Why looking after our mental wellbeing is even more important now than ever

We are in the midst of a global crisis – one that will have far reaching and yet still unknown implications for our health, ways of living and economy, but one that is also already greatly impacting our mental health.

As the world goes into shut down and people begin isolating themselves at home, safeguarding mental wellbeing has never been more important.

Whether you are alone or are closing the doors around you and your family/housemates/partner/friends, we are all dealing with fear, anxiety, loneliness, restlessness, financial insecurity and a whole host of other powerful emotions in our individual ways.

We do not know how long this situation is going to last but it’s safe to say that, for the foreseeable future, life as we know it has stopped.

The fear factor

There are many ways that a crisis like we are dealing with now will impact our mental health (and because I believe the body and mind are intrinsically linked, our physical health too) but fear is the number one thing.

The word “pandemic” in itself instantly creates a culture of fear. Add in to that a daily bombardment of news, social media posts and behaviours (such as panic buying) as well as the real threat that we, or someone we love, might die and it’s no wonder so many of us are full of fear at the moment.

I don’t know about you but I always used to label fear as a bad thing. Something I didn’t want to feel or experience and I tried to avoid at all costs. This is futile because you can’t avoid fear and ironically if you never felt it you’d probably not survive anyway! Fear is an incredibly powerful thing. It’s sole purpose is to warn us and protect us from danger and it does that very very well.

But in modern life fear has become attached to so many things that usually aren’t actually life threatening that we can live in a constant state of stress and “high alert”. Now, of course, this current situation is a threat to our lives and the lives of others, but while a healthy level of fear may save your life by stopping you doing something that could endanger you and others, a heightened and consistent state of fear and panic may make things worse.

Stress is known to lower our immune systems. It triggers our “fight or flight” response and sends a flood of chemicals and hormones like adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol into our bodies, which is known to weaken our immune system, making us more prone to illness and more susceptible to catching a virus.

Overcoming anxiety

Humans are incredibly resilient. In the face of adversity many of us find strength we didn’t know we had.

Casing point. I am prone to suffering from anxiety and it can be absolutely crippling. So you would think that a global pandemic would have tipped me over the edge but it hasn’t. The reverse has happened. There has been a powerful shift in my mindset and I’ve managed, thus far, to get keep my anxiety under control. But how?

First and foremost when I’m too “busy” with work or other things in life, I am prone to letting my spiritual and mental wellbeing practices slide. I don’t have time, I tell myself, to pray, meditate, exercise, go to recovery meetings, eat properly, sleep and so on and, of course, when I don’t do those things anxiety takes the reins. So getting back to those things as a priority was the first step.

Limit exposure to news and social media

Last week as things began to escalate with the corona virus, I could feel my anxiety rising. My head was full of chatter: “My parents are over 70, so I have to stay away from them but I can’t cope without them; I live alone, how am I going to deal with being stuck in isolation on my own for all this time?; What will I do without my recovery meetings?; I am self-employed now, what if I get sick and have no sick pay?; What if all my work gets cancelled, how am I going to pay my rent and my bills and afford food with nothing to fall back on?; How am I going to cope if I get really ill and I am on my own?; What if someone I love dies; What if I die?” And so on.

The main perpetrator of all this head noise was that I was constantly on social media, reading every article, every rant, every fake news story, every conflicting opinion. My head was swimming and I was overwhelmed. And so I unfollowed everyone who was constantly posting about it; I followed people sharing positive or helpful content about mindset, community spirit and meditation and I scrolled past anything that did slip through the net without going down the rabbit hole. I then just checked the updated government advice once a day to keep myself informed. That instantly dialled the fear down and opened my eyes to all the positive things people are doing online amidst all the fear mongering.

Finding new ways to connect

As a recovering addict, isolation is a dangerous thing for me. There’s a famous experiment about addiction which says that isolation is one of the main contributing factors to it and that connection is the real solution – not just abstinence. I’ve shared this video before but will share it again now rather than go into all the details here.

I’m afraid of isolation, and rightly so – it is a breeding ground for my disease. And while addiction is not a virus, it is deadly. So staying connected is key, as it is for all of us during these difficult times, whether you suffer from addiction or not.

We are so lucky to live in an age where we can stay connected on the phone and online via video chats. I’ve used Zoom a lot these last few weeks as well as WhatsApp video calls and FB messenger. I’ve attended virtual events, joined support groups and chatted with friends and family to keep me connected. There are also online recovery meetings as I need my programme to keep me sane and sober, just as much after 5 years as I did in the beginning. I have more to lose now.

Meditation

Meditation is one of the most powerful tools against anxiety. It’s part of my regular practice – both guided meditation and silent reflection. I have been upping my game with meditations this week. I’m doing a daily guided meditation with Deepak Chopra, which he is sharing on his Facebook page and I’ve done a number of online meditations led by people in the spiritual and wellbeing communities – there’s lots being shared online.

I am also trained in Reiki, so I’ve been doing self treatments and I find tapping to be a very useful technique to calm anxiety. There are lots of videos on YouTube you can find to guide you through this technique.

Meditation and it’s accompanying breathing techniques are a powerful way to quieten the mind and induce a deep state of relaxation, which in turn reduces levels of stress.

There are lots of apps available to use for guided meditations. I have a Fitbit and that comes with a mindfulness section on the app, including meditations to reduce anxiety. I also use 10% Happier; the sleep cycle app on iPhone and Relax Melodies.

Turn it on its head: Find joy in the things you can do with this time at home

We don’t have much choice right now. For the sake of everyone in the country, whether we are ill or not, we are being told to distance ourselves from others and to stay home as much as possible. These measures are likely to become stricter in the coming days. Many people are also facing unemployment or have already lost their jobs; parents are having to home school their children; many of the things that keep us occupied on a daily basis have ceased/been cancelled or are no longer possible.

I don’t have children so I’m not placed to give families advice on what to do but this could be an opportunity to spend precious time with your children and loved ones. To do things we are usually too busy to do because of hectic work schedules and daily routines.

None of these things of course will change the fact that some of us are going through or experiencing incredibly challenging situations. For those who have lost work and are going to struggle financially or lose businesses this is a huge thing to cope with and I’m not diminishing that in any way. But when you can’t change something sometimes the only thing to do is to surrender and to deal with what comes your way on a day by day basis.

Here’s a few things I’m doing to be using this time to do to keep my mind in check:

  1. Reading – Reading my books and magazines. Reading is a wonderful and healthy way to escape. I try and always read positive and uplifting things to keep my spirits high. I’m currently reading The Universe Has Your Back by Gabby Bernstein and my Psychologies magazine.
  2. Practicing my guitar – I’ve been learning guitar for months now and I’ve made steady progress but I don’t practice enough because I’m “too busy”. My teacher is setting up online lessons so this is a good time for me to practice a little more.
  3. Exercising – I have a yoga mat, an exercise ball, a foam roller, weights, a resistance band and now an exercise bike so I plan to keep fit at home, but actually you don’t need any equipment to exercise, your own body will do just nicely! Things like HIIT workouts or yoga can be done at home.
  4. Life admin – All those jobs I’ve been meaning to do. Sorting through folders of reams of digital photographs, getting my accounts in order for my tax return, sorting out transferring my old pension into my current one and so on. We all have jobs we put off that we now have time to finally tackle.
  5. Spring cleaning – Giving the house a good thorough clean and decluttering. I have too much stuff. Cupboards can be sorted. Things can be used or put aside to be donated when it’s ok to do so. Rubbish can be thrown out/recycled where possible.
  6. Creative projects – Creativity is in our genes. Writing, painting, drawing, sewing, knitting, making things. These are all great ways to pass the time and have a positive effect on mental wellbeing.
  7. Time for TV – While I don’t want to slob around watching telly for months on end I have put together a list on Netflix of things I want to watch. I’ve personally tried to focus on positive and uplifting content rather than dark, frightening or depressing things.

I’m sure there’s plenty more I will find to do! For me, one of the only ways I am going to get through this situation, is to make safeguarding my mental wellbeing a priority. We can get through this. Let’s support each other and remember that only a few weeks ago what was dominating the news was #bekind in the wake of Caroline Flack’s suicide. More people than ever will be struggling with their mental health now. Use social media as a tool to connect and support, not as one to judge and tear people down whatever your opinions of them.

Vicky