Mental health amid Covid-19

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Samar Hafeez, Clinical psychologist and holistic health coach, Bangalore, India

We are living in uncertain times; there is no denying it. Self-isolation and quarantine are in effect across the world. This has almost become the new norm. In such times, it is absolutely imperative to mention that Covid-19 (the new coronavirus) is jolting everyone’s mental health.

We are facing inconvenience and loss in our daily lives, not to mention the disruption it is causing on our emotional, social, environmental and financial management. Widespread social distancing, drastic changes in stock markets, school and college closures, devastating news headlines, nationwide shut downs and lurking public health threat are contributors to unexpected mental health challenges.

Covid-19 is changing the face of the world as we know it; it is changing our perspective of ourselves and how we view others around us. Our resilience is being tested every single day.

How do we navigate through these unsettling times is the new question that we will try to discuss further in this article.

Firstly, let us take a look at some of the negative consequences of this disease on mental health Fear and anxiety Negative emotions are on the high; people are frightened, confused, agitated and restless. Major shifts in daily routines, loss of income, loss of jobs, working from home while taking care of children and household chores is overwhelming, which is causing emotional distress. It puts us in a state of adjustment and re- adjustment, thereby increasing pressure on our adaptive capabilities.

Bread winners are particularly anxious due to their health and the threat of loss of employment. This feeling of lack of control is mentally exhausting and intimidating. Being in a constant state of fear and anxiety pushes our body’s fight or flight response into overdrive. The result is that instead of helping us survive, it sets us in panic mode, which in turn makes us take all the irrational choices and decisions.

Health anxiety is another challenge. People feel threatened each day with the growing cases of Covid-19; they have intense fear of contracting this serious disease and often worry that minor symptoms may indicate something serious. A person may persistently clean themselves and their environment to the point where it causes them and others around them significant distress.

Being cautious up to a certain point is helpful, however overdoing health care practices can take a toll on general mental well-being. Social distancing and isolation We all understand the dire need to stay at home to prevent this virus from spreading; it is one of our best chances to defeat it, however it does come with negative consequences for many. As humans are socially inclined species, we live and thrive on face to face social interactions.

We all crave for get-togethers and family dinners. Any eerie and unaccompanied lifestyle seems unnatural and makes us uncomfortable, becoming almost unbearable. Loneliness, as we all know, is a precursor for depression, anxiety and mood instabilities.

Over time, it can make one more doubtful and distrustful of others, making them withdraw even more. But of course, solitude is not to be confused with isolation; you can be alone and still not be lonely.

Many individuals who live alone and who also see friends and family once in a while are mentally healthy. It is a subjective experience and only if you feel cut off from people and have no one to turn to is there a major risk factor. Anger When someone is restricted and forced into confinement, not being allowed to go on with their daily routine creates a sense of frustration, which undoubtedly leads to anger outbursts.

Impatient people can start displacing their anger on less harmful subjects like family members, children or even pets. Such behaviour strains interpersonal relations, adding to already existing distress. Depression and suicide With social life curbed and work life halted, people are feeling more and more disassociated and bored. Work roles form a vital part of who we are, in other words, it is a crucial part of our identities.

Many relate themselves with the work they do; when the self-improvement opportunities are taken away, people tend to feel low and dejected. When talents and abilities go unutilised or untapped, there occurs a sense of unhappiness and dissatisfaction, which further extends into causing depression and negative outlook.

Boredom can also lead to low physical energy, which lands you in an unending cycle of lethargy and laziness. People who feel completely hopeless, helpless and worthless in such distressful times often have a high chance of developing suicidal thoughts. Seeing death and suffering everywhere can shove a person into considering taking their own life in order to escape from the crisis.

Recently, a few positive Covid-19 cases who committed suicide have come to light. Fear of stigmatisation, guilt and shame are a few reasons behind such a drastic step. It is critical for a person or a supporter to contact first responders in case they or someone else are feeling actively suicidal.

Sleep disturbance and poor sleep quality Anxiety and fear has the power to decrease your sleep quality. Checking distressing headlines on news channels and social media platforms (especially when you watch just before bedtime) makes you worried and anxious, leading to physical agitation, which delays the time you take to fall asleep. Apart from this, inactivity, monotonous routine and sedentary lifestyles are associated with diminished sleep during night.

Avoiding naps during the day and following the same sleep patterns and timings everyday, even during lockdown, will help immensely to regulate sleep patterns.

Below are some insights that can help you navigate through these unsettling times.

1. Acceptance and awareness:

Many countries are in a state of denial regarding Covid-19 and its harmful impact. They still believe it is something minor and will vanish after a few months, if not weeks. Many are refusing to cooperate with the governments and are not adhering to public health safety measures. They are not only endangering their own health, but also that of their families and fellow citizens. It is undoubtedly hard to accept something this bad, but this, unfortunately, is a reality for now.

Being aware and by educating yourself about what Covid-19 is will prepare you to deal with the illness and to support those who get it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the USA, the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) and the NHS in the UK are just some of the organisations that offer authentic information and advice on what Covid-19 is and how to protect oneself from it.

2. Eat healthy, boost immunity:

Consider this time at home the best time to focus on your health. With restaurants closed and junk food consumption reduced, we have a great opportunity to learn and cook nutritious and healthy meals at home. Cooking is known to be a potential stress buster and a great distraction. Avoid snacking on crisps/chips, chocolates and packaged drinks and try to eat whole foods at regular intervals.

Eat plenty of foods containing anti-inflammatory vitamins like vitamin A, C, E and D. Minerals like iron, zinc and selenium are beneficial too. Vitamin C and D are known to improve immunity and reduce symptoms of depression. Including 2-3 servings of various types of green vegetables, colourful fruits, nuts, seeds and whole grains will give you, your daily recommended dose of vitamins and minerals. Avoid smoking, as it supresses your immunity. Maybe this is the right time to start thinking about quitting the habit for good.

3. Exercise!:

Schedule 15-25 minutes at-home exercises daily with or without equipment. If 25 minutes seems daunting, begin at least with 10 minutes of cardio exercises and later switch to strengthening exercises, or you can try a combination of both. YouTube channels have some interesting videos on simple and quick athome exercises. If your government has permitted going outside for exercise, try any one form of exercise a day, like walking, running or jogging. Daily exercise is proven to help manage depression, anxiety and to regulate sleep patterns, boost immunity and revitalise your spirits. Indoor sports and games with family are great add-ons to revamp physical and mental health. In addition to this, it nurtures quality time with family.

4. Pending work:

Complete tasks that you never get a chance to finish. As you are currently saving commuting time, use it wisely. Read books, journals, excerpts on spirituality and mental health. Download the Holy Quran app with Arabic text and English translation by our Jamaat. Also catch up on your favourite audio books. Enhance your existing skills or build new ones through online learning by enrolling yourself into online courses of your interest and upgrade your career opportunities. These activities will surely uplift and stabilise your mood, bring clarity to your perception and of course adds to your performance, knowledge and wisdom.

5. Catch up on sleep:

Sleep is exponentially beneficial to manage stress and anxiety. It also assists in building a strong immune system. Research suggests that people who are sleep-deprived are more likely to fall sick than those who are not. Try getting 7-8 hours of sleep at night and follow the same sleep timings, even in lockdown. A 10-15 minute afternoon power nap is enough to re-energise you, therefore avoid excessive napping during daytime as it will make you more inactive and flat.

6. Practice mindfulness and gratitude:

Being present in the ongoing moment is extremely important now more than ever. The more racing thoughts you have about the past or future, the more you tend to get confused. The mind associates very quickly with pessimistic thinking and makes it easy to be lost and submerged in thoughts that may not be real. Practising mindfulness and to teach the same is lifesaving.

Think of it this way; if one man remained calm, the whole group could remain calm, hence we all could survive. Meditation, deep breathing exercises with guided visualisations and chanting positive affirmations can definitely make you feel better. Breathing exercises and mindfulness are proven to instantly bring down physiological symptoms of stress and anxiety.

“You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.” (Elizabeth Gilbert)

Practice gratitude on a daily or even hourly basis. Count your blessings, for there are so many homeless people with not a single meal to eat and no access to medical facilities during this epidemic. Gratitude transforms the way you look at life.

Prayers are the best way to show gratitude to God and dua (prayer) is the best way to show gratitude to fellow human beings. Thankfulness and appreciation refines mental health and interpersonal relationships. During these times, medical healthcare workers deserve our utmost admiration and acknowledgement as they are risking their lives for our sake. We cannot thank them enough.

Providing home cooked meals and essential goods with notes of sincere appreciation would ease some burden on healthcare workers and will contribute greatly to their sense of accomplishment and mental well-being.

7. Do not panic or excessively complain and help instead:

Try to be the change you want to see in the world. Grumbling and whining can only make you and others around you feel worse. Giving back to the community. Helping others improves your own stress levels. Help others who are in need, casually call up your friends, colleagues (especially if they are healthcare workers) and neighbours to check on how they are doing. Emotionally supporting each other is absolutely necessary during crisis. Cooperating with the government to protect our fellow citizens makes us silent heroes of our respective nations.

On the other hand, avoid judgements and ethnic discrimination, blaming and shaming as this only creates discord, sadness and remorse. Be kind, considerate and generous. Know this: we are in this together, so let us fight this together.

8. Keep an active virtual relationship with friends, family and colleagues via video or audio calls. However, try and avoid unproductive social media consumption as excessive usage can only make you feel helpless and miserable. Look for reliable sources of national print media or genuine online news websites for your daily dose of exclusive news. Optimism and hope are twins, both of which have extraordinary healing powers.

People who have high degrees of faith, hopefulness, kindness and optimism are better able to hold up under trying circumstances, including medical difficulties. Covid-19 is perhaps the biggest wakeup call our time has seen; we should swiftly consider re-prioritising things that are essential for our survival and that are pleasing to Allah; things that can win His love, forgiveness and of course, good health and peace of mind. May Allah have mercy on all of us. Amin.

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