“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger: the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.” John F. Kennedy
In the past few months our world has changed beyond recognition. Who would have thought that our entire globe could be held to ransom by a tiny, microscopic virus? The coronavirus pandemic has shaken our old certainties and challenged us to reconsider our attitude to work, health, social interaction, travel, economics, and leisure. This article aims to review the challenges and difficulties that we face, as well as the lessons learned. In addition, there will be some tips for minding our mental health during the coming months and years.
At this time anxiety abounds. It concerns health – our own and that of our family and friends, also employment, relationships, and the general feeling of uncertainty about the course of the pandemic and its aftereffects.
We may feel worried about our own health, particularly if we belong to a vulnerable group. We may fear that we will succumb to the virus or that we may develop long-term health issues after recovery. Or that a family member or friend will be infected. We are concerned about the possibility of infecting another person.
There is much uncertainty about the course of the pandemic and how long the crisis will last. In the media countless experts advise and forecast, often contradicting each other. In reality our knowledge is limited and evolving daily.
In the early days of the pandemic there was a contagion of panic around access to basic necessities and this led to long hours of queuing in supermarkets as well as stock-piling of foodstuffs and toilet rolls. In hindsight we learned that the supply chains were secure and such behaviour was unnecessary and only added to the general sense of fear.
Many people, particularly in the service industry, were laid off work and are unsure of their future employment prospects. The global economy has been shaken by the sudden shutdown in travel, as well as many business and social activities. Young people were prevented from going to school.
The closure of schools and many workplaces along with the move to remote working has led to increased isolation for many people. For a time it was recommended that people over 70 years old should not leave their homes. Opportunities for meeting and networking were severely reduced by the closure of shopping centres, gyms, schools, restaurants, cinemas and places of worship.
Many relationships were put under pressure during lockdown. In some cases that was due to physical separation where people stayed apart in order to protect each other from infection. Conversely, other relationships were strained by having to spend too much time confined with family members or housemates. Any areas of conflict which were previously a mere annoyance could be magnified by the loss of freedom and a sense of helplessness and uncertainty.
SIGNS OF RESILIENCE
In the midst of this crisis there were also many signs of human resilience and goodwill. The Health Service Executive (HSE) called for more workers to help deal with the anticipated need for healthcare workers. And the response was phenomenal – on 21 March 2020 The Irish Times reported that ‘Some 50,000 people in less than three days have contacted the HSE about taking up posts in the health service to deal with the expected surge in demand for care arising from the coronavirus outbreak’.
An Post stated that postmen and postwomen were ‘checking in on older and vulnerable customers along their route, also delivering newspapers to those who cannot get to the shops’ (anpost.com)
An initiative for helping in the community during COVID-19 said that ‘ Local groups from sporting clubs to residents’ associations and concerned individuals have been leading local initiatives to support vulnerable and socially isolated people in their communities’. https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/72694e-helping-in-the-community-during-covid-19/
While the restrictions associated with lockdown caused distress for many due to anxiety and isolation, others embraced their new lifestyle and explored their interest in creative activities such as cooking, gardening, sewing and home renovations. School closures and remote working meant that families were spending more time together. Many embraced the opportunity to exercise outdoors together and there was an upsurge in walking, cycling and running, often with whole families participating together. There was more time to read and home schooling allowed parents and children to bond and often learn together.
Humour became an antidote to fear and social media were flooded with videos and photos depicting the crisis and our response to it in a playful and sometimes hilarious way. Online videos also showed people in Italy and other European countries entertaining their neighbours by singing from their balconies. Many showed their appreciation for the work of frontline workers by applauding on their doorsteps at a pre-arranged time each evening.
While patients in hospital were not allowed to have visitors we saw images of older people being shown how to use FaceTime so they could talk to family and friends from their beds.
1. Breathing exercises:
This simple sequence recommended by Professor Ian Robertson can be used to control anxiety and panic.
Take in a long slow breath in for a count of five, followed by a breath out for a count of six.
Even thirty seconds of this exercise can help to improve thinking, memory and problem-solving. (YouTube – Prof Ian Robertson on managing stress)
The benefits of having adequate sleep include a better immune system, healthier heart, improved concentration, reduction in stress and better relationships. Some ways to improve sleep include:
– Having a regular sleep routine by going to bed and getting up at the same times each day, even at weekends
– Creating a relaxing sleep environment which is dark, cool and as quiet as possible, and keeping electronic devices such as computers and T.V.’s out of the bedroom
– Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine late in the day
– Protecting the quality of your sleep by dealing with stressful topics long before bedtime
Health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University Kelly McGonigal states in her best-selling book The Joy of Movement that exercise can shift someone’s mood and ‘send them back into the world renewed with hope’. She says that in her own life exercise has rescued her ‘from isolation and despair, fostered hope and courage’, and also that it reminded her how to experience joy.
To stay healthy, adults should be physically active every day and try to achieve at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity over a week through a variety of activities (NHS). Regular physical exercise reduces the risk of depression, dementia, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and certain cancers.
An Australian study published in 2017 found that improved mental health and reduced depression were associated with a Mediterranean style diet supplemented by fish oils. The participants reported an ‘increase in consumption of vegetables, fruit, wholegrain foods, nuts and legumes, significantly lower consumption of unhealthy snacks and meat/chicken, and a greater diversity of vegetables’. This was associated with improved mental health, lower depression and anxiety, as well as less stress and better coping.
The emotional benefits of meditation can include:
– gaining a new perspective on stressful situations
– building skills to manage your stress
– increasing self-awareness
– focusing on the present
– reducing negative emotions
– increasing imagination and creativity
– increasing patience and tolerance
6. Social connections:
‘Relationships are one of the most important aspects of our lives. People who are more socially connected to family, friends, or their community are happier, physically healthier and live longer, with fewer mental health problems than people who are less well connected’. ‘People in neighbourhoods with higher levels of social cohesion experience lower rates of mental health problems than those in neighbourhoods with lower cohesion, independent of how deprived or affluent a neighbourhood is’. (mentalhealth.org.uk). Even though social distancing is required to reduce the spread of the virus there are numerous platforms available online for meeting and staying connected with family and friends no matter how remote they are physically.
In summary, the coronavirus pandemic has challenged us to rethink our approach to all aspects of life. We have rediscovered the enjoyment of the simple things such as freedom of movement, eating in restaurants and having a haircut. While the effects of COVID-19 on both physical and mental well-being are still being measured, we have also learned that our innate resilience is a valuable survival tool. The abiding lesson of the pandemic experience may well turn out to be that our species will only be able to survive and thrive when we can cooperate.
‘When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”. To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world’ (Fred Rogers, American Entertainer)
URL: https://www.psychologytools.com/resource/ living-with-worry-and-anxiety-amidst-global-uncertainty
Natalie Parletta, Dorota Zarnowiecki, Jihyun Cho, Amy Wilson, Svetlana Bogomolova, Anthony Villani, Catherine Itsiopoulos, Theo Niyonsenga, Sarah Blunden, Barbara Meyer, Leonie Segal, Bernhard T. Baune & Kerin O’Dea (2019) A Mediterranean-style dietary intervention supplemented with fish oil improves diet quality and mental health in people with depression: A randomized controlled trial (HELFIMED), Nutritional Neuroscience, 22:7, 474-487, DOI: 10.1080/1028415X.2017.1411320