The Wire: Summer 2020 – 6 ways to look after your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

(Estimated read time 5 minutes)

6 ways to look after your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus has affected tens of thousands of people across the UK.

As well as the impact on physical health, experts have highlighted the impact of the lockdown on mental health, with unprecedented restrictions on people’s movements, and consequent isolation from family and friends, leading to a rise in anxiety and depression.

A major survey by University College London (UCL) has also found that stress levels were not improving as easing the lockdown started; indeed, this was potentially making mental health worse.

So, to help you look after your mental health during these uncertain times, here are six tips:

Learn something new

Researchers at the Universities of Pennsylvania, California Riverside and Montana all agree that learning something new (that is personally meaningful) contributes to wellbeing. 

An ideal way to do this is to learn a new word every day. While there are over 47,000 words currently in use in English, and most of us have a vague idea what about half of them mean, most days we only use around 5,000 to 10,000 of them.

Either open a dictionary at random and choose an unfamiliar word or sign up to a ‘word of the day’ podcast or email.

Harness the power of nature

Bringing nature into your everyday life can benefit both your mental and physical wellbeing. It can improve your mood, reduce feelings of stress, and make you feel more relaxed.  This could include:

  • Open the windows to let fresh air in
  • Buy pot plants to bring some greenery into your home
  • Sit somewhere you can see nature – trees, birds or animals
  • Use images of the natural world as your computer or mobile wallpaper
  • Listen to natural sounds wherever possible, and if you’re not near nature, then recordings or apps that play birdsong, ocean waves or rainfall
  • Get as much natural light as you can. Spend time in your garden if you have one or open your front or back door and sit on the doorstep.

Taking the nature idea even further, light gardening can mimic the effects of exercise, including lowering blood pressure, whilst improving your mood and self-esteem.

Other studies show that exposure to soil and dirt can lead to a more diverse, and therefore healthier, gut bacteria which can benefit both your health and emotional wellbeing.

Dr Josh Axe, a nutritionist and author of Eat Dirt says: “By throwing out antibacterial hand washes, which wipe out beneficial bacteria, and increasing your exposure to dirt by working in your garden and buying organic vegetables with soil still clinging to their roots, we can improve our health.”

Look after your physical health

Your physical health has a big impact on your mental health. So, it’s important you are looking after your body, by:

  • Eating healthy, well-balanced meals
  • Drinking enough water
  • Exercising regularly.

A number of large events in the UK including the London and Brighton marathons, have collaborated to launch the 2.6 Challenge in aid of UK charities. The idea of running 26 miles might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the initiative is designed to get everyone active and raise some money for worthwhile causes in the process. Have a look at their website if you need some inspiration.

Use mindful breathing techniques

Mindset coach Caroline Britton says: “No matter what situation we are in, if we can learn to dissociate ourselves from the thoughts and the tricks that our minds can play on us, that’s where success lies.”

One method for doing this is through mindful breathing. An easy place to start is the ‘3-4-5 breath’. Here, breathe in for three seconds, hold it for four seconds, and breathe out for five seconds. Do this three times a day, morning, lunchtime, and evening, for two minutes each.

Alternatively, as soon as you wake in the morning, sit up in bed in a comfortable position, rest your arms on your lap and bend your knees slightly.

Think about one activity you are looking forward to during the day – completing a project at work, reading your child their favourite story at bedtime, treating yourself to a nice lunch – and take 20 slow, comfortable breaths. 

Each time, breathe in through your nose, pause, then breathe out through your mouth. Use all your senses as you focus on that positive moment, what you’ll see, smell, touch and hear. At the end of 20 breaths, allow the image to fade. 

By doing this, you dampen any cortisol or adrenaline surges and balance your oxygen levels, while at the same time bringing positivity to the forefront of your mind. You have essentially tuned your mind and body to be maximally sensitive to what goes well today, rather than what does not.

Keep in touch

During times of stress, we work better in company and with support. So, it’s important to keep in touch with friends and family.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been a huge increase in the use of video conferencing technology since lockdown began. The Guardian has reported that Zoom was downloaded 2.13 million times around the world on the day lockdown was announced in the UK, up from 56,000 a day two months earlier.

You have probably used Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook’s Portal, Skype or FaceTime in the last few weeks to keep in touch. Another popular app to consider is Houseparty, a video chat app that lets you play popular games like trivia and Heads Up! with friends virtually through its interface. 

Even if you’re comfortable in your own company, have a think about friends or family who may be struggling. A call or message from you could make all the different to their mental health.

Stick to the facts

‘Fake news’ can lead to stress and anxiety, and in uncertain times it’s good for your mental health to use credible sources that you trust. Always fact-check information you get from newsfeeds, social media or other people.

You may also want to consider limiting the time you spend watching, reading or listening to coverage of the outbreak, including on social media, and think about turning off breaking-news alerts on your phone.

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