Coronavirus: Managing Your Mental Health During a Pandemic

How do you manage your mental health during a pandemic?

Updated17 Mar 2020, 06:56 AM IST
Mind It
4 min read

Times are tough these days - with a never-before-seen virus that’s WHO-certified to be a pandemic. Add to that the necessary measure of social distancing and our general sense of isolation and fears are magnified.

In times of a crisis, existing mental health problems can flare up, as can the generalised anxiety we feel in our daily lives.

With reports of people stockpiling grains, sanitizers and toilet roll - one has to wonder if we’re truly heading towards an apocalypse? And with that thought comes the dreaded existential anxiety - ‘what does it all mean?' or ‘what’s the point.’ Or the hysteria and panic that causes hoarding.

Social distancing is the only way for us to combat this, but how can you manage to both stay safe and not spiral out of control?

Facts Not Fear

“The fears and panic that people are experiencing are valid. It is scary to be caught up in a global pandemic.”
SnehaJanaki, psychologist.

Talking to FIT, Dr Samir Parikh, the Mental Health department director at Fortis Healthcare, said, “Fear is expected but the panic reaction is a bit of a concern.”

How do we calm the “hysterical anxiety”?

Fear is a fundamental human reaction, hard-wired into our biology to help keep us safe. When we are scared or anxious or stressed or fearful, our body releases adrenalin which pushes us to a fight or flight reaction. Now what happens when this gets too much, and the natural fear turns into anxiety? We tend to stress and dysfunction and not really perform to the best of our abilities. And that’s when the fear becomes harmful.

Asking how to protect yourself and others is normal. Panic-stricken responses like over-watching distressing information, stigma towards certain communities or people with certain diseases, or hoarding non-essentials are a problem.

Facts minimise fear - and fake news exacerbates it. So follow the facts from verified sources like the WHO or national health ministries, and don’t fall for unverified rumours or Whatsapp forwards.

Taking a break from the news cycle can also be a form of self-care. But empowering yourself with the right information can be helpful too.

The WHO advisory reads,

“Avoid watching, reading or listening to news that cause you to feel anxious or distressed; seek information mainly to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones,”

Anxiety feeds off uncertainty, but typical grounding methods - taking a breath, looking around outside of your mind and reconnecting to the Earth below you - are helpful.

SnehaJanaki adds that we can use the fears to tell us about our emotional state, “Take some time off from the overwhelm of information to also check in with what it's bringing up emotionally. What are the fears, doubts or other emotions that are coming up? - such that we start responding to those too."

Social Distance But Stay Social Online

Often in a crisis, when our mental health is in disarray, what helps is focussing on helping others or on the larger communities.

The new buzzword de jour is ‘social distancing’, where we’re encouraged to keep away from one another self-isolate and generally keep our distance to keep the virus from spreading. But we can find ways to stay connected through online forums, video chats (especially helpful) and generally keeping in touch virtually.

SnehaJanaki, a psychologist in Mumbai says that if you are seeing a therapist, it is important to continue the sessions online. “Share your fears with your mental health practitioner who may able to switch to online therapy. It’s also helpful to make a plan of how you will stay in touch with your support system.”

Rashi Vidyasagar, co-founder of The Alternative Story says that it’s important to form a routine and find healthy ways to spend the time, “Exercise at home. Apps like dogward down are offering their app for free.”

Find Ways to Fill the Time!

  • Think of what you CAN control in a situation where much is out of your control. Try and maintain a regular routine, and develop healthy habits.
  • Try to get fresh air from the windows if you are feeling low
  • Stay connected online! Catch up with friends and stay in touch with co-workers if you are working from home.
  • If you choose to self-isolate, think of productive ways to occupy your time and take your mind off the stress: re-ignite your hobbies!
  • You may be tempted to stay in bed and binge-watch your favourite shows - and while it’s a good idea to slow down and relax, try to spread your favourite shows or media for longer. We are going to be in self-quarantine for a while.

Dealing with COVID-19 with Existing Anxiety

‘Living with anxiety is hard enough, especially so in a pandemic.

If you already have anxiety, OCD or any illness-related mental health issue, remember to reach out to friends, family or your mental health specialist if you feel triggered. It may be a good idea to engage in online or phone call consultations!

It’s perfectly normal to feel worried, and even more so to ask for help.

People with mental illnesses often feel their symptoms worsen in times of isolation - and so it is vital to plan ahead and find ways to fill the time and schedule in online catch-ups.

Shun the Stigma!

One of the more problematic responses has been a reviving of racist tropes. The virus originated in Wuhan, China, but that's not an excuse to bring out the xenophobia.

“Health-related stigma arises when shame or disapproval is attributed to a person cause of their association with a health issue. This causes a sense of rejection and exclusion and discrimination,” says Malik.

WHO recommended against referring to patients with coronavirus as "victims" or the "diseased".

Just the other day, a news channel blared with breaking news that ‘suspects’ of coronavirus had fled isolation. These people are patients of a potentially deadly disease, and language matters when we are trying to heal.

“Be empathetic to those who got affected, in and from any country, those with the disease have not done anything wrong," says Malik.

People suffering are already worried and confused, they don’t need to face the added unnecessary racism.

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Published: 16 Mar 2020, 12:55 PM IST

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