Be alone, but don’t be lonely

Be alone, but don't be lonely.

6 tips to support good mental health during COVID-19

by Senior Planner at Leith, Caitlin Mackie.

No one likes uncertainty, particularly when we’re faced with a constant flood of information about the spread of coronavirus across the globe. It is unprecedented – not because it’s a viral pandemic, the world has seen those before – but because we’re seeing and sharing information about it in (nearly) real-time. News articles, press clips, tweets, emails, app notifications… the volume and pace of information is relentless.

Some people’s knee jerk response is to self-isolate, batten down the hatches and protect their own. But isolation is lonely, particularly when you’re feeling afraid for your loved ones. Everyone knows someone who is at risk.

Panic and fear are viral conditions that spread easily, if not faster and more insidiously than viruses do. Reaching out for reassurance by opening your Twitter app can have the opposite effect because other people’s distress becomes your distress.

While we need to be mindful of others and follow the authorities’ advice, it’s also important to be aware of how you’re feeling and why. The negative mental effects of fear, frustration, isolation, boredom and a lack of control can be significant. To combat this, here is a handful of ideas to help you gain control of your feelings and help those around you by spreading messages of support rather than panic.

1. Lean into empathy, not away from it

Last week, President Trump spoke about a “foreign virus” and continues to use nationalistic language when talking about COVID-19. This is a way of thinking about the disease that’s grounded in racism and xenophobia because it focuses on the things that separate us.

To be clear, this is a global threat because the virus does not care about gender, race, culture or geographical borders. Now more than ever, we need to find ways to connect and share our humanity. An invisible virus that we don’t yet understand is spreading through the world: that’s terrifying no matter who you are. It’s important to empathise with those who are infected and remember that they haven’t done anything wrong. So, if someone sneezes in a crowded aisle in Tesco, think before you castigate them. Be kind.

2. Recognise others’ feelings

A common perspective is that COVID-19 is not all that scary to healthy people. It’s like a flu, the case fatality rate is relatively low and most people will overcome it without much medical help. However, there are many who are immunocompromised, elderly, diabetic, asthmatic and are truly at risk, but also justifiably afraid.

There are those with conditions such as anxiety and OCD where navigating this experience is unbearable. Pregnant women are tasked with safely ushering babies into a world of physical, financial and existential uncertainty. I point this out not to make you afraid but to make you mindful. If you are at risk, how are you feeling? If you’re not at risk, how is your loved one who is at risk feeling? Ask them.

3. Take control of the information you consume

Feeling small and stuck inside structures that are bigger than you or tossed and trampled by forces that are out of your control can leave you feeling powerless. You are not powerless. If you’re self-isolating, limiting your news and social media consumption is a good first step to protecting your mental health. If it’s second nature to log into Facebook every morning, re-consider how it makes you feel right now. There is a lot of misinformation swirling around; stick to fewer, trusted news sources instead. Better yet, turn to media that makes you feel good, whether that’s Frasier re-runs on TV or a podcast on happiness – douse yourself in positivity.

4. Don’t just clean your hands

It’s well-known that our physical environments can have an impact on mental wellbeing. If you’re spending prolonged periods at home, take the opportunity to do the laundry, clean out that pesky cupboard that’s always overflowing, run the vacuum over the stairs and keep washing yourself as you normally would. This helps to stop the spread of disease but it also provides a cleaner, less cluttered environment for you and your family. Schedule time every day to go out into nature, enjoy the sunlight, breathe fresh air and take the opportunity to exercise.

5. Be alone, but don’t be lonely

Distancing yourself from others is an important strategy for slowing contagion. And yet, in times of stress, our instinct is to reach out to others for help. The difficult thing about coronavirus is that authorities are telling us to go in exactly the opposite direction: to move apart when we want to be together.

Look for or create virtual safe spaces among colleagues, neighbours and friends. Take the opportunity to email an old friend, FaceTime a relative or have a Netflixparty. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge how you’re feeling but also use this time to tell jokes, let off steam, dawdle and generally enjoy a sense of community. Social distancing doesn’t mean you should stop being social.

6. Ask for help and help as much as you can

Whether you’re at risk or not, worried or not, self-isolating or going into the office, think creatively about how to stay safe and make meaning within uncertainty. Your options may be unfamiliar, your routine may be upside down, but it’s possible to make a difference anyway. For those who are healthy and financially privileged, look for those in need and volunteer to get groceries for someone or continue to support a local business if it’s safe to do so.

But most of all, give yourself grace: this is not a time to start hitting the gym or cutting out carbs or entering the dating game. Working from home, managing childcare, ensuring you have enough supplies, caring for elderly or vulnerable loved ones and staying healthy is a lot, and it’s important.

If you or someone you know is struggling, here is a list of helpers to call.

Caitlin Mackie
Caitlin Mackie

Caitlin is a Senior Planner specialising in digital healthcare and pharma comms. She’s an evidence-first problem solver and tends to join projects early on to research challenges, analyse results and shape solutions.