Mental health and coping in times of a pandemic

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It’s time for the Mental Health Care Act and the Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Action Plan to be reviewed. Picture: iStock/Gallo images
It’s time for the Mental Health Care Act and the Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Action Plan to be reviewed. Picture: iStock/Gallo images

The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on the nation and world. Every aspect of our lives is subjected to severe restrictions – academic, social, religious or spiritual, physical and economic.

The importance of adhering to the national lockdown regulations, especially regarding social distancing, cannot be emphasised enough and, while we may understand the reasoning behind such measures, the emotional and psychological effects of the virus need to be talked about.

The sudden and dramatic restriction of personal freedom, and the juggling of multiple roles and activities in the course of the day, may have left many feeling disoriented, overwhelmed and resentful.

Read: Coping mentally during self-isolation 

We rely on our daily routines to give us a sense of structure, predictability and safety; they influence our goals, plans, motivation, energy and productivity levels. These routines that we take for granted have been replaced by a more fluid, often messy, cramped and chaotic monotony.

This new reality in the lockdown era has given rise to many different experiences and emotional states that can vary from person to person, but are also common among individuals.

It is important to acknowledge and understand the range of thoughts, emotions and behaviours that we all might be experiencing during this period. These include a heightened sense of vulnerability, panic, fear, frustration, irritation, anger, resentment, helplessness, boredom, lethargy, demotivation, aimlessness, emptiness and despair.

Severe disruptions to our personal, academic and professional lives may also profoundly affect our sense of identity integrity as we struggle to negotiate and balance competing pressures and demands – all in one confined space.

Read: How to manage anxiety and get things done in a time of uncertainty

Humans are inherently social beings, and the social restrictions put in place for our own health and safety may, ironically, result in feelings of isolation, loneliness, despair, anxiety and depression – particularly among people with a history of anxiety or depression.

Covid-19 has forced us to drastically alter the way in which we think and behave in every sphere of our lives. Here are some guidelines and strategies to help you survive this very challenging period.

A universal challenge

While the Covid-19 pandemic has had an adverse effect on lives to varying degrees, in particular, one cannot generalise nor minimise the unique difficulties of marginalised and vulnerable communities during this challenging time, including the elderly, and those living in poverty, who lack access to basic necessities such as shelter, food, water and adequate living conditions.

However, recognising that this coronavirus is a universal experience will assist in gaining some degree of perspective in an otherwise overwhelming situation.

Governments, health departments and financial, social and religious institutions have also been dramatically affected, as efforts are being made to try to curb the problem. Take one day at a time, and view each day that passes as a challenge that you have successfully overcome.

Starting a gratitude list or gratitude journal will also help with improving perspective.

This new reality in the lockdown era has given rise to many different experiences and emotional states that can vary from person to person, but are also common among individuals
Paulette Naidoo

Control

Very often, we experience frustration, helplessness and despair when we try to control matters that are beyond our control.

Be realistic about what aspects of Covid-19 you can control, and those you cannot. Aspects that are within your control include responsible and safe hygiene practices, educating yourself about the pandemic, and complying with social distancing and lockdown regulations.

How you manage your time, and what you prioritise and focus on during the lockdown period are also things you have control over. Channelling your energy into activities that you can control and that provide tangible, positive results will lead to feelings of self-mastery and a sense of accomplishment that will sustain you during this challenging, protracted period.

Use time constructively

Conscious efforts to establish structure and routine will help create an atmosphere of normality and control in an otherwise extraordinary situation. Structure helps to promote consistency, safety, security and self-discipline.

You can structure your time by devising a daily routine that is specific, clearly defined and yet also flexible enough to accommodate changes and competing demands that may arise during the day. This requires time management, a TO-DO LIST and prioritising of tasks.

Your TO-DO LIST should include, as far as is reasonably possible, basic and essential activities that you would normally do. Use a diary or time management sheet to allocate times for each activity, such as assignments, research, reading, exercise and leisure.

Explore untapped potential

Explore and develop skills that you’ve always wanted to, but “never have the time for”, such as learning a new language, an art or a craft. Work on that business plan you always wanted to do. Review and update your CV.

Limit media exposure

Constant exposure to information on the Covid-19 pandemic can lead to information overload, and feeling overwhelmed and helpless. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “a near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel anxious or distressed”.

Seek information updates and practical guidance at specific times during the day from health professionals and the WHO’s website, and avoid listening to or following rumours that make you feel uncomfortable. It is important to strike a balance between staying reliably informed and temporary detachment for self-care.

Holistic self-care

Give yourself permission to relax and nurture yourself. Take time to unwind by doing things that you enjoy.

Eat healthily, exercise regularly and practice relaxation techniques. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Explore and nurture your spirituality. Maintain and strengthen your social support system. Communicate and reconnect with others who inspire, encourage and support you.

Naidoo is the director of student counselling at the Mangosuthu University of Technology

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