Looking after your mental health – 6 months on
August 13, 2020 by Lisa Bywaters
When we first entered this pandemic earlier this year we were hopeful. The situation we found ourselves in was a little surreal, but most of us were optimistic it would end quickly. There was even talk about a vaccine by September! So we (mostly) did all the things we were meant to do and got on with life.
Six months down the track we now have large numbers of active cases and deaths occurring in a second wave. And we’re realising just how insidious and grim this virus is. Just when we think we have it under control, new cases and clusters appear. Many people are back to juggling work and home schooling while under tight restrictions and curfews. And a lot of people have lost their jobs and are facing serious financial hardship. Most distressingly of all, many of our fellow Aussies have lost their lives.
We’re seeing this all play out in the 24/7 media cycle. It’s exhausting. It’s stressful. And we’re scared and angry. It’s no wonder many of us are feeling the impact on our mental health.
So what can we do about it?
Lots! There really are a lot of things we can do to look after our mental health during this time. And with no end date for this pandemic, the sooner we start to take care of our mental health, as we do our musculoskeletal conditions, the better it will be.
Note: These are general tips only. If you’re being treated for a mental health condition, continue to take your medication as prescribed, and keep in contact with your mental health specialist so that you continue to receive the support you need during this time.
- Check your routine. Do you have one? Or are you just winging it from day to day? We’re creatures of habit and thrive on our schedules. They make us feel like we have some control over our lives. But it can be hard to develop and stick to a new routine. You really need to work at it, or you’ll find yourself staring at your phone and socials for hours, or going to bed later and later, not sleeping well, snacking more often, and basically forming some bad habits.
So whether it’s just for you (or your household) create a routine. Or update your existing routine; what worked at the beginning of the pandemic may not work anymore. Things have changed so much, and will continue to change, so we need to adapt. And don’t forget to include time for leisure, fun and exercise.
- Don’t compare yourself with others. We all have the friend who appears to have it all – somehow during iso they’ve mastered the perfect sourdough, have juggled work and home schooling effortlessly, all while looking perfectly put together. So if you’re comparing yourself to that ‘perfection’ – as you sit in your tracky pants and baggy windcheater, not able to remember when you last washed your hair, and that pile of laundry on the floor threatens to engulf you, your kids are nagging and the dog hasn’t been fed yet. STOP! Stop right now.
First – no one’s perfect. We can never know what else is going on in someone else’s life. We all have our trials and challenges. Some people are just better at concealing them than others. Second – comparing ourselves to others isn’t helpful. Remember, most people only post on social media the things that make them look good. We select the best photos, we use filters and we crop and manipulate our pics so we look our best. Comparing yourself with others just makes us feel ‘meh’, so don’t do it.
And third – don’t compare yourself with others in a way that invalidates what you’re feeling. Don’t feel guilty for being upset, sad or anxious by telling yourself “that person is worse off than me, what do I have to feel sorry about?”. Our feelings are valid, they’re real and we need to acknowledge them.
- Stay in touch. When you’re feeling down, anxious or depressed, it’s really easy to become isolated. You just want to stay in your safe cocoon. Interacting and opening up to others can be difficult when you’re struggling – but it’s really worth it. Call someone. You can choose whether to open up about your worries and fears. Or you can just talk about things that make you smile. Past trips together, childhood memories, something that’s happened in your day that made you feel good. Keep the communication channels open. If you aren’t locked down or under restrictions, catch up for a coffee or a walk in the park.
- Get back to BACE-ics. BACE is a way to divide your daily activities into areas that promote self-care. BACE stands for Body care (e.g. exercise, showering), Achievement (e.g. chores, reading), Connecting with others (e.g. family, pets), and Enjoyment (e.g. dancing, movies). A recent ABC Life article explained that a “routine that has activities across all BACE categories is good for us because it releases good chemicals in our brain which are key to staying mentally healthy. That’s because: exercise releases endorphins, achievement releases dopamine, connecting with people releases oxytocin and physical activity releases serotonin.”(1)
So get back to BACE-ics and focus on self-care.
- Schedule time to face your worries and fears. We can’t get away from the worries of COVID and what the future may hold…it’s always in our face. In the news, on social media, in the eyes of our masked neighbours walking in the park . So acknowledge that you’re worried and schedule a time to process this. Don’t do it too close to bed time or you’ll be tossing and turning all night. Now look at them closely – really shine a light on what’s causing your worry, fear, anxiety. Try to come up with possible solutions or things you can do to lessen these issues. Or you may need to accept that some things are outside of your control. But once you’ve taken the time to acknowledge them – put them away. It’s not great for our mental health if we constantly focus on our worries.
- You don’t have to be perfect. No one is. Just try for your best – and give yourself a break here. Your best pre-COVID is different to your best now. So do the best you can in the circumstances you find yourself in.
- Limit exposure to the news. It’s full on and much of it’s grim. So pick a time when you’ll watch or read the news, and then tune it out. Don’t constantly check it. Another tip is to share the job of gathering the daily news with your partner or a friend. Take turns getting the latest, authoritative info. Discuss it, and then put it aside. That way you won’t feel like you’re totally immersed in the news cycle.
- Nurture your relationship. Whether you live with someone or your partner/significant other lives elsewhere, it’s important to nurture your relationship with them. Everyday stresses have been compounded by COVID, and can affect how we interact with the most important people in our lives. So schedule a regular date night or alone time with them. If you’re living under restrictions, especially if you have kids, you’ll need to be creative. And if you live apart you’ll need to resort to video chat, phone calls and good old-fashioned love letters (swoon) But you can do it! It’s important to give your relationship the time and effort it deserves. Dress up or wear something that makes you feel good. Don’t talk about COVID, schooling, work, finances or any of the usual worries. Talk about your favourite books/music/movies, your hopes and dreams, your fantasy holiday destination, reminisce about when you met, tell them things they don’t know about your childhood and growing up. Put some music on and dance in your lounge room. Have a moonlit picnic in the backyard. Or hold hands for a stroll around the local park. Whatever you do, make sure to take the time to cherish this relationship.
- Watch the self-talk. We can be horrible to ourselves, especially when we’re feeling down. “I’m fat”, “I’m hopeless”, “I’m a terrible mum/dad/partner”, “I’m a failure” – sound familiar? The critical things we say to ourselves really undermine our mood and our mental health. They can be so destructive. Some simple things you can do to negate these thoughts are:
- Ask yourself if you’d talk to someone else the way you talk to yourself. The answer is likely no, so don’t talk to yourself this way. This will take some practise, but keep at it.
- Ask yourself why you think you’re any of these things. And don’t be overly critical of yourself. Again ask yourself if you’d judge others with these labels, or so harshly.
- Address these thoughts. If you think you’re overweight, and that makes you unhappy, what can you do to work on this? If you think you’re hopeless, why? It’s such a vague concept. What makes you think it? Is there something underlying it, or you’ve just had a bad day when a bunch of things haven’t worked out as you’d hoped.
- Now give yourself a break. We’re all learning to live, work and exist in a really trying and stressful time, so we need to be kind to ourselves and others.
- Stay active. One of the best things you can do to boost your mood is regular exercise. When you exercise your body releases chemicals such as endorphins, serotonin and dopamine into your bloodstream. They’re sometimes called ‘feel-good’ chemicals because they boost your mood and make you feel good. They also interact with receptors in your brain and ‘turn down the volume’ on your pain system. Exercise has so many other wonderful benefits. It’s why we go on and on about it. And when you combine it with a bit of sunshine, it’s the best feeling ever.
- Do something for others. Focusing on others can take your mind off your own anxiety and stress. Send a letter or card to a friend just to say hello and let them know how important they are. Write a note to an elderly neighbour and offer to bring them groceries or take their bins out. Volunteer for a charity or community group. Check the Volunteering Australia website to learn about volunteering opportunities or contact your local community group, sporting club, park, school. Become a Citizen Scientist! There are research projects across Australia looking for ordinary people to take part across a wide range of sciences from animals to information and computing to water studies.
- Take time to listen. When someone is sharing their concerns/stresses/anxiety – really listen to them. It can be easy to leap into ‘let’s fix it’ mode because we want to help those important to us. But sometimes all someone wants is for their fears, concerns and worries to be heard and validated. If they ask for your help, then jump in. Do some problem solving together, but wait to be asked. Or ask if they’d like your help before offering advice.
- Be careful with alcohol and other drugs. Recent research by The Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) has found that since the pandemic began more Australians are drinking, and people are drinking more. While you might think alcohol makes you feel better, and more able to cope with your anxiety and stress, alcohol is a depressant and will affect your mood, ability to sleep and can make existing mental health issues worse. Find out more in this article from Beyond Blue. The ADF also has an online tool to help you change your habits if you’re finding yourself drinking too much.
- Talk with a professional. Whether it’s a psychiatrist, psychologist, mental health coach or a counsellor – seek professional help if you need it. You don’t need to put up with mental health issues – there’s help available. And the Australian Government recently announced that they’ll provide “10 additional Medicare subsidised psychological therapy sessions for people subjected to further restrictions in areas impacted by the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic…the additional Medicare subsidised sessions will allow people in eligible areas who have used their 10 sessions to continue to receive mental health care from their psychologist, psychiatrist, GP or other eligible allied health worker.”(2)
We often focus so much on our physical health, that caring for our mental health is pushed to the side. There are just too many commitments and other things competing for our time and energy. But we need to take care of our mental health so that we feel strong and resilient enough to get through these constantly changing and crazy times. This article has just skimmed the surface of the many things you can do to look after your mental health. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, sad, stressed, afraid or angry, decide to do something about it. You can feel better, you can take control. One step at a time.
If this article has raised some issues with you or you feel like you need help during this stressful time, there’s help available. Contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 for 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention.
Contact our free national Help Line
If you have questions about things like managing your pain, COVID-19, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (email@example.com) or via Messenger.
More to explore
- Additional COVID-19 mental health support
Department of Health, Australian Government
- An illustrated guide to BACE self-care
ABC Life, 23 April 2020
- How to stop negative thoughts from getting you down
- Looking after your mental health in an insane world
Musculoskeletal Australia, 1 April 2020
- Mental health and COVID-19
Head to Health, Australian Government
- Rediscovering small joys
Musculoskeletal Australia, 25 June 2020
- Sick and tired of iso? Hang in there!
Musculoskeletal Australia, 30 April 2020
- Taking a mental health day (and not feeling guilty about it)
ABC Life, Posted 29 August 2018, updated 17 June 2020
- Taking control in these uncertain times
Musculoskeletal Australia, 16 July 2020
- An illustrated guide to BACE self-care
ABC Life, 23 April 2020
- Additional COVID-19 mental health support
Department of Health, Australian Government, 2 August 2020
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash