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How to keep our mental health in check during lockdown

ONE of the toughest tasks we face during this period of lockdown is taking care of our mental health, especially as there’s no clear end in sight. A recent survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation and Institute of Public Health at the University of Cambridge found more than six in ten people felt anxious, over one in five felt panic and three in ten felt afraid.

‘Emotionally, the biggest challenge is likely to be an experience of loss and grief [for the life we had] combined with anxiety and uncertainty about the future,’ says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of the Chelsea Psychology Clinic (thechelseapsychologyclinic.com).

‘Looking after our mental wellbeing can make the difference between this time being merely psychologically challenging and being intolerable. The more we support ourselves, the more we are strengthening our own resilience muscles, so we come out of this feeling stronger and more robust.’

Start the day right

Don’t wallow under the duvet.

‘Wake up at the same time you would if you were heading to the office, and avoid the news and social media for a good 15 minutes to avoid filling your head with all the doom and gloom,’ says Dr Tony Ortega, clinical psychologist and the author of #AreYouHereYet? How To STFU & Show Up For Yourself.

‘If you are having any negative feelings, do one thing that will make you feel good, such as putting on make-up just because, or having your favourite meal for breakfast.

‘Remember, we always have control over the choices we make. This isn’t meant to minimise your feelings but to empower your thoughts and behaviours. Choose how your day is going to go under the present circumstances.’

Create structure

Unleashed: A workout at home has a positive impact on symptoms of anxiety

Humans thrive on routine, so it’s understandable many of us feel adrift right now.

‘A lockdown means a lot of restrictions on people, environments and occupations, and this can reduce our sense of meaning, purpose and identity,’ says Michael Sheppey, occupational therapist and Odhealth consultant (odhealth.com).

Create a plan for how you’ll spend your day.

‘This will immediately give your day shape and purpose,’ says Dr Dane Vishnubala, chief medical adviser at Active IQ (activeiq.co.uk). ‘This could be as simple as setting aside time to read, learning a new skill online or completing a jigsaw. Take a moment to acknowledge when you have completed it: that mental “tick” is rewarding.’

Get moving

Exercise has a positive effect on symptoms of anxiety and depression.

‘Any workout at home that gets you out of breath and challenges your body will release those feel-good endorphins,’ says Elliott Upton, personal trainer at Ultimate Performance and head of LiveUP online coaching (upfitness.co.uk).

‘Use your own body weight for resistance, do HIIT workouts or just increase your energy expenditure dramatically through activities that aren’t formal exercise such as gardening, household chores, walking the dog or playing with the children in the garden. Even walking around the house is better than remaining sedentary.’

Define boundaries

Being confined to our homes can lead to low mood, anxiety and restlessness, not least if you’re cooped up with other people.

‘Recognise that this is not a natural situation and take time to discuss fears and worries,’ says Babylon Health GP Dr Elise Dallas (babylonhealth.com). ‘Define boundaries and rules so each person can feel a sense of control about their space. Communicating these things early can avoid rows later.’

Chartered psychologist Dr Vanessa Moulton from Mindflex Group (mindflexgroup.com) suggests taking time out for yourself as well.

‘Try to find pockets of time in the day to be by yourself or engage with things you find positive, even if it’s just ten minutes with your headphones on, listening to some uplifting songs,’ she says.

Stay connected

Talking point: Keeping in touch with friends and family will help with loneliness

Self-isolation can increase the chances of developing depression and anxiety through loneliness.

‘Physical isolation is not the same as social isolation — we can remain socially connected yet physically distant,’ says Dr David Plans, the co-founder and CEO of BioBeats (biobeats.com). ‘This is an opportunity to feel more connected than ever as we collectively come together to fight the spread of this virus.’

‘Reach out to your support network and stay connected with them on a daily basis,’ says Dr Martina Paglia, psychologist and founder of The International Psychology Clinic (theinternationalpsychologyclinic.com). ‘Make connections with new people — join a forum, an online group or a peer support group, and try to share your experience of feeling lonely. This can help you feel more connected with the world around you.’

Keep a sleep routine

Up and at ’em: Get out of bed at your normal time to keep a sense of routine

As tempting as it might be to binge-watch box sets all night, getting enough sleep is essential for our mental health.

‘The first two hours of sleep we get are vital in rebalancing metabolism and reducing stress levels but the sleep we get from 9pm to 11pm can also help to rebalance feelings of hopelessness, confusion and paranoia,’ says Silentnight’s sleep expert, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan (silentnight.co.uk). ‘Between 11pm and 1am our muscles start to repair themselves and our feelings of bitterness and resentment are gradually alleviated.

‘Missing these vital chances for our emotions to be rebalanced can lead us to feel generally unhappy, and those of us who miss the first stage of sleep can often feel stagnant and stuck in life, lacking in motivation and a sense of purpose.’

Avoid catastrophising

Anxiety can be exacerbated by rolling news coverage and unfounded rumours that spread like wildfire across social media.

‘Be thoughtful about what makes you nervous and scared,’ says Dr Balu Pitchiah, founder of the Emotional Wellness Clinic. ‘Limiting the time you listen to the news is a good way to keep things in perspective.

‘Practising mindfulness techniques is helpful to quieten the world around you and make time for things that make you happy.’

It’s also helpful to acknowledge this situation will eventually pass.

‘All emotions, even the most intense and difficult ones, are temporary, although they might not seem it at the time,’ says Brendan Street, Nuffield Health professional head of emotional wellbeing (nuffieldhealth.com). ‘Take a moment to remind yourself of all the things that are in your control.’

Ditch the drink

Don’t bottle it: The WHO warns against using alcohol as a coping mechanism

Alcohol sales jumped by 22 per cent in March as people stockpiled booze but the World Health Organisation has warned against people using alcohol as a coping strategy.

‘The major problem is people are using alcohol as a coping mechanism and it’s probably the worst thing that they could do because it is a depressant,’ says Ruari Fairbairns, founder and CEO of One Year No Beer (oneyearnobeer.com).

‘This is the perfect time, with our change in environments, to focus on our physical and mental health and leave alcohol at the door,’ he adds.