If you are currently self-isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you are playing an important role in helping to slow down the spread of this virus, protect the vulnerable members of our society, and, ultimately, save lives.
But it isn't easy.
We are social creatures – “No man is an island entire of itself” (John Donne) - and social connection is very important for our mental health. Conversely, research shows isolation and loneliness can wreak havoc on our physical, mental, and cognitive health. While I don’t think it is particularly helpful to focus on this research, I do think it is very important to acknowledge that it is incredibly important to take care of your mental health during this time.
How do you take care of your mental health? By making a concerted effort (yes, it is often an effort) to implement strategies that both promote and maintain good mental and physical health.
If you feel like you're struggling through self-isolation, check in with how you're going with these five, evidence-based, strategies for maintaining good mental health during self-isolation.
1. Maintain Good Eating Habits
Am I... drinking enough water? eating enough fruit and vegetables? eating regularly? eating too much sugar? During this time, it feels like there is a lot outside of our control. For that reason, it is important when you are feeling stressed or anxious to come back to what is in your control. One important area that you can focus on is your diet.
There is significant research showing a link between diet and psychological wellbeing. There is particular evidence that the Mediterranean diet – which includes green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, olive oil, cereals, fish and low dietary intakes of meat products and dairy – is associated with a reduced risk of depression and better mental health. In particular, greater consumption of fish, fruit, and vegetables has been shown to reduce the risk of depression and anxiety. On the flip side, we know depression is more severe in people with higher caloric intake from saturated fats and sugars.
If you are feeling anxious or stressed about the pandemic, maintaining a healthy diet can be hard. A change in appetite is one of the key symptoms of depression, and an associated lack of energy and interest in activities may reduce your motivation to prepare or enjoy meals. Similarly, anxiety and stress can cause nausea and abdominal issues, which can make eating difficult. But it is important to monitor what you are eating, and try to eat regularly and maintain a balanced diet.
In addition - and very importantly during this time - we know that people who eat a well-balanced diet also tend to be healthier with stronger immune systems and lower risk of chronic illnesses and infectious diseases.
You can read the World Health Organization's nutrition advice for adults during the COVID-19 outbreak here.
2. Stay Connected
Social connection is critical for our mental health. There is now a significant body of research that shows that a lack of social connection can be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day or having an alcohol use disorder. What's more, loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.
For that reason it is incredibly important to maintain a connection with others during this period of self-isolation.
Just because you have to be physically distanced during this period of time, that doesn't mean you have to be socially distanced. Check on your loved ones, using FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Houseparty or other ways of video-chatting.
If you're going through a hard time, it’s important to reach out to someone you trust, who makes you feel understood. If you don’t feel like you have that person in your life, there are always support services you can call. In Australia, Beyond Blue has set up a specific Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Line where you can talk to trained counsellors. Find out more here or call 1800 512 348.
Beyond Blue also have a dedicated COVID-19 online forum for people to share their concerns and connect online to support one another. ReachOut have online youth forums and online parents forums for COVID-19 offering peer support in safe and established online communities. SANE have an active online forum focused on unpacking fact from fiction about COVID-19 and providing self-care strategies.
Another way to make connections during this time is through volunteering. A number of organisations are currently in need of volunteers. These include organisations who are looking to help the vulnerable members of our society, through, for example, social telephone calling programs for people in isolation, and pen-pal programs whereby volunteers write letters to older adults. Find remote or online volunteering opportunities in Australia here.
3. Improve your Sleep Habits
"The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night's sleep."
– E Joseph Cossman
Getting the recommended 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night can heavily influence your energy levels, motivation, emotions, and overall outlook on life.
Here are three evidence-based tips for improving your sleep:
1. Stick to a sleep schedule: Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day - even if you’ve had a bad night sleep.
2. Don't stay in bed awake: If you find yourself awake in bed for more than 20 minutes, or find that you’re starting to feel anxious in bed, get up and do something else until you feel sleepy. The reason for this is that your brain very quickly starts to learn the association between your bed being about the place you’re awake rather than your bed being about sleep. So the advice is to get up, go to another room, and in dim light – read a book. Try to avoid screens. Screens emit a blue light that can delay the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin (light from fluorescent bulbs and LED lights can produce the same effect).
Alternatively, you might try meditation exercises. The Headspace app is a guided meditation app that has great “falling back to sleep” exercises.
3. Avoid alcohol: If you're struggling to get a good night's sleep, check your alcohol consumption. Alcohol is part of a class of drugs called sedatives, which means it will knock you out at the end of a hard day, but it's not putting you into a natural sleep. Instead, you will wake more times throughout the night, and it will blocks your much needed rapid eye movement or “dream" sleep.
If you want to reduce your alcohol consumption, hellosundaymorning is a great community to be a part of.
The Sleep Health Foundation has provided resources to help you get a better night sleep amid the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.
4. Get Outside (if you can) and Stay Active
"Exercise is nature's antidepressant."
– Dr Susan Ellis
Exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany hard workouts. Exercise also leads to better sleep and gives you more energy. And lastly, but definitely not least given the current situation, regular physical activity is great for your immune system.
If you’re new to exercise, start small – for example, try 10 minutes of yoga or walking a day, then gradually build up. If you can set a realistic, achievable goal for your workouts, than that is great for mental health. For example, you may aim to be able to do 10 push-ups in four weeks time, or run 5km in two months.
If you can set a joint goal with a friend where you can encourage and support each other - that's even better!
Many companies and trainers are offering great workouts for free at the moment to help with exercising at home. Try the:
For a running program aimed at getting people from "couch to 5km" in 9 weeks click here.
4. Establish a Routine and Schedule Time for Fun & Mastery
Forming new schedules and habits seems to be the number one thing experts agree on for maintaining mental health during isolation. Planning your days can provide structure and restore a sense of purpose and normality to your daily life. Schedule tasks such as cooking and laundry, to help you stick to your routine. Structuring activities around mealtimes and bedtime can also help you keep to your schedule while ensuring you eat regularly and get enough sleep.
If you are working from home, the Australian Psychological Society has some great tips for maintaining structure during your work day (the number 1 tip being to get out of your pyjamas each morning to help get into the right headspace!).
Schedule Activities Into Your Week That Lift Your Mood
When planning your weekly routine, it is important to schedule in an activity for each day that you enjoy. One of my major concerns for people's mental health during this period of isolation is that we have removed a lot of the experiences that previously made people happy. One of the major theories of depression is that people become depressed because they have a lack of positive reinforcement in their lives.
It is important for your mental health during this time that you find things that you enjoy doing - or used to enjoy - and that you schedule these activities into your week. This is an important part of self-care. You might, for example:
Organise virtual catch-ups with friends
Cook (or order in) your favourite meal
Watch your favourite movie
Have a bubble bath
Watch a concert of your favourite musician
Listen to an audiobook
Whatever it may be, it is important to persist until you find activities you enjoy, and then make sure to schedule these activities into your week.
Schedule Activities Into Your Week That Give You A Sense of Accomplishment
It is also important for our mental health that we engage in activities that give us a sense of accomplishment. This includes activities that involve the development of skills, where we are able to accomplish things and feel a sense of mastery over our environment. This might involve trying something new or discovering an old interest. For example:
Repair something around the house
Organise your wardrobe
Learn a musical instrument
Sketch or paint
Clear out your email inbox
Learn to change a flat tyre
Learn a new language
Take a free online class
Whatever it may be - try to set a challenge that you will enjoy achieving. However, make sure these activities don't add to your stress, and that they are realistic. If you don’t come out of this pandemic being fluent in French, or having painted 2020’s Mona Lisa, THAT IS OKAY. What we are going through now is likely the biggest change we will ever experience in terms of our day-to-day living. It is unrealistic to expect to perform above and beyond right now, even with an abundance of time at home. Make sure you are taking care of your mental health before you worry about finishing your masterpiece.
Now ask yourself:
What is one thing I could improve in my diet?
Is there someone I could reach out to that I haven't spoken to recently?
What exercise goal could I set myself that I could achieve in the next month?
Am I keeping a good sleep routine?
What is one pleasant activity and one mastery activity I could schedule for the coming week?
Take care, stay safe, and be kind to yourself.
Please feel free to share any strategies you have found helpful for your mental health below :)
If you feel like you need additional help during this time, please access help here.