MENTAL HEALTH AMIDST THE PANDEMIC
COVID-19 or any pandemic is a challenge for all of us around the world. Just like in any scenario, when there is uncertainty and things are out of control, we have fear which leads to anxiety and sometimes behaviors that may or may not be adaptive.This fear and anxiety is further triggered by our usual comforts not being easily accessible to us to help escape from the dread of having to adjust to new routines and new systems.It is natural for all of us to want to seek control when there is uncertainty.This is one of the reasons why we want to stock up more than we should, we hoard sanitizers, or even succumb to social media posts about ways on how to prevent from getting infected whether they do not have any scientific basis.WE ARE ALL AFRAID. What makes it more worrisome is how things will be moving forward.
Luckily, intrinsic in us is also a trait called Resilience. Simply put it is our ability to bounce back. Resilience is something intrinsic in us.It reflects how we can be adaptive, how our brain is dynamic and how it has the ability to learn.For example, people who have suffered a stroke learn how to regain the function of the affected body part through practice and rehabilitation.Because mental health is something abstract, we sometimes forget that mental and physical health are not separated from each other—rather they our well-being. And just like how we make activities, like exercise, to strengthen us physically, we too would need activities to take care of our mental health.This is so much important in times of crisis, because our own mental wellness will be the driving force of our willingness to FIGHT and hence our drive to SURVIVE this pandemic.We can help turn on our resilience gene by doing true practices of self-care:
Radical acceptance is accepting realities of life wholly and whole-heartedly, without resistance or the sense of complacency.One reality of life is that there are things that are within our control and there are things that are not.Often times, even before this pandemic, we have always wanted to focus on things that are not really within our direct influence—such as results in work, personalities of different people, health.When we do this, especially now, it just highlights the fact that we do not really have life at the palm of our hands, but rather, there are some things that happen that is beyond us.We can feel hopeless about it, but if we also sit down and ask ourselves: “What is it that I can control?”, you would realize that you’re not as powerless as you think!
In this pandemic, it would be difficult to control the spread of the virus itself, but within our own faculties, we can wash our hands, wear our masks, in fact we may be surprised of how much we can do when we ask ourselves to do what it can.
Practices like meditation may be relaxing for some, but it is also a tool for you to check-in with yourself.When we see our friends or our relatives upset, we are compelled to ask them how they are, but how come we don’t really do that to ourselves?Sometimes when we feel uncomfortable feelings, or are in distress, we look for ways to avoid it.Some of us drink, some of us just binge on whatever craving, overeat, anything we can do to momentarily escape.This is not complete wrong as sometimes we do need to take a break, but we should always go back in and check-in with ourselves—how are you right now?What do you think do you need right now?
Some practices of meditation also teach us on how to be that supportive friend towards ourselves.Meaning, being able to catch and soothe ourselves, without really relying on external factors that are not constant, to help us calm down.You can try apps, such as HEADSPACE, CALM or Insight Timer to help get into this.
With our current pandemic right now, sometimes what is highlighted in us are the comforts in life that has been stripped away.Work, physical touch, eating out, hanging out with friends—they’ve taken a back seat and we are left with the bare necessities and are left to cope by ourselves.Yes, it is difficult, the feeling of things not being the same and lamenting this “new normal” is truly valid. However, this is not the first time that the world experienced a pandemic.History shows that societies bounce back after pandemics.Sometimes because we are focused on losing comfort, we forget to be thankful of the one most important thing that we have right now—that one thing that the currently 685 Filipinos and almost 10,000 people in the world have lost.That most important thing is that you are still ALIVE. You who are alive will have the chance to rebuild. You who are alive will have a chance to go back to how things were and see a different future.
This is not to invalidate our feelings of loss over our usual way of living—no, it really is difficult. But don’t forget to also be grateful for the little things that matter.Being at home can be toxic, but at the same time, would you rather be at home or in the ER or ICU?Sometimes, heavy distressing feelings can be a blob that sticks to our day and makes it seem absolutely bad.At the end of the day it would be good to list down things that you’re thankful for each day.Even little victories, such as baking, spending time with family, or cleaning a part of your house that you have been itching to clean before the quarantine.Celebrating these “wins," no matter how big or small they are, also strengthens our resilience as sometimes you’ll be surprised at yourself that you’re able to develop other coping strategies than the ones you are typically used to.Listing things we are grateful for can also help us do, what we call, “positive reframing” wherein we see things in a more balanced way, rather than in a polarized, generalized, negative point of view.
LISTING OUR NEGOTIABLE AND NON-NEGOTIABLES
Part of the adult life is realizing that in life experiences can be a paradox.There are situations wherein two values can come in conflict.For example, people who are extroverted and sociable may feel really restless with the quarantine, but at the same time they cannot move because they want to also feel safe.Values in contrast here are “need for connection” and “need for safety”.In times of crisis, we become extra-anxious or stressed because of these conflicting internal desires.
Try clearing your head one day. Sit down, and then list down, what are your negotiable things in life and what are your non-negotiable things (what you cannot live without).Another question is, looking at the bigger picture, what is the most important thing for you right now (value)?Given these two questions, try to assess your non-negotiable list.Check how these things would contribute to your answer is question 2.If they are integral to question 2, ask yourself, how you can be flexible in doing the non-negotiable but still being able to uphold the value?
Example, for extroverts, if you need social interaction, but safety is important—how can you have social interaction but still feel safe?Perhaps, having regular chats with your friends online?
For those of you saying, but it won’t be the same.Of course it won’t, but that’s where radical acceptance comes in as well. Just validate that feeling, but continue on with the efforts your are doing to uphold your non negotiable and your values.
MAKE A SCHEDULE/STRUCTURE
Structure is very important especially when you are in a sea of uncertainty.Having a structure makes things predictable, which is something that would make you feel good as there is something you control.Try making a schedule for yourself, for your family, and when quarantine lifts, try making a structure to ensure infection control in your homes. You can make it creative such as making it a game for kids.If you have adolescents, you can also involve them by including them in the plan for structure.Now is the time for the family to come together and be efficient in ensuring that all of you are safe.
Having structure in place is also important for companies reopening after the lockdown.Safety planning and safety guidelines must already be in place even before employees come in.When employees feel safe, they can focus on their work more, which makes presenteeism and absenteeism less and work productivity higher.
SELF-LOVE AND COMPASSION
We are all suffering through this pandemic, not just you.ALL OF US, all over the world are suffering.For us to survive and be resilient, we must find reason in ourselves to fight and adapt through this bedlam; but also recognizing that it is not just us suffering, but those around us.This pandemic is unique because it promotes social-isolation, and sometimes this makes us myopic in how much our actions can also impact the lives of others. Since this is a public health issue, little things that would ensure the safety of others, such as wearing masks, observing social distancing, washing our hands, will go a long way.This crisis is teaching us that we have to expand our sense of self to include those people around us.Furthermore, this pandemic is also teaching us to trust in ourselves and just be open to life.
OPEN UP ABOUT YOUR PROBLEMS
There is a thin line between anxiety and pathological anxiety, especially in times like these.When you are having physical symptoms, such as decreased energy, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, psychological symptoms, such as overthinking or thoughts of self-harm; that are severe enough to impair your day to day functioning and performance of daily activities, please consult with your mental health professional.What is more important is to be vigilant about the psychological impact of the pandemic now and not wait for the time wherein it would develop into a full blown mental health problem.
It may also be good to have a safe, open, non judgment space with people you trust, wherein you talk to each other on a regular basis and support each other as you go through this crisis.
As one of our colleague in New Zealand eloquently described—this pandemic is not only a contagion of the virus but also of fear and anxiety.Until we have a vaccine, our way of living would be compromisedThis would bring a lot of hardships and difficulties, but it may also bring forth new character traits that we never knew we had.The beauty of us humans is that despite the vastness of life, our capabilities are also equally as vast.Just look at our history—how we have evolved from cavemen and cavewomen, to our advanced societies now.Humans are dynamic, we are adaptive, we are resilient.These traits are natural to us, but it is something that we have to commit to and activate.Like its predecessors, this pandemic will end as well. It is not the physical consequences of COVID-19 that will persist; rather it is the psychological aspect and the resilience and character we built through this crisis that would have a lasting impact for the rest of our lives.
Joyce Ann N. Maglaque, MD, MBA, DSBPP
General and Addiction Psychiatry