For many of us experiencing extended lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness, together with limited social interaction with our loved ones and wider community, financial stress, and disrupted schedules are taking a toll on our mental health.
“The impact of lockdown has touched every area of our lives; the way we work, our thinking of the future, our financial stability, our social interaction, our personal freedom, and our relationships,” says Dr Ashwini Padhi, a psychiatrist at South Pacific Private. “This coupled with our struggles to adapt to digital platforms, juggling household chores and childcare has left us feeling physically drained and emotionally depleted. Worrying about loved ones and their health, fear of contracting the virus, the social and economic uncertainty and the sense of not being in control of our lives is bound to cause psychological distress in most of us,” he adds.
According to Diane Young, an addiction and trauma specialist at South Pacific Private, being stripped of our freedom and control over our lives to stop the spread of COVID-19 can be incredibly debilitating and distressing. She says it’s a universal experience - we’re not alone in this. “Lockdown takes many of our choices away - how far we can travel, who we can see, if we can socialise or not, whether we are able to work, or not,” she says.
Over the past few months, Young says that many clients have talked of feeling in a ‘low ebb’. “This is about the loss of our human connection, our sense of sharing the day-to-day minutiae of our lives,” she explains. “There are many people who haven’t seen their families for up to 18 months – this impacts their sense of wellbeing, their mental health and not surprisingly they can fall into sadness and loneliness,” she adds. “Social isolation is difficult to navigate – we begin to feel like we don’t matter to others. We begin to feel small, and want to isolate more, to fall into binge watching TV and binge eating. We do this to feel some comfort and to numb ourselves from our aloneness.”
The reality of today’s world can be difficult to comprehend and lingering lockdowns that seem to never end can leave us feeling helpless and lead to a distorted sense of reality. “We can believe that we are in a never-ending trap and the sameness of our days can lead us to be in delusion about our reality,” says Young.
Dr Padhi says this is because lockdown often blurs the boundaries between work and personal life, which skews the perception of time. “We may find the days to be long drawn out and boring,” he says. “Lockdown contributes to a sense of social disconnect, boredom, fluctuations in mood and psychological distress which can cause a cognitive bias with a greater focus on the passage of time making it appear incredibly slow,” he explains. “As individuals we relate to time through important milestones in our lives, and in the absence of these landmarks we may feel that time has got condensed and our reality distorted by the monotony of our everyday lives.”
Young says for those of us who have been struggling with addiction, lockdown can make it easier for us to fall back into old patterns and adopt unhealthy behaviours, but it’s important to stay focused on our recovery. “Our addiction can escalate again when we feel we have no control over our future and our ability to tap into our recovery communities,” she explains. Dr Padhi agrees: “People may find themselves drinking and smoking more than usual and resorting to addictive and impulsive behaviours such as online shopping and gambling.” However, we have the power to reach out for support, and develop new healthy routines and new ways of thinking to help us cope during these unusual times. Lockdown is temporary and although this is an incredibly challenging period - one that we have never navigated before - there is help available if you or someone you love is struggling.
How to improve your mental health during lockdown:
Take time out for leisure activities
Allocate time to doing something that gives you a sense of satisfaction and/or achievement This could include trying out a new recipe, cooking, reading a book, listening to music, gardening, tidying up your workstation etc. If you have spare time, take up a hobby.
Try to stay connected
Keep in touch with friends and family through email, phone and other digital platforms. Set regular catch ups and check-in with others.
Responsible use of social media and digital platforms
Limit your screen time. Be aware of the time spent in front of a screen every day. Limit your time spent on gaming and use your social media to promote positivity and optimism. Make sure that you take regular breaks from on-screen activities.
Have a balanced perspective
Whilst it may seem daunting during lockdown remember you are not alone in this. Keep yourself well informed on the advice and recommendations from your national and local authorities. Follow trusted news channels, reduce how much you watch, read or listen to news that makes you feel anxious or distressed. Seek the latest information at specific times of the day, once or twice a day if needed.
Engage in physical activity
Engaging in some physical activity, exercise or even daily walks has been proven to improve mood and stress levels. Regular physical activity also has positive effects on blood pressure, reduces weight gain, risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes - all conditions that can increase susceptibility to COVID-19.
Develop a healthy eating pattern
Eating a healthy balanced diet is very important during the pandemic as what we eat, and drink can affect our body’s immune system and ability to prevent, fight and recover from infections. Eat a variety of food, including fruits and vegetables, drink plenty of water, limit salt and sugar, avoid junk food, do not skip meals and have regular times of eating.
Have a structure to your day
Try to maintain a daily schedule and have a balance between work and personal time. Stick to a sleep routine, maintain personal hygiene, take regular short breaks from sitting by doing five minutes of light exercise, such as walking or stretching. This will help improve blood circulation and muscle activity.
Avoid alcohol, drugs and gambling
Be aware of addictive behaviours and maladaptive coping mechanisms. Limit the amount of alcohol you drink or maintain abstinence, try and limit smoking or quit altogether. Stop misusing alcohol and drugs or gambling as a way of dealing with fear, anxiety, boredom and social isolation.
Think positive and be less reactive
Identify unhelpful ways of thinking and reacting. If you are always preoccupied with worst case scenarios, and negative patterns of thinking, frequently losing your temper, struggling to focus and are always stressed it is time to prioritise your mental health.
Seek professional help
If you feel unwell, are experiencing mood changes, constantly worrying or suffering from anxiety, struggling to focus or are having negative thoughts of hopelessness or life not worth living, seek professional advice. It is okay not to be okay and we’re here to help.
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