As someone with a chronic anxiety disorder, and intermittent agoraphobia, it is essential for my mental health to keep to a routine, be busy, go out regularly, and maintain social contact.
Yet today, amidst a global pandemic that has seen many countries on lockdown as the death toll continues to rise, these things are increasingly hard to do.
I, like so many others across the world, am following government guidance on social distancing. By doing this we hope to slow the spread of the coronavirus, for the good of all. However, this comes at a personal cost. We know the effect that the virus can have on physical health. But the strain on mental health is also of huge concern.
So what am I doing to try to maintain my mental wellbeing in these unsettling times? And what can others do? As Virginia Satir, the American therapist and author, says: “Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem.”
Be aware of triggers
Excessive consumption of the news, as well as spending too much time on social media, can trigger anxiety. Headlines of rising death tolls. Stories of health systems under strain and without adequate supplies. Speculations about how long we may have to stay on lockdown. First-person stories of what it is like to have coronavirus. Rumours of local people who are infected.
For someone with an anxiety disorder, who is prone to catastrophising, how can these stories not trigger stress? In my case, much of this comes out at night in nightmares. I wake with my heart racing and stomach churning.
Recognising this, very early on in the crisis I stopped using social media. And, as we reach what is expected to be the peak of the virus in the UK, I have made the decision to stop watching the news entirely. We know that this will get worse before it gets better. Hearing that repeated over again does not help my mental health.
Stick to a routine
I work from home and – unlike many others – am lucky in that I still have work. However, as the reality of the ‘new normal’ sets in, the temptation to work on my laptop in bed is almost irresistible some days. After all, what’s the point in getting up when you can’t go out? And what’s the point in putting on nice clothes when there’s nobody to see you?
At these moments, I think back to a dark time in my life when I was in a psychiatric hospital for my anxiety and all I wanted to do was stay in bed. Yet every morning a nurse would come and make me get up, shower, and dress. Simple things, yes, but very important ones. If you look good, chances are you’ll feel better.
So on the second day of lockdown, I got up, showered, curled my hair, put on some makeup and a pair of heels, and sat down at my desk to work. I felt better.
Avoid turning inward
Like many others who suffer from anxiety, I also have a tendency to look inward, examining and interrogating how I am feeling: Am I anxious? Am I ill? These times we are living in encourage this sort of behaviour, as we are told to be vigilant for the first signs of infection.
For the first days, I took my temperature excessively, obsessing over the numbers and fluctuations. Is a temperature of 35.5 too low? Does a rise from 36.3, to 36.6, to 36.9, over the course of an evening mean that I am starting a fever? Recognising this as unhealthy behaviour, I have put the thermometer back in its case. Only if I feel hot or unwell, will I take my temperature.
Get out of the house (in accordance with government guidelines)
As a recovering agoraphobic, the prospect of having restrictions on when I could go out, and for what, was very daunting. I usually take my dogs – Mavis and Bernie – to one of my local parks twice a day. Yet with only one form of exercise allowed, I realised I had to make it count.
So I now go on one really long walk with them a day – not to the park, but to the local woods or on the Sussex downs, which are nearby. I’m hardly one of life’s natural ramblers or hikers, but to my great surprise I’m loving it. I’m building my fitness, enjoying being in wide open green spaces, taking pleasure in watching my dogs explore. At the end of each walk I feel exhilarated.
Keep socially connected
While I haven’t downloaded the various party apps, I make sure that I talk to my family and friends every day on the phone, and we also leave each other voice notes. I am on countless WhatsApp group chats. Some are serious, checking in with one another about how we’re feeling and offering support. Others circulate silly memes and funny video clips. Others are for my local area, set up to help vulnerable people and give something back to the community. I have left homemade soup on people’s doorsteps, gone to the shops for others.
Staying busy and occupied is crucial when you are anxious. I’m fortunate in that work is keeping me busy. But when I’m not working, I have been doing all those things that I always mean to do, but never get around to. I have cleaned the house from top to bottom, done some gardening, made various casseroles for the freezer. They’re little things but they make a big difference in helping me feel that I have some agency and control over my wellbeing.
Have an attitude of gratitude
When I wake up some mornings and my thoughts start to spiral – as I wonder if and when life will return to normal – I ask myself: what do I have to be grateful for? And actually, compared to many people, it’s a lot. I have work. A supportive husband. A house and a garden. Enough food to eat. Family. Friends. Dogs. And for all that I am immensely grateful.
It’s tough out there, and getting tougher, so try to avoid making it worse by stressing about the things you can’t control, and control the things that create extra stress.