A perfect storm for mental ill-health

A perfect storm for mental ill-health

“The most amazing thing about humans is that we actually respond well to a common enemy”

BY Dr Debra Rickwood, 11 min READ

Our mental health and wellbeing is currently under a full-frontal assault from what’s happening with COVID-19. A perfect storm for mental ill-health is occurring – fear, worry, lack of control, social isolation, confusion, lack of direction, economic ramifications, boredom and feelings of hopelessness. It is completely natural to feel afraid and even have moments of pure panic – these are normal reactions to these abnormal times. Those of us who were already struggling with our mental health are at real risk of going over the edge.

But we are not going over the edge. The most amazing thing about humans is that we actually respond well to a common enemy and are incredibly adaptable and resourceful. We can and will draw on our collective strengths to deal with COVID-19 and exercise our resilience. While it is evident that the outcome for some people will be very serious, the vast majority of us will survive well and some of us will even thrive. We will learn, adapt and grow.

There is increasing advice and information available about how to cope in these anxious times. There are many different actions we can take, and I have picked those with good evidence. These are the ones that I am going to focus on and that I think I will be able to do. I am not good at following my own advice, but now is the time for me to walk the talk!

I’ve put together four tips to help Keep CALM – key ways to adapt and survive in these troubling times:

Tip 1) Connect

While we are being required to physically distance and even isolate from each other, connecting socially is now more important than ever. Humans are social beings and our social bonds are essential to our mental health. Loneliness is a killer. Now is the time to actively reach out – multiple times, every day.

We need to connect regularly with those we are close to, and also more widely to ensure that people with weaker social ties are not left out.

We will need to be innovative. Technology is critical – using voice and video-enabled ways to stay connected – virtual meetings, virtual coffee mornings, virtual book clubs, virtually watching TV or cooking together, virtual everything. As many ways as we can think of to stay in touch with each other.

Importantly, don’t just text! Text communication is not enough. It is essential to talk and also to see people and their expressions. We mustn’t forget in our new online lives that touch is also very important for mental health and wellbeing. While we are no longer going to be touching most people, making sure we touch the people where it is safe and appropriate to do needs to be prioritised – we need all the hugs we can get.

We must think about the people who are not well connected through technology. Many of these are the most vulnerable, such as people who are elderly. They will need help getting online in ways they can manage, but we will also have to connect in other ways (back to a good ol’ phone – remember them?).

Tip 2) Accept

This period is going to be especially hard for capable people who like to take control and make things happen (most of us women!). We’re going to have to learn to let go a bit and accept things as they happen, because there are too many things now that are way beyond our control. Trying to keep in control will be exhausting, frustrating and depressing (and contributes to behaviours like panic buying and hoarding).

Now is the time to learn to meditate if you haven’t already, and the time to put daily meditation/mindfulness practice into action if you have been lax. Whatever practice works best for you to experience some sense of relaxation, peace and acceptance. There are some great apps to facilitate regular mindfulness practice, which are free and easy to build into your daily routine. Life is unpredictably changing faster than usual and we will have to learn to go with the flow and live more in the moment—not mourning the past and fearing the future.

Don’t constantly stir yourself up through checking media and social media. While media keeps us informed, connected, distracted and entertained it can also make us anxious, angry, helpless and hopeless. Turn off and tune out from catastrophising and negative media – a diet of this is toxic and can become almost addictive. We need to harness the good of media – find the uplifting, positive and evidence-based media and stay away from the rest. Digital discipline is going to become more and more important to maintain a sense of mental wellbeing.

Tip 3) Lifestyle

It will be easy to slump on the lounge, bingewatch something, eat junk food and have a few drinks to comfort ourselves at this time. While a bit of time-out may be ok to start with, prioritising fundamental healthy lifestyle factors will become more and more important.

Basic things like having a daily routine, sleeping regular hours, exercise, getting outdoors, and eating well become challenges when the usual supports for these are not available. With people having to isolate at home and workplaces, gyms, restaurants, etc being closed, we’re going to realise how much we rely on these external structures and settings.

We’ll need to develop new supports for healthy lifestyles and it is going to take planning, innovation and a bit of discipline to do so. We need to structure our days, and have a routine that builds in the criteria for mental health – sleep, exercise, nutrition, connection, relaxation and meaning.

Tip 4) Meaning

For many it will be hard to stay focused and motivated while this virus runs its course―especially if your passion, major project or key goals are severely compromised. It will be especially difficult for people to put on hold the things that they have been working really hard towards. Rather than giving up and retreating to the lounge to get depressed, we need to maintain a sense of purpose by reworking our goals. This might entail thinking of very different ways to still move forward towards original goals, or it might require a complete rethink.

Setting small, realistic goals that are consistent with your values and that involve things you enjoy will help protect your mental health. If your usual activities are thwarted, you may need to think up something completely different. A lot of people with more time at home are likely to undertake some decluttering – this will be ok for a while but shouldn’t become an obsession. Once everything is cleaned and tidied to within an inch of its life, you’ll need something else!

It could be a good time to learn something new―take up a craft, get stuck into the garden, start to learn a language, virtually visit a museum, write poetry, play music. Seeing this period as an opportunity to do something you’ve not had time for but always wanted to do will really help. I have been thinking that I will work on sorting my photographs. They are in a total mess, on various devices and in boxes, albums, random drawers. It’s a big job that I can break into smaller bits to gain a sense of achievement and also find some joy from revisiting the memories. At the end of all this, maybe my photos will be sorted!

Lastly, there is no doubt that these are very troubling times and it will be normal to feel some fear, panic and despair. Give yourself permission to feel. Then focus on putting in place what you can to protect your own and others’ mental health. Let’s all be kind, compassionate and resourceful. And seek professional help if it all gets too much and we need to.

If you need help

  • Lifeline.org.au 131114
  • Beyondblue.org.au 1300 224 636
  • Updates on COVID-19
  • Further information on overcoming addiction during COVID-19

Dr Debra Rickwood is a Professor of Psychology at The University of Canberra and Chief Scientific Advisor at headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation. She’s a Premium member of Business Chicks, of course.


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