Clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Saqi-Waseem advises us about some ways to look after our mental wellbeing during this pandemic
The freedom to buy what we want, when we want and to go where we choose is something that many of us take for granted, wherever we are in the world, apart from times of war, conflict, natural disasters or if we are living under authoritarian and repressive regimes.
Covid-19 has challenged all of this. It has spread across the world with alarming speed and has had a massive impact on the global economy. Illness and death rates have risen in a seemingly unstoppable fashion. Shops have, at times, run out of basic food items and our health services are overwhelmed. The media is abounding with heart wrenching stories of families, split apart through self-isolation measures.
“Social distancing” is the catchphrase of 2020 and has changed our lives in ways that few of us could ever have envisaged. Certainty and routine have been replaced by chaos.
As our worlds are turned upside down, it is not surprising that many of us are left feeling anxious and worried. None of us have lived through anything like this before. Our bodies are responding to anxiety as if we were facing a physical threat. This is unsurprising given some of the war-like metaphors being bandied around by politicians.
Little wonder it is then, that many of us may experience a variety of bodily symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat, tingling sensation in our fingers or tightness in our chests. We may at times feel out of breath and all of this combined with constant reminders about the symptoms of Covid-19 only serve to increase our anxiety. This is indeed especially overwhelming for those who already suffer from health anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
However, our bodies are only doing what they are designed to do. These are normal responses to stress as our bodies prepare to respond to threat by “fight or flight”. Adrenaline pumps through the body at times of stress, which leads to the higher heart rate and heavier breathing. Because in most situations, “fighting or fleeing” is not possible, the adrenaline does not get used up as it should and we are left with these rather unpleasant symptoms. Certainly, it can feel like there is no hiding from Covid-19!
When in “threat” mode, our minds focus on the threat, making us less able to think rationally and clearly. Imagine being on a ship in the Arctic on the lookout for icebergs! It is unlikely that you will notice the scenery or stunning wildlife! Being in a state of threat makes it harder “to think out of the box” or to reflect on what is going well and what we can control.
How do we bring down our anxiety states? Relaxation exercises are really helpful as are simple breathing exercises, where one focuses on regulating breathing to slow it down. Yoga has also been found to be helpful in alleviating stress.
Once breathing is under control, this lowers the other symptoms associated with anxiety. So, try and practice doing this on a daily basis. There are many apps and videos that take people though such exercises. Engaging in regular physical activity also helps because it helps the body dissipate the extra adrenaline that results in stress.
We can stop looking for the “icebergs” by reducing our exposure to social media about Covid-19. Listening to reliable news reports once or twice a day only helps with this. Avoiding excessive social media content is also important. Most of the time, the content is subjective – one person’s view or interpretation of what is happening. So, choose content carefully.
We can choose to reflect on those things that are under our control rather than the ones that are not. For example, we do not know what is going to happen in the future regarding how this pandemic will progress, but we can take control of our health. We can try and eat healthily and make sure we are hydrated. So, focus on the things that are within your control, even if it is as simple as weekly meal planning. Establish routines to give your days and weeks some comforting structure. Avoid ruminating about worst case scenarios that you will not be able to control. Notice your worry and distract yourself by doing something else.
Many people who ruminate incessantly find that it helps to write down worries and put them aside and then address them in a “worry slot” – a time in the day (not close to bedtime) when you try and come up with workable solutions to your worry. Ask yourself, “If a friend came to me with this worry, what would I tell them?” Imagining your situation from the outside can often provide perspective and fresh ideas.
Social distancing is another measure that we must adopt to reduce the spread of Covid-19. However, not being able to go out freely in the way we are used to can affect one’s mood. We will be spending a lot of time with our family, when possibly, we had not done so for a while. Children will not be at school and spouses will be at home much more than usual. This can prove challenging! It is very important to establish regular routines as you would normally do.
Ensure you have structure in your day – eat at regular times, exercise, have time for “work” and rest. There are currently a lot of free resources being offered on the Internet that we can tap into. Check these out and get the children to adopt regular routines as well.
Social distancing in this age of technology means that we can keep up relationships with families and vulnerable relatives. Get the young ones to show you how to use your phones, tablets, laptops to connect via Facetime, Skype, Zoom etc.! They will enjoy demonstrating your incompetence to you!
Seriously though, it can be a good way to bond, reminding us and them of their strengths as they will be the ones who will ultimately have to navigate the new post-Covid-19 world, when this all ends.
We are a social species and maintaining healthy relationships with people that we trust is important for our mental wellbeing. Connecting with empathetic and understanding people can remind you that you are not alone during difficulties. So, make a point to connect with people who are going to help your mental health, rather than those who make it worse.
Evidence indicates that the act of helping others makes us feel better about ourselves. Check on the vulnerable members of your community, give food to food banks, donate to charity and most importantly, call them. Loneliness has a detrimental effect on mental health.
Whether you volunteer to help out those less able to help themselves or simply support a friend in their own time of need, you will get a sense of purpose and self-worth, all of which can empower you to grow in resilience.
Finally, what of prayer? I leave this to the end, because it is the most powerful behaviour you can engage in. This is a time when many will be able to pray regularly, unencumbered by the demands of external work schedules.
Prayer exercises the body and relaxes the mind. It reminds the believer that he or she is not in total control, but that there is a Higher Power that controls everything. We can only “tie up our camels” and implore His Help. Prayer reduces rumination as one hands over one’s worries and concerns to Allah, and implores Him, in His Mercy to remove them.
“Those who believe, and whose hearts find comfort in the remembrance of Allah. Aye! it is in the remembrance of Allah that hearts can find comfort” (Surah al-Ra‘d, Ch.13: V.29)