Sat | Jun 6, 2020

Boosting your mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak

Published:Wednesday | April 15, 2020 | 12:19 AMDr Danielle Nelson/Contributor

The coronavirus pandemic of 2019, now coined COVID-19, has plunged us into uncertain and challenging times. Most of us have never experienced something of this nature; even in our own experiences of outbreaks of chikungunya, Zika virus and dengue, we consoled ourselves with the high likelihood of survival for most, and a sure mode of transmission.

With information changing daily, and other countries experiencing dire effects from the onslaught of this virus, how can we stay calm and focus on doing the best we can for ourselves and our families? Let’s take some time to look at how we can boost our mental health.

1 Keep up to date with actual news sources. The old saying goes “knowledge is power”; in this situation it is very true. Keeping up to date with the most accurate facts can lessen your anxiety levels by empowering you to do things that are proven to keep you safe. Getting information about what authorities are doing locally and internationally to help control the spread can also increase your sense of security, knowing hope is not lost and encouraging you to play your part.

Misinformation, or ‘fake news’, unfortunately can be dangerous for your mental health, as it creates panic, helplessness and hopelessness. A practical tip is to set aside half an hour each day to check on the latest developments from sources that are trustworthy and make a decision to stick to that limit for news every day.

You could break up this time into 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening, lessening the likelihood of missing important updates.

2 Limit general social-media exposure. In the same way, we have to limit our social-media exposure. More persons are sharing online now as they are at home. Many of us know people who are a joy to follow on social media because they always have a helpful, uplifting word in season, and also know people who are the opposite, whose negativity seems to suck the air out of the room. Additionally, there is preliminary data that shows that excessive social-media exposure generally is linked to mental-health issues like anxiety and depression. For these reasons, we need to manage the amount of social-media exposure we get daily. What would that look like practically? For example, limiting the amount of time you spend on general social media apps such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to half an hour to an hour daily, while connecting with friends and loved ones more frequently, using apps such as Facebook messenger, Google hangouts and WhatsApp.

You also can choose the forwards and broadcasts you read! When something is upsetting or not factual, you can reply and ask them not to send anything else of this nature, or you can even choose not to read it at all! While some may view this as a violation of social-media etiquette, in times like these we have to do what is best to protect our mental health.

3 Connect using technology. The connections that we experience online have become invaluable during this time. Having group chats with friends, or allowing vulnerable persons, such as the elderly, to talk with their relatives over video call keeps people connected. Set aside time in each day to check up on, call or video chat a friend or a relative. Share how you are feeling and what you’re doing to cope. That being said, you don’t always have to talk about serious things; laughter and enjoyment are important stress relievers and hence immunity boosters!

4 Practise non-touch ways of showing love. In his now famous book, The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman lists five main ways that persons receive love: physical touch, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service and gifts (the quiz is available online for persons who want to know their love language). While we are unable to touch others now, there are still many ways we can show love, which people still need. Quality time can be spent on a video call. You can send a text message or an email telling someone all the things about them that you admire and appreciate.

You can buy groceries as an act of service, or a gift for a family member, while you shop for yourself. Get creative! The more you are able to give and receive love in these ways, while adhering to the recommendations for safety, the more we will continue to feel we are in this together.

5 Getting good diet, exercise and rest. Several studies have demonstrated the positive effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and stress generally. Through the production of ‘feel good’ chemicals called endorphins, exercise boosts mood and dissipates nervousness immediately after, and with regularity those improvements can be maintained long term. Getting a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, and low in refined food products also improves your body’s performance and combats the ups and downs one can get from eating foods that are high in sugars and simple starches. But how can you achieve this while stuck at home? Simple things like dancing until sweaty and tired to fast music, for five songs a day, is exercise! Frozen and canned vegetables are a good alternative now when you aren’t able to go out to get fresh produce as often. Sleep is also very critical for the brain to regenerate; set a bedtime and stick to it! You can research ‘Sleep Hygiene’ online for tips to improve sleep.

6 Boost your faith and practise relaxation techniques. Now, more than ever, engaging your spirituality is going to be critical. Feeling connected to God will help to weather these troubling times, providing comfort and reassurance. Practising relaxation techniques is also helpful. Basic techniques like breathing deeply for four seconds, holding for two seconds and breathing out for four seconds several times can help you reset and feel calmer.

7 Help the vulnerable. Find ways to help vulnerable groups like the elderly, children and persons with disabilities. You can volunteer to collect medication for an elderly person so they don’t have to go out, and leave it on their veranda after sanitising the package. You can send credit to their phone so they can make calls without having to buy phonecards. You can assist a blind person in public using your voice rather than touch. Apart from being the right thing to do, helping persons who are vulnerable during this difficult time helps your mental health, because it shifts focus away from your own anxious thoughts and increases your sense of purpose. Children need special attention during these times; encourage them to share their feelings and let them know they are safe. The person who cares for the children, elderly and disabled in the household should have the least outside contact so as to lessen the risk of the vulnerable contracting the virus while they are being cared for by others.

8 Adhere to SAFETY recommendations. You can make a big difference to the fight against COVID-19 by following the recommendations of the health officials: stay home, stay at least three feet (a yard) away from others, wash your hands often, avoid touching your face and isolate yourself completely if you are having flu-like symptoms. Having to deal with the mental strain of contracting the illness and then spreading it to more vulnerable people is very difficult. In the reverse, doing your part and knowing you’re helping to keep yourself, loved ones and the wider community safe is a great boost for your mental health. We can win this if we stick together, so that Jamaica may play her part in advancing the welfare of the whole human race.

Dr Danielle Nelson is a medical doctor and psychiatrist at the Edgewater Medical Centre, 3 Debbie Avenue, Bridgeport, St Catherine. She can be contacted through