Taking Care of your Mental Health During the Coronavirus/COVID-19 Outbreak: How To Stay Sane When the Whole World Goes Crazy.

Being surrounded by the overwhelming news of the Coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak creates fear, chaos and uncertainty. Within just a few days your world has been turned upside down. The things that gave you a sense of control in the past are not there anymore or they have stopped working. You have adapted new habits such as regular hand washing, social distancing, and working from home, but such measures don’t necessarily make you feel any better. You don’t seem to have any vision on how to get back on track. You search for help online, but any ‘expert’ advice seems to be irrelevant or inapplicable to your life. 

In this article I am hoping to help you understand what exactly is happening with your mental health. I would like to pass as much control to you as possible. Only by making your own decisions, you will be able to get back on track and start restoring control in your life.

Why Are You Feeling So Bad?

Considering that you are in the middle of a global pandemic, you are likely going to notice emotional changes. This may include feeling anxious about going outside, feeling angry at the government for making “bad” decisions, being worried about your elderly family members, or getting upset about being home alone. These feelings can be really unpleasant, but they are designed to help you and guide you through difficulties. For instance, being scared naturally directs your attention towards the threat so that you can react faster and protect yourself. Feeling sad often makes you realise you are missing something so that you can take the necessary steps to get it back. Feeling angry helps you notice injustice, so that you can stand up for your values. In a nutshell, any unpleasant feelings draw your attention to the perceived problem and help you take action aimed at restoring your sense of control. Seeing that the coronavirus outbreak has shattered your sense of control, it is completely natural that you are going through emotional changes. 

Your Attempts at Restoring Control

We as human beings have built-in mechanisms that help us to relatively quickly adapt to most life changes. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, you are likely to have made many changes to your life already. Let’s take social distancing as an example: You have always enjoyed being social, but now you are trying to distance yourself from others as much as possible. Your emotions are playing a very important role in this process. You might feel anxious at the possibility of typical everyday behaviours like shaking your neighbour’s hand or giving your friend a hug. These emerging emotions are encouraging you to abandon your old, unhelpful habits in favour of new, more appropriate practices. 

These emotional and behavioural changes would not have happened if it wasn’t for a change in your belief system. Adapting your beliefs about what is the ‘right’ way of behaving helps you stay in control even in light of significant changes in your life. The parameters that used to give you a sense of control were recognised as ineffective and new rules and standards started to emerge. 

Unfortunately, not all changes happen so quickly.  You likely have many examples from your past where a sudden change resulted in weeks or even months of difficulties. This might have been a relationship breakdown, losing a job, or moving to a new house. In such situations, the process of getting back in control takes time, but might be shorter or longer depending on the individual circumstances. In a similar way, adapting to the changes following the coronavirus outbreak will take time, and some of these changes will happen faster than others. 

Internal Battles

The process of restoring control takes time because the decisions you make often contradict other life goals you may have. For example, as you benefit from the decision to self-isolate, you start missing out on social interactions. Stocking up on food helps you ensure you provide for your family, but you feel bad for elderly people who can’t buy the same essential products. Making a decision to refuse a handshake from your neighbour might contradict your personal rules about respecting other people. Making such choices and weighing up your options is extremely difficult. When you are stuck in a number of internal conflicts, your body and mind are working overtime trying to help you resolve them so that you can get back in control. Small problems are usually easier to resolve because they don’t cause much turmoil with your internal moral compass. Any more complex situations open up various internal dilemmas. 

The process of working through these “internal battles” can resemble a “hit or miss” strategy. You try many new and random solutions until something works for you. For instance, being unable to stick to your usual gym routine, you will experiment with many options. This might be going for a run in a local park, buying weights and exercising at home, or joining a video exercise class online. Some of these ideas might work well while others will be inconsistent with other goals you have. For example, buying new weights might not work if you are also trying to save money. After trying many different ideas, you are more likely to find something that works and is consistent with your long-term plans. 

What Works For You?

Think about what you usually do when you feel stressed – going for a run, reading, writing, spending time with family, drinking alcohol, making to-do lists, watching films, decorating, cleaning, cooking, partying, or going on holidays. Whether or not you are able to engage with your favourite coping strategies during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s worth reflecting on the goals behind these activities. No behaviours or actions are problematic in itself, but their effect might vary depending on your intentions. Having a bottle of wine in the evening helps you unwind, but the original problem that caused your stress remains unresolved. If you drink daily to cope with all your life problems, you are likely to get further away from your ideal long-term vision. Avoiding any contact with people can help you avoid the possibility of contracting the coronavirus so that you fulfil your need to be safe and healthy. However, if this causes you to be unable to go shopping and you run out of food, you end up getting further away from your goals about being safe and healthy. Thus, when taking actions in response to coronavirus crisis, it is important to keep in mind all the things that are important to you.

What is Really Important to You?

A useful way of identifying important personal goals is to think about various things you engage in and asking yourself “what is important about it?” After you identified the answer, you could ask yourself this question again and again until you get to the bottom of your personal goals and values. Let’s take a look at an example that illustrates how a simple activity is driven by important personal rules, goals, and values. You regularly go to the gym because you want to stay healthy. You want to stay healthy because you want to live long in spite of your underlying health issues. You want to live long, because you want to make sure you are there for your daughter’s wedding. This in turn is driven by goals of what kind of parent you want to be and what kind of person you want to be. Having the awareness of these goals makes it much easier to replace the activity of going to the gym (as the gym gets shut) with another behaviour that is consistent with your long-term vision.

So What Should You Do?

As you now have a better understanding of the relationship between beliefs and behaviours, you can start paying more attention to the things that really matter to you. The more attention you pay to your personal values and goals, the more likely you are to successfully restore control in your life or at least start taking steps towards it. Only by engaging in activities that are consistent with your belief system, you will be able to find long-term solutions to the problems you are facing.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to create further challenges in your life, you will continue to go through many “internal battles.” Connecting to your emotions and understanding your deepest motives will help you make the best decisions in the given moment. As time progresses, you might be able to take better care of some aspects of your life that are important to you, while you accept and let go of others. If you usually take your children to the cinema on Sundays driven by your visions of what kind or parent you want to be, take some time to think what you can do instead to achieve these personally important goals. If you usually regularly spend time with your elderly parents, but are unable to do so currently, things about how you can maintain this personally important aspect of your life by other means. If being productive in your job helps to fulfil your vision about self- development, think how you can achieve these goals by other means while your job is temporarily suspended.

Open Up and Take Control

These are difficult times and you might find it difficult to cope with things on your own. The mixture of emotions, thoughts, sensations, images and visions together create a chaos that can be really overwhelming. Going through a number of “internal battles” creates an urge to get things sorted as soon as possible, very often without giving yourself a chance to think through your options. One useful way of making sense of your problems and reflecting on your options is speaking to your friends and family. The moment you externalise the problem, you are forced to organise everything in your head so that you can put it into words.

You can also achieve this by other means such as online video calls, online messenger conversations, joining discussions on online support groups, calling helpline numbers, writing a diary, creating a mind map, recording yourself, or sharing and discussing your thoughts on twitter or other social media platforms.

Do what works for you. Facing your problems and allowing yourself to feel the emotions that come with it, can be one of the most powerful things you can do for your emotional wellbeing. The human body is not a perfect machine. The fact that you struggle doesn’t mean you are broken. You are trying to make sense of something extremely difficult. Learning to understand your emotions and staying consistent with your values can give you a sense of direction regardless of how overwhelming and painful your current circumstances are. 

If as a result of the recent events you are experiencing mental health problems that you are unable to cope with independently, please do not hesitate to look for professional help. Many therapists/counsellors offer alternative therapy options such as online video therapy, telephone appointments, or even texting/messenger sessions. If you would like to further discuss the ideas describes in this article, give feedback, or ask me any questions, please feel free to contact me by all means.  If you require immediate support or you feel like you are at risk to yourself or others please see Mindwell Website for the directory of available support options in the UK, speak to your GP, or contact one of the helpline services such as the Samaritans on 116 123 (24h freephone). If you are not in the UK, please contact the relevant crisis services in your current location.