Supporting your wellbeing and mental health during COVID-19 and beyond

Catriona Davies from Resolution Mediation Scotland has a wealth of experience in supporting teams and staff’s wellbeing. We asked her for some tips on how we can ensure that we continue to remain well during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guide

9 min read

COVID-19 has brought many challenges to us all, both personally and professionally. It is unprecedented times which none of us could have prepared for. It also brings great challenges in how we look after ourselves both mentally and emotionally.

Managing and supporting our emotional and mental wellbeing has never been so important as it is during the current COVID-19 outbreak. The uncertainty and threat of infection, is something which impacts us all to a greater or lesser extent. It is helpful to explore what mental health is and what we can all do to ensure that we take action to remain well.

1. What is mental health?

Often when we think of mental health, we actually think of mental ill health. We think of the range of mental health conditions such as depression and stress. The term ‘mental health’ actually describes our emotional, physiological and social wellbeing. Our mental health determines how well we are able to cope with the stresses of life for example and how we make choices and the extent we socialise with other people. Fundamentally, it affects how we function as a whole and the decisions we make in every aspect of our life.

2. Why does mental health matter?

In the exact same way, we take steps to look after our physical health, we also need to take steps to ensure we are mentally well. When we are physically ill, our body struggles to perform the tasks that we usually would carry out without any problem. In the exact same way, when our mental health is impacted, we can struggle to carry out daily tasks and our ability to perform at work is impacted. There is a clear link between our mental and physical health, with each being affected by the other. To ensure we are well and able to live our lives to the fullest extent, we need to look after both our mental and physical health.

3. What are the signs that your mental health is being impacted?

All of us, at one point or another in our life, will have times when are mental health is impacted. The uncertainty and dramatic change to our lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, may be a time when you are aware that your mental wellbeing is at a low ebb. The signs that your mental wellbeing is being affected fall into four main areas and some of the associated signs are below:

Cognitive

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Anxious and racing thoughts
  • Difficulty in making decisions
  • Feeling disorganised or finding it harder to organise
  • Struggling to absorb new information
  • Forgetting things
  • Making ill informed decisions or acting rashly

Emotional

  • Poor self-esteem
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Crying easily
  • Being unable to relax
  • Being irritable with others
  • Mood swings

Physical

  • Aching and tense muscles
  • Gaining or losing weight
  • Rapid heartbeat or chest pain
  • Feeling lethargic
  • Being unable to sleep
  • Panic attacks

Behavioural

  • Drinking alcohol more frequently to relax
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Changes in appetite
  • Overreacting to situations or people
  • Lack of motivation to look after yourself or your family

Looking at the signs above, it’s really helpful to check in from time to time to consider if any of these signs, are beginning to be apparent for yourself. If you are experiencing symptoms, then it is an indicator that your mental health is under stress and you need to take some steps to be well. What is really important in supporting our own mental health is acknowledging when it is under strain and then taking the right steps to address that – in a similar way when we weren’t feeling physically well.

4. What can I do to support my mental health?

Below are 3 key areas where you can take action to support your mental health.

1. Sleeping well

Mental Health Professionals often highlight the importance of good sleep ‘hygiene’ in promoting good mental health, and a key area in supporting ourselves during the current COVID-19 health crisis is to ensure, as far as possible, that we are sleeping well.

Top sleep tips:

  • Be clear in your own mind how much sleep you should ideally have each night – it is usually more than what you may think! Think of a time when you have felt well and alert in the past and how much sleep you had.
  • Identify a target time to go to sleep each night, which should be when you feel tired and ready to sleep. Structure your night routine around this target time and think of ways you can achieve this, particularly if you have a partner with a different sleep schedule!
  • Create a clear wind down routine prior to going to bed. Ensure the bedroom is cool and your bed space is set up in a way that you can associate with sleep. Do not use phones or laptops or other electronic devices when in bed (consider charging your phone out of your bedroom). Creating a clear association between sleep and your bed is extremely helpful.
  • Ensure your bedroom is sufficiently dark enough for you to sleep and if not perhaps invest in blackout blinds or an eye mask.
  • Wherever possible, try to stick to a consistent sleep routine – with getting up and going to bed times remaining fairly constant.

2. Relaxation

Learning ways to relax and calm ourselves is a crucial step in supporting our mental health, particularly in the current times. It is important to use your relaxation techniques in a structured and systematic way every day. Think of a specific time each day to actively work on relaxation to ensure that on the days you may feel stressed and are aware of the need to relax, you’ve already practised your chosen method in relaxation, that works for you.

Below are some useful pointers in relaxation techniques:

  • Deep breathing is a simple but effective method of relaxation. It is a core component of yoga and Zen meditation, as well as of the common approach of taking "10 deep breaths" to calm down. Many people spend much of their time breathing very shallowly, filling only the upper part of their chest with air. This shallow breathing limits the amount of oxygen that your body takes in, and it can also make you feel very anxious in times of stress. By contrast, deep breathing can decrease stress, lower your blood pressure, and slow your heart rate. Deep breathing – also called diaphragmatic, or belly breathing – takes place when, instead of just breathing with your ribs, you breathe so that your lower belly expands. All you need to do is sit comfortably, take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, and focus on what it feels like filling your lower belly with air. Repeat for a few minutes – building up for a longer period of time.

  • Progressive muscular relaxation (PMR), is useful for relaxing your body when your muscles are tense. PMR teaches you to recognise when you are starting to get tense and how to relax. The idea behind PMR is that you tense up a group of muscles, so that they're tightly contracted. Hold them in a state of extreme tension for a few seconds, and then relax the muscles normally. Then, consciously relax your muscles even more. Try the following:
    • Hold each of the following positions for five seconds, and then relax.
    • Close your eyes as tightly as possible and keep them shut for five seconds.
    • Hold your arms in front of you and clench your fists as tightly as possible.
    • Pull your shoulder muscles up toward your ears.
    • Bend your arms and tense your biceps as tightly as possible.
    • Tighten your abdominal muscles.
    • Curl your toes downwards as much as possible.
  • Mindfulness or meditation, both of which help to focus on the present to improve your mental health and lighten negative feelings. Try the following exercise: Sit in a comfortable place, by a window where you can see out. Spend some time really looking at what you see in front of you. Be really curious about the colours, the shapes, the movements and really focus on the detail of what you are able to see. Whenever you become aware of your mind wandering off onto something else, refocus on what you first see and think of how you would describe it, in minute detail to someone else.

  • There are also a lot of different apps to use, for example Insight Timer has a wide variety of guided mediation’s both short and longer which focus on specific areas. Calm is a mindfulness app that will help you sleep, mediate, and relax. Daylio Journal is a micro-diary app to record your moods and activities each day.

3. Social connections

Human beings are social animals, and contact with other people is often a fundamental part of feeling well and for maintaining positive mental health. One of the great challenges to our mental health during the current pandemic is we are unable to maintain our face-to-face connections and contact with others. Such is the power of feeling connected with others to our mental wellbeing, it is absolutely vital that you find ways to have contact with other people.

Some tips to help you remain connected to others:

  • Make a list of all the colleagues at work that you feel comfortable with, and send an email to a different one, perhaps once a day, to see how they are in the current circumstances. Just ‘check in’ to say hello – and see what happens!
  • Have an online coffee break or drink with a friend, where you agree a set time and catch up using some form of online technology to see each other. Once you have done this a few times, it will feel much more comfortable and normal.
  • Set yourself a goal of making social contact with a friend or family member most days if you can – either through email, phone or online. Online is best as you have the benefit of seeing the person as well as hearing them – it creates greater connection. This is particularly important if you are living on your own and/or working arrangements are quite isolated. If you have a small group of family and friends, know that even contact once a week will be uplifting and helpful. Sharing experiences and knowing there are other people riding the rollercoaster of emotions that are around during COVID-19, will be of great benefit to both you and them.
  • Take advantage of any connections/opportunities to meet online or by telephone with colleagues – such as remote meetings. However, ensure this doesn’t mean back to back Zoom meetings with no break in between!

5. What if I still don’t feel better?

Sometimes we try a range of techniques to support our mental health and find that we are still struggling. Sometimes it’s helpful just to talk to someone, especially if being alone at home is making you feel low.

  • You can call the Samaritans 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on 116 123.
  • You can also phone Breathing Space for advice and support on 0800 83 85 87. The service is open: Monday to Thursday - 6pm to 2am, Friday 6pm to Monday 6am

You can also seek help from your GP, who can refer you onto your local mental health team if necessary.

Above all else, know that all of us will struggle with our mental health at some point in our life, now more than ever and whilst you may feel isolated, reaching out for help is the strongest action you can take to be well.

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