Widespread lockdowns, border closures, self-isolation, and quarantines have become the new normal around the world as people adapt to the realities of COVID-19. These changes to our lives, along with the uncertainty of how long the spread of COVID-19 will last, can have a detrimental effect on mental health.
However, according to psychology and psychiatry experts at U of T, there are practical ways to take care of yourself during these challenging times.
It’s normal to feel anxious
Dr. Steve Joordens, a professor of psychology at UTSC, said in an interview with The Varsity that the current pandemic is “a prototypical situation” for anxiety to manifest.
He explained that anxiety tends to appear when we feel like we’re under threat and we can’t do anything about it, just like during this pandemic.
In such situations, your sympathetic nervous system activates the fight-or-flight response, making you feel on edge.
Joordens went on to say that students, whose lives are generally structured around classes, can begin to feel adrift when that structure and organization is gone.
“And when those things are taken away from us, we can feel a little adrift,” Joordens said. “Like a boat without an anchor where we’re not sure what we should be doing.”
The lack of human contact as a result of self-isolation, and the constant exposure to the news can also feed into this anxiety.
Further, quarantine can lead to severe psychological consequences: a review in The Lancet found that quarantines can cause symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as feelings of “confusion and anger.”
Maintaining a sense of control despite uncertainty
The Varsity interviewed Dr. Greg Dubord, an assistant professor of psychiatry at U of T. He wrote that although our daily lives have been uprooted by the virus, “The behaviours that maintain good mental health are the same with or without the presence of the COVID-19 virus, and many of those don’t have to change.”
In an interview with Global News, Dr. Vaile Wright of the American Psychological Association emphasized the importance of maintaining a sense of control. According to Wright, in a situation like the ongoing pandemic, the only things you can control are your thoughts and emotional and behavioural responses.
Stress can be managed productively: eating well, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep can help you stay in good mental health.
According to Dubord, research has shown that spending time in cluttered and messy environments can have a negative impact on your mental health. Cleaning your room may be overdue, and it might keep you busy for some time. You’ll then be better able to focus on your homework afterward.
Creating a schedule or planning each day carefully might help you stay productive and maintain a sense of control.
Dealing with the anxiety
News can give us some sense of comfort, according to Joordens, but it can also easily turn into a source of addiction. “We are all living in this uncertainty, and information is very comforting to us, and we’d like to get a little bit more understanding of what’s going on,” he reflected.
Dubord added that although it’s “vital” to stay informed, and “most people will end up consuming an unhealthy amount of news.”
To avoid scrolling through the news all day, and hence becoming even more anxious, both Joordens and Dubord recommend balancing your exposure to the news — for example, you could check the news in the morning, afternoon, and early evening, but not right before bed — and limit your time on news websites. It is also crucial to get your news from credible sources.
Limiting your exposure to social media can also be beneficial and prevent information overload. However, you might find that following mental health accounts on Instagram is helpful, insightful, and grounding.
Grounding yourself with relaxation techniques
In a New York Times article, Dr. Judson Brewer of Brown University recommended trying awareness techniques to stay grounded and activate your prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for judgement and decision-making.
Brewer provided the example of reminding yourself of the good hygiene practices you’re partaking in during times of transmission-related anxiety. The brain tends to engage in processes it finds rewarding, so it might start focusing more on the pleasant feelings good hygiene brings about, rather than the negative feelings of anxiety.
Joordens further suggested finding guided relaxation techniques that work for you and designating a cue word that will prompt you to start relaxing. “You can’t tell yourself to stop being anxious, but you can tell yourself to start relaxing.”
Other activities, such as listening to your favourite music, or singing, can also help you cope with the anxiety.
Reading can be a calming activity, too. “Hopefully your future self can look back upon the COVID-19 self-isolation period with some pride based on having read a good number of good books,” wrote Dubord.