While feelings of stress and anxiety are a completely normal response to our unusual and unprecedented circumstances, it’s important we try and curb the impact it’s having on us both emotionally and physically. Stress can cause an excess of the hormone cortisol in our bodies, which increases our vulnerability to depression. It also shrinks our synapses, making us less able to think clearly and work productively. Meanwhile the anxiety chemical adrenaline has been shown to have an adverse effect on our immune system – the very last thing anyone needs, at the moment.
Here are some tips for managing your mental health and regulating your chemical balance, whilst stuck indoors:
Maintain a routine
You don’t necessarily have to get up at the same time as you would have done if you were going out to work (in fact, lockdown is a good opportunity to tune into your body’s natural rhythms, whether you’re a lark, night owl or have peak productivity in the afternoons), but you should aim to wake up and go to bed at approximately the same time each day.
Sleeping too much or too little can both disrupt mental wellbeing. If you’re having difficulty drifting off, try doing something before bed that uses your imagination, like writing a story or visualising your dream holiday. The imagination is the doorway between conscious and unconscious thought and this should help you feel sleepy.
While we’re currently allowed to leave the house for a walk or run, the danger is that we become more sedentary when we are confined to the house. Physical activity has been shown to be as effective in combating mild to moderate symptoms of depression as medication, so it’s important to take the opportunity to be active when we can. Many online influencers are creating workouts you can follow at home (including Joe Wicks the Body Coach – head over to his YouTube channel to find out more), but if you’re really short of space then doing some simple stretches is a quick way to release feel-good endorphins.
Limit News Consumption
The situation with Covid-19 changes daily and we naturally want to stay on top of the latest developments and advice. Unfortunately, even if the news you’re accessing is from a reputable source (and not a sensationalist ‘hot take’ or scaremongering ‘fake news’) hearing it over and over again is going to increase your anxiety. Pick an outlet you trust and check in once or twice per day. You can mute certain keywords on Twitter, if you want to keep up to date with your online community while swerving coronavirus panic. You’ll also generally find picture or video-based social media sites like Instagram to be a much more positive online environment.
Do Something for Others
Whether it’s calling to check in on an elderly relative or texting your neighbour to ask if they want something when you venture out to the food shop, contributing positively to the community not only has a positive impact on others, but has also been shown in numerous studies to increase our own wellbeing.
Avoid ‘What If’ Thoughts and Conversations
Here’s something not a lot of people know about the nature of anxiety: one of the reasons our brains invent catastrophic future scenarios is not only to help us prepare for if the worst should happen, but also because when we seek assurance that it probably won’t happen, it’s comforting. Therefore, the more you speculate, the more comfort you give your brain when you tell yourself everything will be OK.
Unfortunately, the brain’s fear/anxiety mechanism happens in the amygdala, which is not particularly sophisticated and doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined dangers. So the more you do this, the more anxious you’ll feel, the more reassurance you’ll seek and the whole thing will quickly end up being a vicious circle.
Instead, remind yourself that the past is unchangeable, the future unknowable and the only thing we can control is the present…
Mindfulness can help you to achieve the goal of staying in the moment. The app Headspace is a great introduction to the practice for beginners and is currently offering some free resources called ‘Weathering the Storm’.
Belonging is absolutely crucial to mental health so thank goodness for FaceTime, Skype, Google hangouts and their ilk. Try to create digital versions of your usual social activities – At first it’s a bit odd looking at a screen whilst drinking a cup of coffee and remembering that the person you’re taking to is incapable of passing you the sugar, but you soon get used to it. Being able to see your friends’ face as you chat will increase your sense of community and genuine connection.
Pick up the phone
Although it’s sometimes hard to talk, make the effort. Speak to anyone. Voices carry much more impact than texts.
There is a link between what we eat and mental health and whilst a large slab of chocolate cake may give you an instant hit, the longer term effects can lead to more anxiety. Better you try and stick to a balanced diet and not overeat or under-eat.
One could argue that being depressed makes us more likely to eat unhealthy foods. This is true, so we should ask what came first, the diet or the depression? Researchers have addressed this question, thankfully. A large analysis looked at baseline diet and then calculated the risk of study volunteers going on to develop depression. Researchers found that a healthy diet (the Mediterranean diet as an example) was associated with a significantly lower risk of developing depressive symptoms.
A dietary pattern characterised by a high consumption of red and/or processed meat, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter, potatoes and high-fat gravy, and low intakes of fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of depression.
Include Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Fatty fish (anchovy, mackerel, salmon, sardines, shad, and tuna)
- Canola and soybean oils.
- Nuts, especially walnuts.
- Dark green, leafy vegetables.