The physical health impacts of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are well known, as is the economic impact. Mandatory working from home, social distancing, the closure of businesses and cutting of jobs are all a tangible effect of the pandemic. Something less visible is the impact the pandemic can have on your mental health.
The COVID-19 outbreak has forced people to isolate themselves from their co-workers, family and friends, radically reshaping, if not all but removing the normal social safety net that most people rely on in times of uncertainty. Isolation and quarantine (even self-imposed) can have serious mental health ramifications , as can the economic uncertainty brought on by companies cutting hours or staff in an effort to remain solvent. Combine that with the fear of the virus itself and you have a situation potentially more volatile than the actual Coronavirus.
Paying attention to the ways in which the pandemic and social distancing may be affecting ourselves, our co-workers and loved ones could help not only your mental health, but your physical health as well. Some signs that the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing impacting your mental health include but are not limited to:
Signs that COVID-19 and social distancing are impacting your mental health
- Fear of loss of livelihood due to either a tangible loss of work or uncertainty about the permanence of a job.
- Constant fear for your own safety or the safety of loved ones.
- Panic buying - the need to hoard food, hand sanitiser, toilet paper, medicine and other supplies.
- Compounding stress from constant media bombardment of COVID-19 information.
- A growing fear of leaving the house.
- Loneliness and depressive symptoms due to lack of contact both physical and emotional/ anger or anxiety due to being confined with other people (such as a large family or share house)
- Health Anxiety - the certainty that every cough, sneeze or tickle in your throat is COVID-19.
- Stigmatisation of people showing any sign of illness or rage directed at “Chinese” people.
- Increased substance use including alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs
- Domestic violence
The stressors related to social distancing and fear of infection can also act as a trigger for those already living with mental illness
Historically, Australia has been relatively lucky when it comes to global pandemics. Not counting the current pandemic, there have been five other pandemics to impact Australia. The 1918 Spanish Flu was the deadliest pandemic ever to affect Australia and New Zealand and marked the last time that state borders were closed to slow the spread of a virus. The 1957 Asian Flu, 1968 Hong Kong Flu , the HIV/AIDS epidemic and 2009 Swine Flu have all impacted Australia but not in a manner as socially and economically devastating as we’re currently seeing with the Novel Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Most of us have never experienced an event on the scale we are currently witnessing, so it’s natural that we are all, in one way or another, afraid.
Fear is a natural human response, and a healthy one for the most part. It’s part of our survival mechanism, triggering what is commonly known as the fight or flight response. Fear makes your autonomic nervous system trigger your adrenal glands, flooding your body with adrenaline, causing your breathing to quicken and your heart to race, preparing your body to either run from a threat or fight it. After the threat has passed it takes the body some time to recover. Repeated triggering of the response can cause changes in the body and brain that can contribute to the development of depression, anxiety and addiction.
One of the key ways to lower stress and fear is through a strong social network, but with social distancing and lockdown protocols that may not always be possible. Thankfully there are a number of other steps you can take to safeguard your mental wellbeing, and the wellbeing of others, against the pressures of the current crisis.
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9 steps you can take to help your wellbeing
LIMIT MEDIA INTAKE Limiting your media intake to a few trusted, non-sensational news sources can be an effective way of reducing feelings of anxiety and maintaining a healthy perspective of current events. The Australian governments Coronavirus (COVID-19) Health Alert and World Health Organisation are two excellent resources for factual, unsensational news. Including limits on the time you spend accessing news or social media can further limit exposure as well as help establish a daily routine.
FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL
Follow official advice and try to remain calm and practical. Stress is infectious, so remaining calm around other people can help them remain calm. Observing the recommended hygiene practices is not only good for your physical wellbeing but can also serve as a reminder that you are doing what you can to keep yourself and others healthy.
REMIND YOURSELF THAT YOU'RE HELPING
Constantly remind yourself that working from home or being under a self-imposed quarantine is not a punishment, but something you are doing to help protect the vulnerable from COVID-19. You are providing a valuable service, not hiding.
Find new ways to connect with friends and family. Even if you can’t be in physical proximity, hosting watching parties online, sharing drinks over Skype or just making frequent calls or texts can keep everyone from feeling alone.
ESTABLISH AND MAINTAIN DAILY ROUTINES
Maintaining routines and structure every day, even if you have to create a new routine to align with the current situation, can help maintain a sense of normalcy. Routines should include adequate sleep, breaks and physical activity. If you’re working from home, it’s important to maintain a routine and if possible create a space dedicated to work, giving you a sense of separation from home and the “office”.
DON’T SELF DIAGNOSE
Consult a doctor, not Google. If you are feeling ill, consult a specialist rather than trying to self-diagnose.
HOW BUSINESSES CAN HELP
Businesses can also help maintain the mental wellbeing of their employees by keeping in contact, maintaining a regular schedule, keeping employees informed of any changes that are being made to the business and engaging an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) for employees to talk to.
PRACTICE SELF CARE
Draw on skills you have used in the past that have helped you to manage previous life’s adversities and use those skills to help you manage during this challenging time. Skills include mindfulness practice such as the use of smart apps like Smiling Mind, regular exercise, engaging in pleasurable activities (e.g, watching your favourite movie, listening to music or reading), cooking, journaling, or talking about feelings to friends and family.
SEEK HELP IF NEEDED
Most important of all, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Monitor your mental health (and the mental health of others) and seek help when required. If you notice symptoms of stress e.g., reduced concentration; sadness; irritability; anger; sleeping problems; social withdrawal; appetite changes; increased substance use and suicidal thoughts, contact your GP or mental Health professional about accessing psychological services, including Telehealth options.
Needing to talk to someone to alleviate your fears or work through stress is a natural response. The easiest way to find a psychologist online is to search and book with MyHealth1st. There are also a number of organisations offering free help and advice, including Beyond Blue , Lifeline , The Black Dog Institute and Reach Out .
It’s important that we remember, even during this time of distance and isolation, that we are all in this together. If you are concerned for yourself or others please call: Lifeline Australia 24hr crisis support on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467