When Boris Johnson announced a UK-wide lockdown, my immediate response was fear and dread. Many people are currently living in fear of catching COVID-19, and understandably so. However, for some of us, this virus may present a greater risk to our mental health than it does to our physical well-being.
I find myself in this category. I have struggled for many years with recurrent depression and OCD, and I have learnt that getting well and staying well takes a lot of effort and persistence.
For me, it also takes consistency; change is my nemesis. A new job, increased workload, moving house or anything else new and stressful can threaten to trigger a relapse. Many of the things that keep me well involve getting out of the house. For example: going to work, being involved in a church community, playing with my wonderful nephews, socialising with friends, or simply stroking every fluffy dog I meet in the park! Lockdown has put a temporary pause on many of those things and has summoned back my old foes, change and isolation.
Let me be clear, lockdown is an essential part of fighting this virus, and it is important that we comply with these restrictions. I am not complaining about the lockdown, and I am immensely grateful for those still going out to work on the frontline. However, this crisis impacts all of us, and some will struggle with the emotional impact more than others. For instance, some of you may already be dealing with a mental illness and find that your treatment and support has been interrupted or reduced because of this crisis.
These are tough times, and a lot is outside of our control. However, thankfully there are still some things you can do to look after your mental health or, if already unwell, to help you recover. I’ve chosen seven to get you started.
1. Be careful what you feed your mind
We feed our minds just like we feed our bodies. Right now, watching the news excessively and constantly scrolling through social media is the psychological equivalent of drinking poison – it will make you sick.
More specifically, it may provoke anxiety, despair, increased loneliness and even hopelessness. Yes, you may want to keep up to date with what’s happening in the world and stay informed of ever-changing guidelines, but you should limit how much time you spend doing this. Set a time each day that you will engage with the news, limit that time to no more than 30 minutes and then put the news away. Unless you live in a cave with no contact from the outside world, other people will inform you of anything important you have missed.
2. Routine, routine, routine
Full disclosure: I hate routine. Routine is boring. I want to get up when I feel like it, stay up as late as I want and do my work at whatever time I choose. However, this would be a very bad idea. Sometimes the things which help us mentally are boring but necessary. Routine is one of these things.
Your daily routine has changed, so make a new one that you can stick to throughout lockdown. Plan a time to get up in the morning, a time to complete whatever tasks you need to, a time to exercise, relax and connect with others and a time to go to bed. Then stick to it. Making yourself go to bed at a reasonable time may be boring, but it is essential. Your brain needs sleep, so give it what it needs. If you struggle with sticking to schedules, don’t beat yourself up but do try again tomorrow. Eventually, you will get into better habits.
3. Go outside and exercise
I hate exercise. Believe me, I much prefer sitting on the sofa watching Netflix while scoffing a crème egg. However, the evidence is irrefutable – regular cardiovascular exercise improves mental well-being. It releases endorphins, increases energy and improves self-esteem.
The problem is when you are depressed or anxious, the last thing you can be bothered doing is going for a run or hopping on your bike. If your motivation has disappeared, then start small. If you have somewhere green within walking distance, then why not unplug, leave your phone at home, listen to the birds and notice the sensation of breathing in the fresh air.
Even if you prefer exercising indoors, make sure you still use that one permitted trip out every day. You may not enjoy it at the time, but you will feel better afterwards. If you are struggling to do this, ask someone to text you each day and check you have done it. And ignore your brain when it creates excuses to stay indoors – you really won’t freeze or melt in the rain, you have a coat for a reason!
4. Spend time with God
Just as physical health impacts you mentally, so does your spiritual well-being. Don’t get me wrong, mental well-being is not the aim of spending time with God, rather it is to deepen our relationship with him, be transformed by the Spirit and bring God glory.
That said, it also improves mental well-being. In this time of global crisis, the only true and lasting peace is the peace of God (Philippians 4:7). The only real comfort and hope is to be found in the one who has conquered death and gives everlasting life.
There is so much other noise competing for our attention, even in lockdown, so make sure you are taking time each day to listen to the voice that matters most. Cast all your anxieties on him for he really does care for you (1 Peter 5:7).
5. Connect with others
Good relationships are key to mental health, and yet mental illness can torpedo your motivation to connect. When I am depressed, I desperately want to withdraw from everyone and everything. Being around others feels exhausting and socialising can trigger self-critical thoughts such as ‘I’m so boring’, ‘nobody wants me here’ and ‘I’m a burden.’
However, withdrawal makes depression worse. Let me repeat that: withdrawal makes depression worse. Right now, we are physically distanced from one another, but we need to stay socially connected. So, pick up your phone and reply to your messages. If you live with someone, spend time with them. Say yes to that Zoom call and connect with the people who care about you. You may not want to, but you need to, and the more you force yourself, the easier and more enjoyable it will become.
6. Challenge unhelpful thoughts
Right now, your mind may be predicting worst-case scenarios or telling you lies about yourself or about God. For example, ‘my loved ones will definitely die’, ‘I am so useless for not being able to help’, ‘God must not be loving or in control’, ‘I will certainly fail my exams’ or ‘I’m a failure for feeling like this.’
Do not trust all your thoughts because thoughts can lie. Unhelpful thoughts left unnoticed and unchallenged can lead to anxiety, despair, inappropriate guilt or misdirected anger.
If you are struggling emotionally right now, then take notice of what you are thinking, write those thoughts down, and check out if they are in keeping with reality. If you feel anxious, perhaps write your worries down as they arise, place them in a jar and give that jar to God in prayer each day.
If you struggle to challenge negative thoughts by yourself, then share them with someone you trust and listen to their perspective on them. However, set limits around this, so you don’t ruminate on them all day. Most importantly pray that God will guard your mind and help you believe what is true and reject what is false.
7. Ask for help when you need it
Those of us who work in or are training in caring professions are notoriously bad at seeking help. Yet if you are struggling emotionally, this is the bravest thing you can do. Speak to someone you trust, phone your GP or make use of other support services.
However, maybe you have already done that, but now it feels like that help has disappeared with social distancing. I know things are more difficult, but there are still people you can talk to. Your GP or mental health practitioner has not disappeared and will be doing phone consultations. Many counsellors are offering online video sessions; crisis helplines are still running. A&E remains open, and the people who have been helping you still exist and still care about you.
This season will pass and face to face support will resume. Until then, focus on the resources that are available and do the things which you can do to aid recovery.
Written by Ashley Stewart. Ashley is a former NHS doctor and works part-time as a school counsellor as well as being UK CMF’s Associate Head of Student Ministries.
Reposted with permission from CMF UK Blogs.