By Annan Boodram – The Caribbean Voice
Panic, fear, uncertainty, anxiety, stress, depression, hopelessness, helplessness, cabin fever, frustration, disconnection, isolation, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, mood swings, inability to relax, feeling overwhelmed, loneliness, are among mental health issues related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. So how can we protect our mental health?
Long periods away from news websites and social media helps to manage anxiety. For social media, turn off notifications, set message boxes to ignore, hide, mute or unfollowing accounts and posts. For news, stick to trusted sources such as government and reputable health websites like the US-based Center for Diseases Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO) and Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). Share only reliable information.
Without being obsessive, wash your hands, as often as necessary, with soap and water for 20 seconds. Make sure the washing is through – the entire palms, back of the hands, in between fingers and the wrists. Use 60 percent or greater alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Avoid touching your face. Cough into your elbow or disposable tissue.
Put clothing in a laundry bag or other container. Wash them in detergent and hot water. Change and wash clothing once you return home from outside. Leave containers, packages, envelopes in a designated corner of the kitchen or inside a cabinet for three days if you don’t have time to disinfect them.
If it gives you peace of mind, use masks and gloves once you head outside the home. Practice social/safe distancing – three feet minimum, six feet recommended. Do not shake hands; clasp hands, Hindu style or bow, if you prefer. Sanitize any space you share with others as well as personal items such as wallets and cell phones. Wash all surfaces with alcohol-based products.
The coronavirus could be detected up to three hours once in the air, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel, so use this as a guide to determine what and when you wash/sanitize.
Make sure the vulnerable are taken care of: the elderly, children, those with mental health issues, anyone who has pre-existing medical conditions – diabetes, heart conditions, asthma, kidney diseases, chronic diseases, and weakened immune systems – as they are more vulnerable. Display empathy, use appropriate language when speaking about COVID-19 and be frank about social distancing. Reassure them.
Since recent reports that a much higher than expected percentage of younger are hospitalized with COVID 19, everyone needs to follow safe, healthy practices. Protective measures help ease anxiety and panic and eliminate helplessness and hopelessness.
Fear of contracting the virus can cause some people to become socially withdrawn, but maintaining relationships and social support is vital when combating anxiety. Thus if you are self-isolating or in mandatory quarantine, keep up social interaction as much as possible using the various mediums such as Whatsapp, Skype, phone calls, text messages, Messenger, Facetime, Google Hangout and the like.
Strike a balance between having a routine and making sure each day has some variety. Work through your to-do list, engage in projects around the house, read a book or watch a movie. Play games. Engage in journaling, creative writing, art, singing or music. Involve family as much as possible. All of this eliminates boredom and loneliness.
Focus on health
Exercise provides a healthier mental and physical state, no matter what’s going on around you. It’s calming and helps to boost the immune system. So take a walk outside with the family. Stretch, practice yoga or some other indoor routine. Take a nice, relaxing bath or just sleep. Adequate rest helps build immune systems.
Stay hydrated. Manage your sugar and salt intake. Cook. Before cooking, clean the kitchen– every surface, area, and utensil. There are no known instances of produce or food transferring the virus but rinse produce anyway.
Stress can sometimes turn people to drugs or alcohol. Get rid of these substances if you have them in the house and reach out to family members, neighbors and/or friends to help keep you grounded.
Knowing that all necessary measures are being taken to protect yourself and your loved ones help to ease stress and anxiety and boosts mental health on the whole.
Seek help; help yourself
If you are struggling to cope with the anxiety or panic, seek help from your general practitioner or mental health specialist. If you are worried about going to the clinic, request for virtual (Skype, Zoom etc) sessions. Or reach out to government helplines/hotlines and NGOs that may offer free or low-cost counseling.
If you think you have coronavirus symptoms (fever, breathing difficulties, tiredness, symptoms of flu and cold) call your doctor for advice. Do the same if you experience loss of sense of smell and a diminished sense of taste.
If you are quarantined at home, designate yourself a “sick room” and use a separate set of dishes, cups, cutlery, bedding, and towels. Wash them regularly. Let someone who is not sick sanitize common areas and frequently-touched surfaces (the remote control, doorknobs, light fixtures) while you tend to your “sick room.”
As well, helping others can give you a sense of purpose and control. Do you have an elderly or sick neighbor you can offer your services to? “The idea is to get out of the helpless zone. If you can get out of that then be an agent,” says Dr Ken Duckworth, medical director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (UK).
Coping with mental health fallout
Dr Cacioppo, the director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, studies the effects of love and loneliness in the brain. “The first thing we need to do is to think about right now and not let our mind wander to the future,” she said. “Right now you can control your environment” – the food you decide to eat, the clothing you decide to wear. “That gives you a sense of stability.” In other words, practice mindfulness. Psychologists and mental health experts also advise that we accept uncertainty so we don’t overreact.
Also, while panic and anxiety are understandable, do remember that neither helps the situation; they simply negatively affect you. If needs be, take a few minutes each day to pray, meditate and/or practice this simple but effective breathing exercise: bring your attention to your breath and your body. Focus all of your attention on the here and now: noticing the sights, sounds, and smells around you and what you’re feeling in your body. Continue to breathe slowly in and out gently bringing your mind back to your body and breath every time it drifts until you feel calmer.
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