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Infectious Diseases

Updated 22 May 2020

OPINION | The mental health effects of Covid-19 are as important to address as the physical effects

Irene Charnley, President of the International Women’s Forum of South Africa, shares five steps to help us cope with Covid-19.

As the coronavirus continues to spread across the world, most of us spend a lot of time worrying about our physical health, leaving less time to consider how the pandemic may be impacting our mental health.

The strain of being self-isolated or in lockdown is affecting us. And with the prospect of being stuck at home for the foreseeable future, anxiety levels are building.

The coronavirus (Covid-19) may have begun like a bolt out of the blue, a unique and unprecedented health emergency, but it has rapidly turned into a prison sentence with no end in sight. If we are feeling floored or depressed by the chain of events, it is not surprising.

Heightened anxiety

We are experiencing heightened anxiety due to the thought of the virus and how it might affect us, our family, friends, and our jobs.

That is why if mental health wasn't top-of-mind before the Covid-19 pandemic began, chances are it is now. Not only do we need to consider the physical Covid-19 pandemic, we also have to consider that there is, in effect, an emotional pandemic of anxiety, worry and fear.

The spread of the virus can cause worries about physical health for ourselves and others. It can take us away from our jobs and daily routines. It can contribute to a feeling of losing control and to the human tendency to catastrophise.

Staying at home for a prolonged period of time can be difficult, frustrating and lonely for many of us and we or other household members may feel low. It can also be particularly challenging. Under normal circumstances, working from home can be a very positive thing. It can make life more enjoyable and productive, but if it's foisted on you in the middle of a global pandemic and in a climate of fear, there are definite challenges.

'Getting on with it' and dismissing our feelings 

I value the counsel and advice from clinical and organisational psychologist, Dorianne Weil, “Dr D”, especially when she said it is not surprising that for many the idea of “getting on with it”, or dismissing our feelings, or insisting to each other and to ourselves that we stay positive, is difficult.

Dr D, who is also an esteemed member of the International Women’s Forum of South Africa, agrees that for some it has become impossible not to delve into the “what if”, and that is why we ruminate and catastrophise. 

“We have lost our daily routine and world as we knew it. We have lost predictability and certainty. Some have lost jobs. We grieve for physical contact, a handshake and a hug, for the collective spirit in our place of worship and sitting around a table having a meal with older parents. Why then are we surprised at the feelings of sadness and symptoms associated with depression such as uncertainty, anxiety and fear,” said Dr D?

Indeed, as one dull day turns into another and one can no longer tell the day of the week, the reality of the new normal of being imprisoned and coping with a poisonous virus seeping through the fabric of our lives sinks in.

Even if we discount health and money worries, it is an abnormally narrow existence, bristling with potential for conflict and frustration.

We're civil on the outside, but that can create another layer of stress for families in that the domestic sphere becomes the only arena where anger and frustration are defused.

The mental health effects of Covid-19 are as important to address as the physical health effects.

WHO’S advice

That is why the World Health Organisation (WHO) advises people struggling with their mental health to consult official health authorities and platforms to distinguish "facts from rumours".

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

The WHO also recommends that those in isolation "stay connected" and maintain social network usage, while still keeping up with their normal daily routine as much as they can.

Five steps to help us cope with Covid-19 

We need strategies to cope with the extreme circumstances imposed by Covid19. It's a good idea to fill your day with activities of different kinds, so give your day some structure with a timetable that takes you from breakfast to supper with interesting activities.

Here are my five steps to help us cope with Covid-19:

Exercise

Luckily, just as hand-washing can help protect our physical health, there are a few simple exercises that can be done at home to protect our mental health as well. It is important to include some exercise in your routine, as well as relaxation techniques, and keeping your mind active. Eat well and stay hydrated are also important. And try and get outdoors – even if it's just in your garden or yard. 

There are lots of exercises you can do at home, including running up and down stairs or around the house. One of the easiest ways to begin calming an anxious mind is to practise breath regulation, which helps bring balance to the body's nervous system during times of crisis. Try this in the morning.

In this modern age, there are also many apps that can help you with meditation, mindfulness, stress relief and deep relaxation.

House chores

This is a good time to do things you've been putting off for ages. How about making a daily schedule? For example, do your spring cleaning. Assign each day of the week to one house chore or project such as cleaning windows, cleaning kitchen cupboards and wardrobes and set aside for charity all those clothes you haven’t worn for ages. Keep yourself busy with activities such as cooking, reading, online learning and watching movies.

Reading

With home isolation, we have a lot more time on our hands. So one way of dealing with the downtime while at the same time having fun is to draw up a reading list. You may have several books you've wanted to read for ages. And to give your reading some structure, it may be helpful to set aside a certain time every day for reading, even if it’s only one hour.

News and anxieties

The constant news about the pandemic can be relentless, so try to only look at reputable sources and limit the amount of time you spend watching the news. That means you can stay well informed, but not become overwhelmed by negative information. 

Talking to family

Talking to family and friends is one of the best ways of relieving anxiety. A trouble shared is a trouble halved. Set up certain times a day when you call a friend or member of the family or use the modern technologies of Skype or FaceTime to catch up. 

We will go back to 'normal'

Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said, "People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within."

As Dr D says, “If you don’t own the story, you cannot define the ending ... hopefully, by facing reality and navigating our way through the sadness and anger, we can get to the stage of acceptance of the facts of the current situation, which then frees us to face and deal with our vulnerabilities, find courage, and propel creativity and innovation.”

The coronavirus will change our lives forever. When the pandemic is over we'll go back to "normal", but it won't be the normal we have known. We've taken many things for granted and won't be able to do so again.

Whatever we do, in terms of focus, we need to stay in the present. All we can do is embrace the situation and make the most of it by taking care of our physical and mental health. 

*Irene Charnley is a successful businesswoman and President of the International Women’s Forum of South Africa, a powerful organisation of  7 000 accomplished women from 33 nations on six continents who come together to inspire and invigorate each other on key issues impacting a changing world. 

Image credit: Photo supplied