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Practical Ways to Protect your Mental Health in Isolation

You only have to glance the aisles of the supermarkets to know that people have been considering the practicalities of being isolated in their own homes. But how do we address the impact that isolation will have on our mental health?

Understandably, there is a lot of fear, trepidation and anxiety around the uncertainty of our global situation. It’s hard and worrying, because…it IS hard and worrying. Covid-19 is the term upon everyone’s lips, and many things hang in the balance. If you’re experiencing anxiety, read my article on addressing coronavirus anxiety here.

I’m going to give you practical tips to protect your mental health as we follow government guidelines for the foreseeable future.

Make space

Whilst the physical space that is available to us will be limited significantly to normal, ‘space’ is going be harder to come across. If you are living with others, find ways to create personal space and quiet away from the noise.

Perhaps you agree a set time in the day where you take it in turns to have half an hour on uninterrupted quiet, set your alarm so that you wake to stillness. You might find it helpful to retreat to a particular corner of your home and put your headphones on.

Increased emotions

This enforced slowness may well bring to the surface emotions that have been hidden in the busyness of life. As the pace slows, emotions such as grief, fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, trauma and sadness may emerge from the depths of where they have been hidden.

It is important to find ways to to verbalise some of these emotions. It can feel vulnerable, but the only way to process, and soften emotion is to give it appropriate space. If you can, speak to a trusted friend or family member. Take little steps of openness. You don’t have to tell them everything straight away, but it’s important to validate and respect what you are feeling. You might want to speak with your GP, or browse these helplines.

Seek physical comfort

I don’t think we realise how much small gestures of touch positively impact our mental health until they aren’t possible. A hug, a handshake, the brush of an arm or the pat of a back – all work to make us feel accepted and appreciated. For some, the lack of touch is going to feel prominent.

If appropriate (strictly following guidelines relevant for you), increase physical contact with pets and those in your home. More hugs with kids or drag the cat upon your lap as you watch TV. If you are alone and isolated, wrap a heavy blanket tightly around your shoulders for a feeling of containment. It’s not the same, I know, but it’s something.

Hold house meetings

Your home is likely to be used differently now there may be more people there. Hold regular meetings in order to delegate responsibilities. With lack of commutes, and the home doubling up as a workplace, you may need to set new boundaries and adapt roles. Unclear boundaries, confused roles and mismatched expectations can cause resentment and frustration.

Be intentional not passive

Let’s face it, whilst we can hazard a guess and make speculation, we don’t know exactly how long we will be isolated. Our government are constantly assessing and amending guidelines.

Don’t put life on hold. We have a choice on how we view this period of life. If we see it as a waiting room, we may become passive, letting the days slip through our fingers as we wait for some kind of familiarity to resume. Or we can use this time to learn, grow, develop relationships and invest in things that have been on the back burner! There is absolutely time and need for quiet and rest, but being intentional about the way we choose to live could mean that we learn and grow positively as individuals and families.

Maintain the weekend

It could be so easy to forget what day of the week it is, but finding ways to maintain the structure of the week can be really helpful. Having the weekend to look forward to gives us something to lean towards as we complete another week. In our home, you’ll find relaxed rules, pyjamas at breakfast, a little more tv and more exciting snacks!

Combat boredom

Boredom is something that we have long avoided with busyness, and filling every moment with a scroll or a soundtrack. Boredom isn’t a negative thing, yet it has been something we have tried to avoid at all costs.

Boredom gives our brains space to process feelings and experiences. It allows us to daydream and get creative. Remember the pre-technology days when sitting on a train or a plane meant looking out the window, thinking, remembering. That was valuable time.

Boredom is uncomfortable when we feel anxious, or have suppressed emotion because the feelings and thoughts y come forward when space is found. Once we begin to find techniques that help us productively acknowledge and address our anxiety and any trauma, we can start to enjoy those moments of boredom.

These next few weeks are a great opportunity to do this. See my home based Reframing Anxiety Course (use discount code ra-save15), or my post on coronavirus anxiety to help with this.

Gratitude for the small

Grab a piece of paper and write down a list of 30 things that you are grateful for. Note how you feel beforehand, and how you feel afterwards. Gratitude is a powerful tool, it calls us to look at what is right and good in our lives, bringing balance and perspective.

Bringing balance into confusion

I’m going to tell you a personal story to illustrate this.

I remember being ten. I was with my younger brother, rolling sideways down a steep, grassy slope in our little village. We were laughing hysterically, swaying dizzily as we stood. The thing was, we were rolling down the slope of a graveyard. Short weeks after we stood there burying our sister.

It wasn’t that grief didn’t sit like an elephant on our small hearts, or that our cheeks weren’t stinging from the salty tears we cried. It was that, in that moment, there was joy. And we didn’t know to strip the richness of the laughter by focussing on the aching confusion and pain. We just let it be. Sure there were tears that came after. Confusion, vulnerability – it was all there. But there was also laughter and joy too.

There is pain, hardship, uncertainty. There are tears, grief, fear. But when we let ourselves see and experience the joy, or pertinence of the moments that we walk through, it brings balance. It brings perspective.

No feeling is out of bounds. You may find yourself feeling a multitude of conflicting emotions and that is okay. Remind yourself that you can feel frustration AND relief. Fear AND happiness. Grief AND joy. Feelings may sound they are contradicting one another, but we are multi-layered beings, the more we try and dictate what we should or shouldn’t be feeling, the harder it makes them to process, and therefore pass!

Seek support

If you are living in a situation in which you are in emotional or physical risk, or living in relationship dynamics that are harmful in some way. Please seek support. You’ll find details on how to get support for domestic abuse here, and relationship support here.

If you are concerned about your mental health, you can find some tips for anxiety here, along with some contacts for support. You might find it very helpful to connect with people who are in similar situations to you. Mind has an online peer support community called Elefriends .

Monitor digital usage

We are going to be leaning on technology and the online world more to entertain, connect and support us. The internet can be both constructive and destructive, and it’s important to monitor how we are utilising it. Scrolling to feel connected is one thing, but if we find ourselves embroiled in a cloud of unhealthy comparison that makes us feel worse, then it’s not so helpful.

Consider using apps to help monitor and guide your use of social media and how long you spend on it. Before you pick up your phone, consider why and whether you’re going to benefit from the way you may be intending to use it. If you want to explore this further, this page is helpful.

Find light relief

Watch or read somethings that make you smile and laugh, or pick up the phone to someone who never fails to raise your spirits. Laughter brings a welcome dose of happy endorphins, seek it and enjoy it.

Do something for others

Altruism is good for mental health. Helping others gives us a sense of purpose and accomplishment. What might you do to support those around you in any way, big or small? Perhaps calling an elderly neighbour, or dropping some groceries on the doorstep of a family who need them.

Instil routine

Building routine can be really grounding. Even though we cannot plan our days around the things we usually do, you can still benefit from the predictability of routine by creating your own. However, ensure it is lose enough so as not to increase stress. Ensure plenty of flexibility to allow for fluctuating mood and feelings.

I’d recommend getting up and going to bed at the same time you usually do. Get up and dressed and make the bed. It may be a good chance to tweak routine to benefit you, adding in things you don’t usually find the time for such as exercise or hobbies. It’s still good to do the things that make you feel yourself – like wearing clothes you enjoy regardless of who sees you.

Get fresh air

Regardless of what restrictions are placed on spending time outdoors, ensure that you are getting a dose of nature every day. It is known to improve mood and reduce stress. Get outside if guidelines allow can or sit on your doorstep with your morning cup of tea if you are able. But regardless, open the windows daily even if it means wearing an extra layer. Bring the outside in – bring a pot plant indoors, lie or sit and listen to the sounds that come through your open window.

Be productive

Feeling like we’ve accomplished something is so rewarding and enforces a sense of purpose. Consider what you might be able to tick off the to-do list each day. Maybe there is a drawer you’ve always intended to clear out, or the kitchen has been begging for a thorough clean. Perhaps your digital photos need sorting, and you’ve always meant to map out some photo books!

Stimulate your brain

Have you always wanted to learn a new language, master crochet, or have a pile of industry magazines that have sat gathering dust? Now is the time. Regardless of whether you are working at home or not, keep your brain stimulated, however don’t pressure yourself to have to do it all!

Setting yourself a task or a project gives something to work towards and it’s always really enjoyable to see progress in your skills! There are lots of apps that help your learn languages, podcasts to give insight into different topics. What’s more the FutureLearn and OpenLearn websites offer some free online courses!

Keep connected

Pick up the phone and have voice to voice discussions with friends and family. It’s easier to simply send messages, but visual and voice calls give more of a sense of being with that person. It’s not the same as physically being with someone, but it’s beneficial in maintaining relationships. Text messages can be easily misunderstood too, so seeing and hearing someone adds context as you can hear tone of voice and see expression.

Seek at least one voice-to-voice conversation per day, especially if you’re alone. If you’re not able to do this, listen to talk shows on the radio to provide a sense of verbal company.

Get creative

In stressful or worrying times it can be a welcome relief to get respite from our own thoughts. Flow activity examples are colouring, jigsaws, painting, sudoku, playing board games or cards and other activities in which you lose track of time! The world around you quietens and stress is calmed.

Increase self-care

Our main excuse for not engaging in self care has been that we are too busy. But now the busyness has been stripped away, if you still find it hard, it’s often because you don’t believe you are worth acts of kindness towards yourself. Address your internal dialogue. Living in a home with an internal bully isn’t going to be helpful at all. Start to introduce a more kind and compassionate voice, and hopefully you’ll then find it easier to engage in acts of nourishment.

Move

Whatever your experience of exercise, now is a good time to routinely engage in it at home. We are so fortunate that the digital world offers many free workouts for all levels of experience and fitness.

Whether you engage in some gentle movement, or something more intense, all you need is space for a mat. Exercise is brilliant for both mental and physical health as they are inextricably linked. Find something suitable for your fitness level, and perhaps find an app or Facebook group that encourages a sense of community and

Eat well

In stressful times it’s increasingly tempting to comfort eat. However, this is such a good time to consider how you might eat well for mental health. Eating well has a positive impact on both our physical and mental health, whereas consistent overindulging makes us feel sluggish. If you struggle with this, and would like some further support, visit the BEAT website.

Cooking itself can be therapeutic. If you’re a sofa eater, challenge yourself to head to the table for some mealtimes. If you don’t have people to eat with at home, try a FaceTime dinner date. With online supermarket deliveries in high demand, batch cooking healthy, warming, balanced meals will get more out of your order.

Pep talk

I just wanted to finish with a pep talk. I so wish I had the answers, but I don’t. So see this as a metaphorical hand on your shoulder. This is a tough time of unchartered territory. The ground on which you stand has been shaken and we are all stumbling around trying to find ways to navigate the constantly changing guidelines and rules. There is collective grief, grief for the things that are no longer as we know them, fear for the health of those we love. Be kind to yourself, there is no map. Lower your standards of what you ‘should’ be achieving. You will get into a groove in time. The forced slower pace will become a new kind of normal, the and jarring sense of uncertainty and fear will blur. Focus on today, this moment. Use all the support mechanisms available to you. Anchor yourself in the things you know to be true so that they bring balance to the unanswered questions. It’s hard because it is hard. It’s tough, because it’s tough. But so are you.

 

 

Dealing with coronavirus anxiety

(My Reframing Anxiety Course goes into significant depth on health anxiety, but I’ve been asked numerous times a day to write about how to handle Coronavirus anxiety, so I am putting some of my tips into context).

Perhaps you find yourself obsessively checking the news for fresh articles on Coronavirus or scouring updated statistics. Maybe you are constantly symptom checking, washing your hands until they are raw, feeling consistently fearful or tearful, and playing potential scenarios through in your mind. Perhaps you have gone through trauma or grief that is heightening your fear of the virus.

There is an air of anxiety and fear around coronavirus due to the shared stress and uncertainty it brings. It is dominating conversations, lining news shelves and flooding social media feeds. Supermarkets are being swept and diaries cleared.

Anxiety likes a focus, to ruminate on specific things. Anxiety mainly focusses on circumstances out of our direct control that have potential, unpleasant consequences. If you have experienced anxiety around health previously, Coronavirus is understandably going to be a trigger for you. In addition, your anxiety may well be raised due to being or knowing someone who is vulnerable or considered to be within an ’at risk’ group.

 

What you want.

Anxiety is exhausting isn’t it? When we fixate on the things that trigger it, we find ourselves less able to rationalise our thoughts and ground ourselves. Anxiety occupies headspace, and casts grey shadow over the more enjoyable emotions that make you happy! If your anxiety about coronavirus is impacting your ability to enjoy the things you usually do, or you’re finding yourself pre-occupied with concern, this article is for you.

I could research and reel off a ton of statistics about the likelihood of you or someone you know being impacted by the coronavirus, but the reality is, you’ve probably seen many of those stats. And just as the theories do, the stats are often conflicting. Leaving you wondering who or what to trust, and where to turn.

What you want is reassurance. Someone to take you by the shoulders and promise you that all will be just a-okay. However, just as with anything in life, nobody has the ability to make truthful statements based on an unknown future.

Nobody can reduce their risk of illness to zero, just as no amount of money in the world could secure a future without any illness. Therefore, the most helpful thing for me to do, is to help you find ways to deal with the uncertainty we live in.

However, there is hope! Anxiety doesn’t have to rob you of your enjoyment of your health, or the times you share with your family. It doesn’t have to have you awake at night pondering the possibilities, and ruminating repeatedly over contingency plans.

 

How to help keep your anxiety at bay:

Be kind to you

Firstly, have compassion for yourself. When we feel fearful, we need compassion and guidance. Ridicule or criticism coming from others or yourself isn’t helpful. Whether those around you understand how you feel or not, try and cultivate some compassion towards yourself because it’s not your fault that you feel heightened anxiety right now.

It might be that you or someone close to you are immunosuppressed, at higher risk. Maybe you know and love someone who’s health is already challenged, and you feel terrified that this might impact them. You may have a history of trauma or anxiety, or a fear of losing someone close to you that has rushed to the forefront.

Whatever your experience, whatever is causing your anxiety, shaming and berating ourselves keeps us stuck. Not everyone will relate to your experience (although many will), but it doesn’t mean that your anxiety is less valid or your feelings less valuable and worth addressing. If you find yourself feeling frustrated, consider how you would reassure a friend, and try to use that supportive and understanding voice towards yourself.

 

Limit your exposure to news

At the moment, it’s hard to wade the reams of coronavirus articles to learn of other newsworthy topics! You may find yourself glued to the TV or flicking between news apps, on the hunt for something that will reassure you.

However, when we feel anxious, we are less able to rationalise what we read, and more likely to overemphasise the negative. Nobody has specific, certain answers about the prognosis of the coronavirus, so many articles are full of conflicting speculation. You might find it helpful to abstain from watching or reading the news, and asking someone trusted to relay any pertinent messages to you verbally instead.

Constantly checking for updates and theories fuels anxiety. As you find yourself opening a search window, pause, and ask yourself what you’re going to gain. Knowledge isn’t power when we are overwhelming ourselves with it. Searching for too much information, or searching in the wrong places can be disempowering, confusing, conflicting and frightening. Cut out the noise by choosing to stick to the facts:

https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses

 

Stick to guidelines

Out of care for our own health, and respect of the health of those around us, it’s wise to educate ourselves on recommended protocol. We cannot sterilise our environment, but we can take simple preventative actions that are statistically known to reduce risk of experiencing any infectious illness. These are good techniques to instil regardless of what bugs are circulating at any time of the year.

Current advice: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-51711227

If you are someone who is at additional risk to infectious illness, please do follow the official guidelines set for you.

These are the actions we have been advised to take by those acutely experienced and knowledgeable on how infectious illnesses spread. They will be looking to neither under-advise us, or over-advise us. Their overwhelming focus and aim is to halt the spread of infectious illnesses.

 

Make plans and then tuck them away

It’s always wise to have a contingency plan in place. Whether you have a plan for remote working, or what you’d do if you needed last-minute childcare. It’s helpful to consider these things regardless of what illnesses are around. Life is certainly known to throw the odd curveball every now and again, so having considered things like this will help reduce stress should you ever need to put things into action.

The important thing is that once you’ve considered your plan, tuck it away in the back of your mind, or on a piece of paper in a drawer. Look at your plan like the war bunker. It’s there, it’s available for when it’s called for. Let it be a reassurance that it’s there should you need it. Revisiting it, adding to it, playing it out in your mind like a film, extending it with ‘what ifs’ and overthinking will add to your anxiety.

It’s always good to keep medication up to date and your medicine cabinet well-stocked, just as it’s good to keep fuel in the car and change in your purse. Follow what is in line with current World Health Organisation and NHS advice, and question when you might be pushing that boundary out of fear and anxiety so that you can apply some supportive techniques.

 

Limit discussion

When discussing coronavirus with friends or family, some people’s opinion and approach will fuel your anxiety and some will calm it. Limit how much you talk about it and when you do, choose to speak to those who are supportive and ground you. If you feel your anxiety levels increasing when discussing the virus, make an excuse to end or step away from the conversation. Discussing it with those who are also experiencing anxiety will likely reinforce your fears and increase your own feelings of anxiety.

 

Maintain healthy routine

Eating well, giving yourself the best chance to get good sleep and adequate rest, and exercising in whatever way you most enjoy is brilliant for both your mental health and your immune system.

Consider any habits that could benefit from a bit of a tweak because perhaps they add to feelings of anxiety (e.g drinking too much caffeine or alcohol) and get support in addressing them if needs be. Again, this is a good thing to do for your future, let alone the current climate.

 

Ground yourself in the present

Feelings of anxiety are triggered when we focus on negative, future unknowns and uncertainties. The difficult thing, is that we aren’t creating stories about alien invasions, they tend to be fears based in potential realities, that have not, or may not happen.

The more we think about a fearful scenario, the more our body and nervous system will respond with physical symptoms of anxiety (such as increased heart rate, stress hormones, panic attacks). We can interrupt this process by stopping the whirlwind of our thoughts in their tracks.

There are many techniques that can help halt overthinking by shifting our focus from the unknowns of the future, to the realities of the present moment. Some of my favourite techniques are:

  • Count backwards from 100 in 3’s.
  • Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.
  • Take a walk outside, breathe deeply and pay close attention to the things you see
  • If you have any physical feelings of anxiety, do ten rounds of grounding breaths to calm your nervous system. Breathe in deeply for four, and steadily exhale for a count of 6-8 (dependent on what feels most comfortable)
  • Utilising a guided meditation app such as ‘Headspace’ or ‘Calm’

Use these techniques as soon as you feel your mind begin to overthink or catastrophise. Practice them as you fall asleep. Use them when you don’t need them so that when you do, they feel familiar and instinctive.

 

Check in with your decisions

Note the decisions you might be making for yourself or your family. If you notice that you are taking steps outside of the advice recommended, then consider whether the motivation is based on facts or fear.

Maintaining your normal day-to-day life where appropriate promotes a sense of normality for yourself and those around you so stay connected with others. You might find it helpful to increase contact in an appropriate manner with those who have historically had a positive impact on you and your mental health.

 

Introduce gratitude

Challenge yourself to write a list of ten to thirty things you are grateful for. You might start off with the fundamentals such as family and your home, but the more you jot down, the more you are called to reflect on the things we take for granted, such as movement, sight, warmth, sunshine.

Return to your list when you feel like your mind is leaping ahead into the unknown. Gratitude draws our attention away from what could go wrong, to what is currently right.

Gratitude brings perspective. It ushers us to look at the things in our life that give us joy, and when we think about these things, it makes us feel good! It helps anchor ourselves in the present moment, distracting our busy minds from getting carried away in the torrent of ‘what ifs’.

You might find it enjoyable to re-engage in an old hobby, distract your mind in the pages of a novel. Either way, explore ways to put your energy into what’s most important and what makes life worth living for you. Anxiety takes up so much of our energy, so it’s helpful to find other ways to use and distract this energy if we can, in things that feed and energise, rather than take from us.

 

Be mindful of assumptions

Be mindful of your assumptions. Assumptions that aren’t based on fact or rationality feed our anxiety. It might be that you find yourself feeling that everyone who has a cough or fever has coronavirus. Of course, exercise caution as advised. However, if your assumptions are negatively or unnecessarily impacting your decisions and feelings, then deal with them as anxiety fuelled thoughts.

 

Find a mantra

Personally, I find it really helpful to have a phrase, sentence or ‘mantra’ that I can recall at times of anxiety or stress. I find it quite anchoring and comforting.

My current favourite mantra is: ‘Everything is okay now. And ‘now’ is the only thing that is real’.

Here are some other ideas:

I let go of fear

I return to now

I am here

Feelings aren’t facts

 

Anxiety support

If you are experiencing overwhelming levels of anxiety, or notice a strong link with trauma, please seek additional support.  If  isn’t the first time you have experienced it, it is worth addressing. Here are some websites or resources you may find helpful:

My Reframing Anxiety Course

Read details and reviews here.

This is a 3-week guided course you do at home, taking no more than 5-10 minutes per day. It addresses all types and levels of anxiety, including health anxiety. Use the discount code ra-save15 if finances are a hurdle for you.

Mind

A charity offering information and support for mental health. Read more about anxiety and how you can help those struggling here.

NHS website

Find information on anxiety and facts on coronavirus here.

GP

How can your doctor help you with anxiety? Find out more here.

Sane.org.uk

A charity offering support for mental health, including a helpline and peer support. Find more here.

 

 

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