How to stay mentally healthy while self-isolating during COVID-19

In these uncertain times, being mindful of our mental health has never been more crucial.

Here's what the mental health professionals say about staying sane during such an insane global pandemic.

Keep calm but don't carry on

All experts agreed, keeping calm is paramount. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison today said, panicking is counterproductive.

However, the second part of that mantra – carrying on – has become more complicated. We simply cannot carry on as we were. 

With social distancing measures, the very connectedness that usually improves our mental health, is being removed.

Mixed signals

Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia, admits that the advice people are getting is confusing.

"After the bushfires, you're told how important it is to keep and build social connections. Then the next day, you're told to keep your distance."

He wants to banish the buzz phrase 'social distancing.' 

"It's a profoundly unhelpful term" he says. "We need to move our language to 'physical distancing with social connection'"

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Overcoming isolation

"Solitary confinement is one of harshest punishments you can impose on humans," says Lysn Psychologist Nancy Sokarno.

"We're herd animals. Isolation means we spend lots of time with our mind - which isn't always welcome!"

This could, however, be viewed as an opportunity. An antidote to the 'busy' epidemic. A rare chance, Sokarno says, for some introspection: "We can check in with ourselves." 

Heath says it's important to frame this isolation as an act of kindness. Orienting your focus externally, he says, will help reduce panic. That involves considering those doing it tougher than you and dropping them a video call or message. 

"Just being calm has an enormous benefit to people around you," he says. "When you have a sense of someone having empathy for your situation, it creates hope and possibility in the distressed person's mind that maybe there's a way we can get beyond things." 

Finish that job list

Sokarno suggested using isolation as an opportunity to do all those things you put off. "Decluttering, reading, nice baths." 

Meditation is a key survival technique too. Heath suggests the Headspace meditation app.

There's a sound medical reason for self-care. 

"Being stressed risks our immunity" Sokarno says. 

"We need to save supplies of cortisol and adrenaline and not over-deplete them."

Dealing with anxiety 

For existing anxiety sufferers, now can feel hellish. For the newly anxious, they're dealing with an uncomfortably unfamiliar feeling. 

Either way, it's important to remember this is a "rational thought" Sokarno said. Rather than dismissing it with platitudes of "don't panic" – we can acknowledge these are unprecedented times. Good breathing techniques are key, but also be aware of overstimulation.

"Of course be informed" she says. 

"But get information from a credible source."

Exercise, sleep and routine are three crucial lifehacks, Heath said. For those dealing with sleeplessness, his tip is to read a book for a while. "Don't mull in bed as thoughts are racing."

Thinking of others

There's a new type of ethical consumerism emerging during the outbreak - donating the cost of your cancelled service. 

The arts community, particularly, is vulnerable – and ticket holders are realising that demanding refunds may be less kind than, just this once, donating the cost of the service they didn't receive.

Professor Nitika Garg said we need to consider small businesses first.

"I see that on campus daily. They don't have capacity to go much longer."

The associate professor of marketing at the University of NSW said we can also extend some radical kindness to big companies, often portrayed as the boogeymen.

"Some cultures in Australia are more collective – we can't just see this as capitalism falling on its sword" she says. 

"Behind these cascading effects are humans."

Five tips to getting through it

With all this expertise in mind, I collated some top tips for keeping mental health up during periods of lockdown and widespread anxiety:

1. Surround yourself with calm people who are good in a crisis (via video links or in instant messaging groups!) - lap up their soothing and authoritative, informed nonchalance.

2. Practice gratitudes. SANE CEO Jack Heath says this is one of the most important things you can do. "Thank God I don't live in America (where a third of people are unable to access healthcare) and I'm really appreciative for the Australian healthcare system" were two he cited off the bat.

3. Practice optimism - even for the tiny things.

4. "Rationalise, don't overanalyse" - Nancy Sokarno.

5. Consider a break from smartphone notifications to prevent hyper-stimulation.

For mental health support, call SANE line on 1800 187263 or visit Saneforums.org