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Mental Health Information Centre - Southern Africa

Surviving the Covid-19 lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis for us all. It is unknown territory and the future is uncertain. This creates anxiety and has the potential to exacerbate mental disorders in those living with them. We all have to adapt to the change that this virus has brought into our lives.

During periods of prolonged stress and uncertainty, changes occur in the brain. Some people will become more susceptible to stress the next time it occurs, whereas others will become more resilient. In a crisis like this one, even the more resilient people may become anxious. It is therefore important to find ways to maximize your resilience and to become aware of and manage your stress levels.

The COVID-19 pandemic can be an opportunity for growth. We cannot control what will happen tomorrow. Worry over tomorrow will only deplete our energy and frustrate us. One can either stay in a fear spiral: panic, buy everything one can, forward all messages without validating the source, complain frequently, spread negative energy, or move into a growth spiral: being comfortable with giving up what you cannot control, being thankful for what you have, stop consuming food or news compulsively, seeing this as a special time for self-reflection. Here are a few things you can do to boost your resilience and to grow as a person:

Routine, routine: Change your pace, but keep your routine. Keeping with routine is helpful in a time that is unknown and uncertain to all. Get up in the morning at the same time you would normally. Get dressed (if you look sloppy, you will feel sloppy). Structure your day. Make your bed and keep your home neat: if your environment is clean and ordered, you will feel more in control.  If you work from home, keep to your working hours, but be mindful to create clear distinctions between work and non-work activities.

Take control to increase a sense of safety:  Wash/sanitize your hands frequently and do not touch your face. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing/coughing or cough/sneeze into your elbow. Wash your hands after coughing or sneezing. Wear a mask to protect others and yourself from droplets. Stay at home when you are sick. Regularly clean and disinfect objects or surfaces in your house. Good preparation will make you feel more in control – if you have to buy supplies, make a list and keep your physical distance when shopping.

Practise mindfulness and self-care: Sit, walk, eat and breathe mindfully. The lockdown period is an opportunity to discard bad habits and to cultivate new healthier ones, because we have more time to think, to evaluate and to plan. Limit unhealthy coping strategies such as alcohol and drug use as this may exacerbate anxiety. Now could also be a golden opportunity to clean out cupboards, organise old photos and doing things you always wished that you had time for. Your home environment has a tangible effect on your well-being. To build mental agility, reading, walking, gardening and trying new things such as online courses could be helpful. During this time, frame your goals positively and realistically. Be reasonable and flexible and follow through.

Sleep and relaxation: Deep breathing exercises and other types of relaxation techniques can assist in taking the edge off of anxiety. Are you getting enough good quality sleep? Be mindful of over-stimulation by electronic devices, TV, cell-phones, computers, etc. Engage in mood-boosting activities such as listening to music, practising hobbies and board-games with family or friends (this can be done remotely as well).

Healthy eating: During the lockdown period it is important to make good food choices. Use this time to prepare your meals from scratch. This is an ideal time to engage your children in the preparing and cooking of meals, to teach them how to lay a table and to make the most of mealtimes together as a family. Remember to drink enough water to stay hydrated.

Exercise and movement: Physical exercise is as important as mental exercise. Being confined to your house will present challenges, but even doing your own housework can be a good way of keeping active. Gardening, vacuuming, washing the windows, hanging the washing are all ways to move (exercise) and this will boost your clarity of thought and creativity. Research has shown that being in nature regularly boosts your mental health. Try to get out into the sunshine and to enjoy the environment around you if you can. If you are not in the position to get out, have a look on You Tube for free movement classes.

Social connection vs isolation: Humans have a basic need to belong. During this time of physical distancing this is challenging, but human beings, in general, are flexible and adaptable. Make time to engage with the others in the house; to talk and to laugh. Regularly contacting (texting, phone calls, video calls) loved ones and friends will limit loneliness. Also make time for solitude and respect the people living with you if they need their own quiet time. Turn your household into a community of purpose: make some contributions to people in need, e.g. assist in sewing masks, or offer to do grocery shopping for someone who are unable to get to a shop. Helping others gives us a sense of purpose and teaches our children valuable life lessons.

It is also important to balance the constant stream of COVID-19 information with positive stories and news. Make time to visit credible websites for information once or twice a day and ignore the rest.

Remain hopeful: Try to think of the pandemic and lockdown period as a marathon and not a sprint, but know that this will also come to an end. Be kinder to yourself and your family members and remember that this is the ideal time to cultivate positive behaviours and to build strengths.

Reach out for help: If you feel you are not coping and need a therapist, reach out. There are mental health professionals ready to help you through this crisis. If you are on medication or in therapy, keep going with your treatment. Your therapist will be available to you, even at a distance.

Mental Health Information Centre call centre tel. 021 9389229 or email mhic@sun.ac.za

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In partnership with:

University of Stellenbosch
South African Medical Research Council
University of Cape Town