Life is going to look pretty different over the next few weeks and months. At this point, most of us have been housebound more than usual. For some this will be paradise, the introvert’s dream; unless the house you are bound to is full of chaos, housemates or energetic kids. Whatever your setup is, the next few weeks may present challenges for your mental health. You may not be getting as much distance from home as you would like, not getting your daily dose of nature – not getting a comforting squeeze from a good friend, the banter with colleagues or the endorphins from the gym.
A frustrating reality for us is that our mental wellness primarily requires effort. Below are six areas that you can focus on in the weeks ahead, to keep you sane and create a platform for better health (maybe even better than pre-pandemic)
The biggest casualty for us over this period will be our connections to others. If you live alone or with housemates, this may be a tough time ahead. Through our evolutionary development, we are designed for intimacy and relationship: company, connection and intimacy have been shown to reduce anxiety levels (Check out Johan Hari’s Lost Connections)
Thankfully we have many video call platforms to take advantage of over the next few weeks. Start reaching out, call that friend you’ve meant to call for ages, set up video group chats together. Get creative with ways that you can connect. Try using online based platforms like Jackbox.tv to play games with friends while video-calling each other. Use Zoom to set up book clubs or pretend to be in the pub. You could even engage in the lost art of letter writing; find a Pandemic Pen Pal.
It may also be important to implement boundaries; if you live in a busy house, alone time may be hard to find. Work together to organise the day so that everyone can get some space at some point. Even just half an hour alone can do the world of good.
Most importantly, reach out – many are going to feel incredibly lonely throughout this time and not just the elderly. This Loneliness study from the BBC found that those aged between 16-54 scored higher in loneliness than those aged 75+. Loneliness is not about the number of connections you make but the quality, so over the next few weeks, pick up the phone, it may mean a lot to the other person, and it may mean a lot to you. Commit to calling 2-3 people a day to see how they’re doing.
2.Working from home
There is a bit of a ceremony (ideally) when you finish work. You shut off the computer, close the door and leave the building but you don’t get the same luxury when working from home. Research from Sabine Sonnentag highlights that employees who detach from work are more satisfied with their lives and experience fewer symptoms of psychological strain; this becomes much more difficult when your workspace is your bedroom or dining room table. For me, my cycle home from work is my “clear the decks time” allowing me to put the day behind me and choose where my energy and attention goes. Deprived of my daily cycle, I’ve felt caught between work and personal life and not able to fully engage in either. Without our usual rituals, we will need to find alternatives.
If it’s possible, try not to work from your bedroom, allow your room to remain as a place of rest and sleep. If this isn’t possible, make sure you tidy away all your work when the day is done, light candles and change the atmosphere. Organise it with your housemates to give you some time in a different room to give you a break from your bedroom.
If you can, move your desk towards a window. This can help your system relax and increase your focus. Try to stick to a schedule; it can be tempting to wake up later and work later, our typical working life offers a structure that is absent when we work at home.
Our brains love routine, so try and keep a regime that works for you. When you are finished work for the day, create a mantra or a ritual that lets you know that it’s time to change gear.
3.Maintain or improve your physical health
My go-to excuse for when I flake on my physical health is either that I didn’t have time, or I wasn’t prepared. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for me, those excuses are eliminated at the moment. Our Physical and Mental Health don’t operate in isolation but rather they work together. If our exercise and diet fall by the wayside, so too may our mental health.
Use this time to stock up on healthier food choices. The more we get stressed, frustrated or anxious, the more we are likely to gravitate towards fatty and sugary foods – I can almost hear the carbs seducing me when I’m stressed or bored!
Try to stock the cupboards and fridge with healthier choices, use this time to explore new recipes and get creative in the kitchen. Reduce your caffeine and alcohol consumption. If you live with others, this could be an opportunity to create healthier habits together: something as simple as coming up with a meal plan and sharing a table together can lighten the load for everyone.
Most gyms have begun closing but the days are getting warmer and longer. There is a lot of research highlighting the increased benefits of exercising in nature versus exercising indoors. Both are great for you, but nature reduces stress more and gives you a greater endorphin hit. So, get out the running or hiking boots and get outside – keep your social distancing but hike with friends.
If going outside isn’t an option – many gyms have begun offering online lessons, Yoga studios like “The Space between” are offering online sessions. You could try following apps like My Fitness Pal or Asana Rebel Yoga. Even get out the spandex and fluorescent colours and enjoy a 1980’s Jane Fonda exercise class via YouTube (they are tough!!!).
4.Creativity and Challenge
A lot of us will find that we now have a lot more free time on our hands. Through my coaching sessions, I’ve found that this is a regular source of anxiety for many. We have given so much of our life to work and socialising that hobbies like reading and other creative interests have long been forgotten.
We all have a creative side: whether it’s music, painting, writing, DIY or coding. There are many ways of expressing your creativity that don’t have to be outcome dependent.
I can barely draw a stick man or saw timber straight, but I’ve recently bought canvases and painting supplies. It will most likely be offensive to the eyes, but that’s not the goal – the goal is to create for the fun of it. In the same way that we play Playdough or Lego as children, you can find your freedom in creativity while you have the time again. There is no right or wrong.
Use this time to master new skills like a language or join an online museum tour. If something interests you, feed it! In Sonentag’s research, one key factor towards a healthy work-life balance and increased satisfaction is Mastery, engaging in a task (separate from work) that challenges you. Try new recipes, open a jigsaw, write that story you’ve wanted to tell or paint your bedroom. Find a challenge and jump in.
Reconnect with the natural world. For most of our existence, humans have spent most of our time outdoors connected to nature – large concrete cities are relatively new to us as a species. Spending time outdoors reduces stress and anxiety and increases objectivity and creativity. Over the next few weeks try and get out for hikes and walks- invite friends to join but travel separately. Walk together but keep the recommended distance apart.
If going out to nature is difficult, bring nature indoors. Most supermarkets are selling house plants: introduce some to your room. Get your hands dirty in the soil of your new plants, bring in hyacinths, heather or lilies to add natural aromas and colour to your house. If you have a garden, get out and get it ready for the summer.
6.Mindfulness and Meditation
Finally, we have our thoughts. It will be natural for the next few weeks to affect you; these are strange and uncomfortable times. Mindfulness and meditation practices can help in keeping us grounded, objective and calm. They sometimes feel quite dull, but there is an abundance of research highlighting their benefits to our mental health and productivity when we practice regularly. Try and substitute the time you would have spent commuting to practicing meditation.
Mindfulness and Meditation don’t require you to empty your mind, but rather for you to choose what it focuses on. Over the next few weeks, you may be drawn towards worry, boredom, frustration and fear. These can take hold of our thoughts and cause us to lose sight of what we do have, and the opportunities that this time can give us.
Many of us may also be spending time alone with thoughts that can be quite harsh and demanding. The most powerful tool we have towards our self-growth and improvement is self-compassion. If you find your thoughts going towards a negative, try and reframe the thought with compassion towards yourself.
Try and avoid fear-mongering in the media and follow reputable sources. Schedule times to check the news rather than continuously scrolling and checking the latest stories. I’ve chosen once in the morning (after breakfast), after lunch and 2hrs before bed.
If things are getting difficult for you, reach out to friends or get in contact with a Coach or a Therapist. Many of us are offering online sessions or even sessions outdoors. If this is something that you feel would be useful, get in touch with me and I’d be happy to explore how we might work together, or find someone else who may be better suited to you.
Most of all, throughout this time, stay safe and protect those around you, humans are capable of great things when we stick together.
Summary: Survival Guide, Remember, Mental Fitness and Wellbeing takes effort!
- Use video calls to stay connected with friends
- Get creative – play games like jackbox.tv or create book clubs to be together
- Create boundaries with housemates and family for alone time once a day
- We need connections: commit to calling 2-3 people a day to check in and combat loneliness
Working from home
- Clear away your work at the end of the day
- Create a mantra or ceremony that signals the end of the workday
- Try to keep your workspace and bedroom separate
- Schedule breaks with housemates to your needs
- Keep a routine
Maintain physical fitness
- Use this time to create healthier habits
- Stock up the fridge with healthier options
- Get creative in the kitchen
- Reduce caffeine and alcohol consumption
- If you live with others; cook together, share the load
- Go for runs or hikes outside – research shows this gives you more endorphins
- Log into online exercise classes
Creativity and Challenge
- Rekindle your creativity… for fun!
- Feed your interests
- Take up new tasks
- Get outdoors as much as you can (keeping social distances)
- Walk with friends
- Bring nature indoors – buy plants
- Do gardening – even just windowsill gardening can help
Mindfulness and Meditation
- Build a Mindfulness or Meditation practice to help with worry, frustration or boredom
- Keep your own thoughts kind!
- Check the news at set times and from reputable sources only
Written by Robert Lewis, a Psychotherapist and Executive Coach based in Dublin; As a partner of The Wellness Crew, Robert offers a host of workshops based on mental fitness and wellbeing in the corporate sector. Robert is also the Chairman of the Ecopsychology and Ecotherapy Association of Ireland.