By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This is Episode 39 and this week I’m talking about coronavirus – I’ll be discussing the impact of the ongoing COVID19 pandemic on our mental health and I’ll be looking at things that you can do to build your resilience and improve your overall wellbeing. Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article/transcript version. Let’s talk!
FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
- Fear and uncertainty due to COVID-19 are leading to increases in mental health issues such as anxiety and depression
- COVID19 is unprecedented, and we’re still in the early days of the pandemic — it will not be cured overnight and it will likely take several years for things to settle down; we must accept that fact and brace ourselves that this will continue for some time
- All that you have direct control over is what you do, say and feel, and no amount of yelling or asking to speak to the manager of coronavirus is going to change what is outside of your control; this pandemic is affecting everyone, and the choice is to either be negative about that or to find some common ground with one another as we fight through the challenges that are being hurled at us (and will continue to be hurled at us)
- How you get through this pandemic is your choice: you can choose to give in to fear and to resist what is outside of your control, which will lead to more suffering, or you can choose to accept that what is is what is and use that fear to motivate you to do better
- It is not ‘every person for themselves’; we must work together and we must focus more on ‘we’ and a bit less on ‘me’ — we absolutely deserve our individual rights to freedom but we’re also part of a society, so there has to be balance in all things
Well, 2020 hasn’t quite turned out like we planned has it?! With so much going on in the world there is one topic that unites every single human being on this planet — coronavirus, or to give it its proper name, COVID-19. At the time of writing this episode in early August 2020 nearly 19 million have been infected, more than 700,000 have lost their lives, economies are in tatters, unemployment has skyrocketed, many of us are going weeks and months without seeing our loved ones, and unfortunately there is no ‘quick fix’ in sight.
As I mentioned at the end of last week’s episode, I held off from doing an episode specifically about COVID-19 and mental health because I know just how mentally exhausting all this is and I didn’t want to add to it. However we’re now more than five months on from when the epidemic became a pandemic and things went crazier than they already were, and I think I’ve had enough time now to consider what I can possibly say that would be useful rather than just commenting on what’s going on. Regular listeners will know that I make sure each episode offers practical things you can do to improve your mental health and wellbeing, so even though I’ve mentioned COVID-19 a few times before I’ll be very honest and say that I needed some time to get my own head around everything, because it has certainly triggered off some major anxiety issues for me as I’m sure it has for many of you. I feel a little better equipped now to be able to talk about the subject in this podcast and hopefully provide you with some practical advice on getting through this history-making event with your mental health and wellbeing intact.
A word of warning before we dive in to this topic — you will no doubt know by now that I am fairly direct and blunt, and this topic will be no different. I will not sugarcoat things nor will I hold back from calling ‘bullshit’ on things that need to be called out. Let me be clear that COVID-19 is not a political issue, it is a human issue that has been hijacked by some for political purposes, so if you don’t agree with anything I’m saying then be an adult: simply choose to stop listening and move on.
If we’re going to get through this we need two main things: acceptance and cooperation. Acceptance means facing things as they are and accepting them in order to move forward with realistic optimism; in other words, having a positive mindset while also being realistic about things. Positivity will not magically cure everything, but if it’s combined with a healthy dose of realism then it will go a long way towards helping you to get through this pandemic. The other bit I mentioned was cooperation — this is not a crisis to be endured individually; this situation affects every single one of us on this planet, and so we need to work together to get through it. No finger-pointing, no getting distracted by those who are putting personal agendas ahead of the common good, no being weighed down by pessimism and despair. We will get through this — you will get through this — but it will take time, effort and unity. The ongoing crisis is having a big effect on many people in terms of mental health, whether they care to admit it or not, and so that’s why I make the point to say that both acceptance and cooperation are critical for each of us in terms of how we get through COVID-19. And with that in mind, let’s talk about the impact this pandemic is having on mental health before we then go to the ‘how-to’ section of today’s episode.
The impact of COVID-19 on mental health
Do you know why you keep hearing words like ‘unprecedented’ and ‘uncertain times’ in the media? Because we’ve all been in absolute shock for the past few months and nobody wants to be the one to say “these are confusing, terrifying and really shitty times” so instead we come up with more polished ways of saying that things have gone to hell. However out of adversity comes opportunity, and so as horrible as the impacts have been for those who have suffered in terms of their health or losing their jobs, there is hope that something better can come out of this — more on that later.
Before I get into the ‘positive’ part of being ‘realistically positive’ about coronavirus, let’s do the ‘realistic’ part — the cold, hard facts of what the pandemic has done to many of us in terms of mental health.
The fact is that pretty much all of us have been impacted in some shape or form and are dealing with heightened levels of fear and worry, especially since the situation changes rapidly and it’s impossible to know what tomorrow might hold. That uncertainty is troubling for many, but even more so for the high-risk and vulnerable — older people and those with underlying health conditions, etc., which has a flow-on effect to other, such as to the loved ones who have someone in a nursing home for example.
Mental health is a major concern for many more of us and we’re seeing significant increases in calls to crisis lines and counselling services. To quote the World Health Organisation (link below):
“In public mental health terms, the main psychological impact to date is elevated rates of stress or anxiety. But as new measures and impacts are introduced – especially quarantine and its effects on many people’s usual activities, routines or livelihoods – levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behaviour are also expected to rise.”World Health Organisation, 2020
Then of course there are many other things to consider: the financial and emotional impacts for those who have lost their jobs, the constant fatigue many are experiencing thanks to the 24/7 non-stop news coverage of the pandemic, the short-term and long-term mental health impacts for frontline healthcare and essential workers, the ups and downs associated with adjusting to things being slowly re-opened whether or not it’s completely safe to do so (and as we’re seeing now, then having to re-adjust to things being shut down again as new waves take hold), as well as (and let me quote WHO again from the same article referenced above): “issues of service access and continuity for people with developing or existing mental health conditions are also now a major concern.”
What all of this has in common is that many more people are now living with fear and long-term heightened anxiety, which can have serious effects on your physical and mental health. Let me quote from Healthline (link below):
“Long-term anxiety and panic attacks can cause your brain to release stress hormones on a regular basis. This can increase the frequency of symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and depression. When you feel anxious and stressed, your brain floods your nervous system with hormones and chemicals designed to help you respond to a threat. Adrenaline and cortisol are two examples. While helpful for the occasional high-stress event, long-term exposure to stress hormones can be more harmful to your physical health in the long run. For example, long-term exposure to cortisol can contribute to weight gain.”Healthline
There are many other symptoms so I’d recommend that you check out that article for more information especially if you’re dealing with heightened and ongoing anxiety (something I explored in Episode 18: Burnout, which looks at the longer term effects of heightened stress in the workplace), however the main point I want to make is that with coronavirus we’re dealing with a situation we have never had to deal with in recent human history. Sure, most of us know that there have been plagues and pandemics throughout history but it’s always been some sort of abstract idea and certainly not anything we’ve ever experienced. There hasn’t really been anything this big or global since World War II ended in 1945 — and that was 75 years ago, so most of the people who lived through it aren’t with us anymore or are quite senior.
COVID-19 is unprecedented, and we’re still in the early days of the pandemic — it’s not going to be cured overnight and even if an effective vaccine is found it’s going to take several years for things to settle down. So we must accept that fact and we must brace ourselves that this will continue for some time.
What will we see develop from this in the future? Increased levels of anxiety and depression? PTSD? Increase in phobias? All very likely. Only time will tell what the long-term effects are but it’s fair to say that we will be feeling the impact of coronavirus long after the last patient has left the hospital.
So, we’ve talked about some of the impacts — now, let’s talk about why COVID-19 is having such a massive impact on mental health and wellbeing…
Why is this pandemic impacting on mental health so much?
Let’s start with the biggest reason (other than fear, which I’ll come back to in a minute): lack of control. If we’re really honest about it, most of us like to think we’re in control of our destinies and that we have choice in everything we do — but now that illusion has all-but disappeared. All that you have direct control over is what you do, say and feel, and no amount of yelling or asking to speak to the manager of coronavirus is going to change what is outside of your control. This pandemic is affecting everyone, and the choice is to either be negative about that or to find some common ground with one another as we fight through the challenges that are being hurled at us (and will continue to be hurled at us).
Let’s be really blunt here for a bit: people are afraid, and people are tired, and so what that is doing is leading to ridiculous behaviour from some people: selfishness, resistance, impatience and complacency to name a few. And it’s easy to get bogged down by those stories in the news and on social media about people being morons, but you can either focus on that or you can focus on what you can do to contribute to a better today, one action at a time. We all need to worry less about what other people are doing and focus on what we’re contributing.
We all need to accept that there is no magic cure and that no matter how much you might want things to go back to the way they were, they won’t. They cannot. You can’t have an event of this magnitude and expect things to just pick up where they left off a few months or years later — life doesn’t work like that. We will be forever changed by this. The reality is that coronavirus will be with us for at least several more years and so we can either resist that fact and cause more suffering for ourselves and others, or we can accept it and start to work out what that means for us as individuals and as a society.
There are so many horrible things being said and done to one another in this world because of fear — fear of loss, fear of change, fear of tomorrow — and we all need to call it out when we see it and demand better for everyone, not just some. It’s not ‘every person for themselves’; we all need less ‘me’ thinking and much more ‘we’ thinking, because only focusing on yourself just gets you sitting alone in a bunker with a shed-load of toilet paper and not much else except for alienation from your loved ones. Society breaks down when we don’t work together, and we didn’t get to this point in our history without working together to make things better — otherwise we’d still be in the dark ages.
The truth is that, whether we like it or not, we are being dragged (some of us kicking and screaming) into a new world, and what it looks like is up to us: it can be a better world if we all work together.
And so if you want the real reason why COVID-19 is having such a big effect on mental health, outside of the direct impacts I already mentioned, it’s because most people are completely resistant to change — terrified of it, even — and so we end up being pulled in multiple directions, because the world has already changed whether we like it or not. We can’t just go about our lives like we used to, so why would any of us think that we can just ignore those facts and pretend like everything is fine?
Good mental health involves acceptance, courage and optimism. It is to be found in the little things — in the way we interact with our loved ones and our community, how we go about our day-to-day lives, in the decisions that we make to do no harm, be kind and give more than we take. The quality of your life depends on your attitude towards events that are outside of your control along with the decisions you make about what is within your control (i.e. Your words, actions and feelings).
Fear is totally understandable in this type of major crisis. Things may not be great, but it won’t stay like this forever… and in the meantime, life goes on. The sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, the moon still goes through its cycles, the world keeps spinning and time still marches on.
How you get through this pandemic is your choice. You can choose to give in to fear and to resist what is outside of your control, which will lead to more suffering, or you can choose to accept that what is is what is and use fear to motivate you to do better — to love your nearest and dearest more, to spread kindness in your community and beyond, to be part of the solution instead of the problem.
And so with that in mind, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode.
Looking after your mental health during COVID-19
So how do you get through the coming months and beyond with your mental health intact? Well, it’s probably not going to surprise you to hear me tell you that it will take work. Nothing comes from nothing, so I’m not going to give you false hope and tell you that you can magically make things better overnight because life doesn’t work like that. However there are many things — big and small — that you can do.
Let’s start with the big things:
- Choose your mindset — realistic optimism is going to have a much more positive impact on your life and the world around you than giving in to negativity, fear and pessimism. I talked about mindset in Episode 31 so check that out, however let me say here that since this pandemic is happening regardless of what you think about it, you can focus on the negatives or choose to find the positives and turn difficulties into opportunities.
- Further to that and still on mindset: less resistance, more acceptance — I talked about acceptance in Episode 36 and it’s relevant here because the reality is things will not go back to the way they were. We need to accept that the past has passed and it doesn’t exist anymore; it’s not physically possible for things to go back again. You may not like it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true — so the sooner you can get to a place of acceptance, the sooner you can start moving forward in this new world we live in.
- Make decisions that are right for you — that doesn’t mean being selfish and hoarding all the toilet paper; it means putting your mental health and wellbeing at the forefront of the decisions you make. For example, if you feel pressure to go out but putting yourself in a densely-populated environment doesn’t feel right, say no. I mean, life needs to go on but it needs to go on safely in terms of both physical and mental health. We all need to make adjustments and accept that things can’t be the same as they were — that doesn’t make it right or wrong, it just makes it what is.
- Focus on what is within your control — specifically, your words, actions and feelings. For everything else, your only options are to either accept it or let it go.
- Take things one day at a time — who knows what tomorrow will hold? I certainly don’t… but when we spend our time worrying and overthinking about tomorrow we rob ourselves of today’s happiness (something I discussed back in Episode 4: Over-thinking). Focus on the next 24-48 hours only and take things one step at a time.
- Get support if you’re struggling — social distancing restrictions mean it’s now easier than ever before to find a counsellor or therapist willing to conduct sessions online, so you can get help from the comfort of your couch! Just please remember to take a shower and put some clothes on first…!
Now let’s get into the little things you can do every day to make things better:
- Have a daily routine — even if you’re working from home or are currently unemployed, stick to a daily routine so you’re not just stuck in limbo. Get up at the same time every day, go to bed at the same time, eat your meals at the same time, brush your teeth and shower, put on clean clothes… I mean, these might sound basic but having a routine and sticking to it helps you to claw back some control and create a sense of normality in a very un-normal set of circumstances.
- Make healthy choices about what goes into your body — look, I’m no saint with this because I started comfort eating about three seconds after the WHO declared the COVID epidemic was now a pandemic… but if you eat crap then you’ll feel like crap. The same goes for alcohol and drugs — sorry if I sound preachy on this but I don’t care, if you put unhealthy stuff into your body then don’t be surprised when you have unhealthy results. You need to make healthy decisions if you want healthy outcomes. If you’re finding yourself struggling with addiction of any kind, I covered that topic in Episode 34 and I’d highly recommend you check it out (link in transcript or find it and all my past episodes at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes).
- Choose what you mentally consume — it’s not just about what you put into your body, but also your mind. Don’t over-do the news or social media, and DO NOT read or listen to conspiracy theories! Limit your news consumption and get your news from reputable sources. Do not give me any of this bullshit questioning the scientific method which has been used to successfully push us forward from the dark ages when we all believed witches stole our babies and cocaine cured everything. There are enough people in the world looking to blame others and assign responsibility to everyone but themselves — don’t be one of them.
- Exercise — that couch can be mighty tempting when you’re feeling low, but eventually you will finish the whole of Netflix and then what are you going to do?! Make time every day for exercise; get outdoors and into nature as much as you can, but at the very least do some physical exercise to keep your body moving.
- Speaking of exercise, challenge yourself with mental exercise — read, write, paint, do puzzles, learn new things… you don’t need to be someone who learn 16 languages a month (but if that’s what makes you happy then you do you!), but do what feels right to you. Also, focus on building your overall resilience — this is something I covered in-depth in Episode 23: Resilience so I’d recommend checking that out for specific advice.
- Do things you enjoy and have fun every single day — whether that’s watching puppy or kitten videos online (one of the main reasons why the internet was invented) or doing something that you find enjoyable, having fun can help you to beat boredom and sluggishness that comes from feeling uprooted… focus on doing more of what you enjoy and building on that over time so you can begin to overcome those more negative emotions you might experience from time to time.
- Do things to make life easier for yourself — plan ahead and make life as easy as possible. If you can do your groceries by online or click and collect, then do so (however be prepared in case these services are suspended again; don’t turn into super-hoarder but do ensure you have meals for at least a week in your house, which will ease the pressure a little bit and give you a sense of comfort in terms of feeling prepared).
- Connect with others — you may not be able to go out but we have the miracle of technology to help us… thank goodness for social media and video calling! What the hell did people do in the olden days besides write a letter and then wait three months for a reply?! Make time to connect with friends and family regularly. Connect with your community — remember the first month or so when everyone was coming together in the face of a common threat, before the rot set in? Let’s do more of that!
- Do what is within your control — social distancing, wear a mask when unable to practice social distancing, wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Don’t buy in to this nonsense being spouted about masks being political statements or that the government is using this pandemic to try to control us… it’s a virus, and viruses don’t give a shit about crackpot theories, they just get on with their job which is infecting people. We are being asked to do these things for our own protection as well as those we love and the broader community — and it’s about time we all started focusing a lot more on ‘we’ and a bit less on ‘me’. We absolutely deserve our individual rights to freedom but we’re also part of a society so there has to be balance in all things.
- Practice gratitude — focus daily on the things that you appreciate in your life and challenge yourself to find new things to be grateful for. Why? Because gratitude has been found to have a positive effect on mental health and wellbeing (and I’ll be discussing gratitude in a few weeks’ time so keep an eye out for that!)
- Talk about it — with friends, family, neighbours; remember, we’re all in this together. If you’re feeling some type of way about what’s going on, chances are they are too… so talk about it.
Summary and Close-Out
When it comes to coronavirus and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: we’ve all been using words like ‘unprecedented’ and ‘uncertain’ to describe what’s happening because the fact is that this pandemic is unprecedented and its impacts are being felt far and wide. It’s perfectly natural to feel uncertain and fear is a totally normal response, but it’s not an excuse to behave badly. We each have a choice: give in to fear and let it reduce us to animals, or look at our fears head-on and use them to fuel us as we strive to create a better world. Every single one of us has a role to play in getting through this pandemic with our mental health and wellbeing intact, and I for one choose to keep moving forward one step at a time and doing whatever I can, no matter how small, to make the best of a challenging situation for myself and for the rest of us. I hope that you will make the same choice.
That’s nearly it for this week. Each week I like to share a quote about this week’s topic and encourage you to take a few moments to reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:
“We learn from experiences, both good and bad, and with that knowledge comes change… and growth.”Anonymous
Next week, I’ll be talking about strength. I’ll be discussing what mental strength is, how it’s different from resilience and how to build greater strength for the sake of your mental health and wellbeing.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK, Ireland & Europe, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada.
You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth.
If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice and tell someone you know about the show (because word of mouth really helps new people to discover the program).
Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.