Healthy coping strategies for a global pandemic

The first anniversary of the Covid-19 global lockdown just passed recently … (deep breath) … Remember when we went into our first three-week hard lockdown? We were so worried about how those three weeks would disrupt our lives. Little did we know that the end would still be nowhere in sight.

Our lives have changed dramatically and we have no idea how long this will still continue, although some knowledgeable people speculate it could be with us for at least the next year or longer.

It’s no wonder, then, that there have been significant spikes in reports of stress, anxiety and depression worldwide. As reported by Aljazeera, "a study conducted by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, released in March, the global prevalence of depression and anxiety during Covid-19 was 24 percent and 21.3 percent respectively".

This is a massive increase. The same reports states that before the pandemic, "in Asian countries, the estimate of depression prevalence ranged from 1.3 to 3.4 percent. Rates of anxiety in Asia prior to Covid-19 ranged from 2.1 percent to 4.1 percent, while in Europe estimates of anxiety prevalence prior to Covif were between 3 percent and 7.4 percent".

In SA, the additional challenges we face as a society can only make our anxiety more acute. 

Coping with Covid

This uncertainty and the concrete realities of Covid-19 has had an enormous impact on our mental and emotional wellbeing - we probably won’t understand its full extent for years to come.

It is only human to feel anxiety for the health and livelihoods of ourselves and our loved ones and frustration at not being able to be the social animals we are. It would also be impossible not to be affected by the evidence of suffering we see before us daily in our greater community. 

It’s not only the circumstances but also the length of duration that is wearing, because we don’t know when this will all end. 

Covid ‘fatigue’ is real

We’re not talking about the kind of fatigue people feel after having Covid-19 here, but rather the emotional exhaustion we feel after months of Covid being front and centre in our lives. Most of us have had enough. 

The danger of this sentiment is that it can make us careless and less careful about our safety precautions (sanitising, mask-wearing, distancing). And people report intense emotions, inability to concentrate and poor sleep patterns.

So how do we cope with the unrelenting intensity of this experience? How do we stop our thoughts spiralling of control, comfort-eating every carb in sight, sleeping too much or lying awake worrying?

We need to develop healthy coping habits that benefit our physical, mental and emotional health.

Distraction vs mindfulness

As any medical expert will attest, living in a prolonged heightened state of stress is not good for our physical or emotional health. For many of us, distraction has been the answer, but binge-watching series and conquering sourdough bread are short-term solutions, as they can have an effect on our physical health, not to mention our waistlines.

Mindfulness practices that help us to ‘be in the moment’ are healthier way to channel our minds away from anxious ruminations about the past, present and future. 

Just (inhale) breathe (exhale)…

Breathing practices or techniques are known to reduce stress and help us self-regulate.

In a very useful – read it! - article by University of California San Francisco - Emotional Well-Being and Coping During Covid-19 – the author explains the basic principles of this type of conscious breathing: 

“The most basic thing to know is that taking a longer exhale than inhale can help calm your body. Easy techniques include slow diaphragmatic belly breathing (vs. chest breathing), a 2:1 ratio for the exhale (i.e., inhale to the count of 4, exhale to the count of 8); 4-7-8 count breathing, and a common yogic alternate nostril breathing (pranayama).”

Make the practice even more mindful and ‘in the moment’ by saying to yourself “I am breathing in” as you breathe in, and “I am breathing out” on the outbreath. On the next circle of breath, say to yourself, “I am here” and “This is now”, as advised by positivepsychology.com.

These techniques are very simple but effective, they cost you nothing and can be done several times a day.

Get moving – mindfully

Movement practices such as yoga, tai chi and qi gong help our bodies and minds to relax and become centred. They help by stretching the body, loosening tension, ensuring we breathe deeply and stilling the mind.

More energetic forms of yoga also give us a physical workout, which helps with release of feel-good hormones endorphins.

Find the type that works for your fitness level and preference.

During Covid, many studios have taken their lessons online, so you can have a virtual live or recorded session. Ask around for recommendations. We like this, and this, especially.

Meditation

Health experts recommend taking even 10 minutes out of your day to sit or lie in a quiet space and do an emotional check-in and quiet the chattering of your mind. This is very helpful for people of all ages.

Cape Town clinical psychologist and Buddhist practitioner Sue Cooper offers beautiful meditations with different themes and lengths to stream or download. These are offered free, but dana (donations) are gladly received.

For children, and this for adults and older teens. And also adult guided meditations.

Apps like Calm are also useful. 

Earth yourself 

Earthing aka Grounding is a very simple practice that has significant benefits on your physical and mental health. It is literally as simple as walking barefoot of the grass for a between 10 minutes or half an hour a day. 

While still viewed as ‘alternative’, there appears to be something to this simple practice. It has been shown in numerous scientific studies to help reduce chronic fatigue, anxiety and depression, sleep disorders, chronic pain and to improve cardiovascular health.

It does this by connecting our bodies to the Earth’s electric field, which neutralises our electric charge, reducing inflammation. 

Find out more about it here:

You can enhance the benefits by doing your meditation sitting directly on the ground, swimming in cold water, or running barefoot on earth.

Cold-water swimming

A dip in the ocean is ideal because you are out in nature, swimming in mineral-rich salt water. But wherever you are – a dam, river, even a swimming pool - a plunge into cold water can get the body going, leave you exhilarated, and it has been shown to have an anti-depressant effect. Who’s up for joining the polar bear club?

Gardening

Lockdown has driven many people into their gardens. Working with your hands in soil is a grounding activity, it is a mindful practice, and the act of nurturing a living thing and reaping the fruits of your labour is deeply healing and satisfying.

Get crafty

Knitting, crochet, tapestry, embroidery, adult colouring books… these have all become increasingly popular in the past few years because they are practices that keep you in the moment.

There are brilliant tutorials on YouTube for beginners that teach you all sorts of knitting and crochet techniques. 

Find a local knitting or sewing circle through your nearest wool, hobby or haberdashery shop… or form your own! Make it even more meaningful by making your crafting intentional – create something as a gift for a loved one or for others in need.

Find a charity knitting drive (Lions Club or Round Table, for instance) and knit squares for blankets, socks, beanies and cardis for newborns. 

Nurture your friendships… virtually

Limiting your exposure to your prime bubble of people doesn’t mean you have to give up your social life. 

Plan virtual meet-ups with your friends – theme them to add some fun. Fiesta, anyone?

Have your bookclub meeting virtually. Arrange a sanitised book pick-up and then Zoom in with your bookclub buddies to chat about the books, if that’s really what you chat about.

Edit your media

Streaming has been a lifesaver this past year. But choose carefully. Rather than bingeing on post-apocalyptic/dystopian series, which seem to pop up every second day, rather choose uplifting content like comedies - Schitts Creek, Love Island SA (you can only laugh!), our funny guys Loyiso and Trevor. 

Or catch up on some old Some Good News - John Krasinski (The Office USA) started it at the beginning of lockdown a year ago to give us a bit or good cheer. 

Speaking of news… When it comes to the news, it’s important that we keep informed, but we need to limit not only the type of information we take in (stick to trustworthy sources), but the amount of time we spend consuming the news.

Useful reading can be found here, here, here, and here.

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