Managing Your Mental Health After 3 Months (and Counting) With COVID-19
Published on 5th April, 2020 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
It has been more than three months since COVID-19 was made known to the world in late December 2019. On 23rd January 2020, Singapore encountered its first case. While a segment of the population was worried, most in Singapore were still adopting a positive outlook on the situation. We were confident that the situation would pass in a few weeks and the threat of being diagnosed with the condition was quite remote. Life went on as usual for most and some even took advantage of the lower fares to travel overseas.
Three months on, the expected ‘drizzle’ has yet to pass. The virus has been declared a ‘pandemic’ and we no longer perceive the threat to be remote. Every person that I have checked on has someone that they care about who has at least been issued with a Stay-Home Notice for being in contact with someone who was diagnosed with COVID-19. Beyond worrying for our safety and that of our loved ones, the wide-ranging impact of COVID-19 has affected the way we worked (for those hit harder, their livelihood) and the way we lead our lives.
While I’m sure many have read tips to deal with the stress and anxiety of COVID-19, the current article is an extension of those tips to cope challenges rising from the prolonged situation and the tighter measures to manage its spread.
Managing COVID-19 anxiety
Anxiety is a natural emotional response to the current situation (If you are not anxious, then something is wrong). We have evolved in a manner where our mind prepares for the worst outcomes. That’s how our mind works. Any thought or sentence that starts with “What if…” is almost always followed by something negative. It does not help that anxiety is contagious too (Anyone hasn’t feel bothered by the constant updates in your group chats and social media yet?). Here are some strategies for you:
• Set boundaries based on how much information you can handle. Everyone responds to new information differently. If bad news leads to worrying or scrambling for reassurance, limit your news source to a credible one. Check on the news only once or twice a day.
• Keep negative thoughts in check. It is easy to catastrophize and ruminate in the current situation, increasing your vulnerability for depression and anxiety. Stop yourself when you realize that your thoughts are going on a downward spiral.
• Practice relaxation techniques. Relaxation allows you to slow down and calm your mind when you are stressed or anxious. There are multiple ways to relax, ranging from listening to music to more structured exercises, such as meditation and mindfulness exercises. Choose an activity that suits you and the amount of time that you are able to commit.
• Identify the roots of the anxiety. The situation could be anxiety-provoking because you have experienced the pain of losing someone to an illness. You may be anxious because you feel inadequate and want the reduce the chances of facing a stressful situation unprepared. Identifying the roots of the anxiety may be challenging. You may need the assistance of a psychologist or a counsellor to identify your blind spot.
Managing issues arising from the prolonged nature of COVID-19
Coping with uncertainty
A major question in the current pandemic is “How long more it will last?”. As the situation persists, plans are put on hold or are cancelled. These include weddings, business projects, and even major global events like the Olympics. Those living away from their family are waiting for the time that they can be safely reunited again. There is also the fear of putting yourself and your loved ones in danger of contracting the virus when you step out of the house.
To cope with the uncertainty, control what you can control. You can’t determine if that person who let out a cough beside you has COVID-19, but you can take steps to protect yourself. There is also a difference between worrying and problem-solving. In the former, your mind is on overdrive, thinking about the various worst-case scenarios. When you problem-solve, you take active steps to overcome the problem. If you are mainly worrying, but can’t seem to problem-solve, chances are that the situation is not within your control. Limit the time spent worrying on these situations as worrying would only increase your anxiety levels.
Coping with blurred work-life boundaries
We have been emphasizing work-life balance for years. With the shift towards working from home, individuals work-life and personal boundaries are affected. Your partner is now your colleague and lunch buddy. Your home, maybe even your bed, is your office. The time that you have to work is also the time you have to help your child with his home-based learning.
Installing temporal, physical and personal boundaries is key here. Maintain a routine as close as possible to before you had to work from home even though it is tempting to wake up later or to start work without showering. Stick to the usual routine- mealtimes, your workout and most importantly, the time that you start and end work. “Clock in” and “clock out” at a certain timing so that you know when your environment is your ‘home’ or your ‘office’. You may also dedicate physical boundaries, which you can consider to be your ‘workspace’ and no one else should enter. And if lunchtime is the period when you usually need a quiet time to recharge, respectfully tell your partner that you need some alone time.
Coping with increased/decreased responsibilities
The pace of life and amount of responsibilities one has to bear has also impacted our mental health. Some clients coming to me to cope with the current situation reported feeling loss and empty in recent weeks. These are clients who are used to working in a stressful and fast-paced environment. They also have to travel often for work. Suddenly, they find themselves at home most of the time. The slowdown in the industries that they are in also means that there is less work for them to do. On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who found having more on their plate. These are largely those who have to play additional role as caregivers to their children while working from home.
If you are in the first group, give yourself permission to take a break and to do something without the need to achieve. You have grown to thrive and be driven by being productive. Doing something well gives you a sense of accomplishment. Chances are, you have constantly put off doing something for yourself when a new task comes along comes along. Now is the opportunity for you to work on these personal projects. Allow yourself to engage in these non-striving activities- baking, playing games, or whatever activity that you would like to initiate. If guilt still exists for performing these “worthless” activities, tell yourself that there is a goal in doing these: Improving your well-being and mental health.
If you are in the group that is overwhelmed, be kinder to yourself and give yourself permission to be imperfect. As long as you are trying your best, there is no shame in accepting the outcome that happens. I’ve seen parents who are worried that they are unable to guide their children in their schoolwork as well as the school teachers would. Of course, you are not able to do that. The teachers are trained professionals and if you can do a job as good as them, why did you send your children to school in the first place? Be realistic and don’t allow your anxiety to be another obstacle in your caregiving role. And if academics isn’t your strength, you can also teach lessons that are not in the syllabus- a new sport, how to prepare a meal, fixing a bicycle, and the list goes on.
Social distancing and isolation are key strategies in battling COVID-19. Especially for those living on their own, the lack of social interaction may take its toll on your mental health. Studies have also shown that limited social interaction and feelings of loneliness may breed depression.
Stay connected with your family and social network through technology. You can also get creative, such as getting food or care packages delivered to them. In the community, talk to your neighbour at a safe distance and smile more to the people you meet in the stores.
General strategies to remain resilient
Hope can be defined as a positive state of mind marked by positive feelings about the future. The current situation is not an easy one and we are uncertain when it will pass. Having hope is not simply about having positive thoughts to create a ‘feel good’ emotion. It also gives you a sense of purpose in doing what you do. For example, while you may dislike being cooped up at home, remind yourself that you are playing your part to contain its spread. Don’t just hope for the situation to get better; hope has to be sustained by behaviours that reflect feelings of hope. Seek to make the situation better. Even though you won’t know the outcome of your efforts, remind yourself that taking control of the present situation is more likely to result in positive outcomes as compared to when you surrender.
Find alternative ways to get your needs met
You want to travel. You miss attending social gatherings. You want the gyms to be in operation so that you can get back to your exercise routine.
I am sure almost every one of us can recall having a close friend who handled a break-up poorly. Let’s call her Sally and her ex John. No matter what you say to comfort her, Sally’s replies were “But I can’t live without John!” and “I need John because only he can make me so happy”. Well, Sally doesn’t need John. She needs to feel loved and at that point in time, John is the way she perceives to get her needs met.
Like Sally, it can be frustrating and depressing when your attempts to meet your psychogenic needs are blocked. Some examples of our psychogenic needs include ‘Achievement’ (the need to succeed and feel competent), ‘Fun’ (the need to relieve tension and relax), and ‘Safety’ (the need to have basic financial and health security). Understand your needs, and find alternative ways to meet them. While your needs are non-negotiable, how you obtain them can be flexible.
Support one another
It’s heartening to see how Singaporeans are supporting one another in recent weeks. From applauding the frontliners to making offers of meal assistance on social media, these efforts are wonderful morale-boosters in these dark times. Beyond these bigger scale initiatives, you can also do your part to support those in your social circle. Check in on their well-being and offer words of encouragement to show you care. We are all in this together, and with a stronger social support, your loved ones will feel better equipped to deal with the situation and reduce the emotional burden experienced.