk around the block can be good for our physical and mental wellbeing. Research also shows the benefits of green spaces - being around nature. It doesn't have to be open countryside, just a local park or anywhere with trees and grass has been shown to boost mood.

Finally, allow yourself time to struggle. We have this mentality in our society that we should all “Keep calm and carry on”. We’re not allowed to have bad days, to fall apart a bit. You ABSOLUTELY are. There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself time to recover. Nothing wrong with saying “today I can’t do this”. Don't beat yourself up. Don’t be hard on yourself. Be compassionate to the fact that you’re in the middle of a global pandemic. A once in a lifetime event. You’re allowed to be struggling with that.

And finally, if you feel things are getting worse, don’t wait for it to hit a crisis point before you get help. Reaching out early can prevent things becoming unmanageable, and can mean the steps needed to regulate ourselves are fewer and easier to do. The longer we wait, the more damage there is to our health, and the longer the recovery can be.

Stay safe and stay well.