3 steps to stay psychologically healthy during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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The STAR Newspaper published my article (with a few editorial changes to the titles I used) on Sunday 10th May 2020.

Dr. Dan Seal wrote the following article for the STAR Newspaper’s Health Section. It was published by the Newspaper on the 10th May & can also be found on the STAR’s website.

The recent relaxing of the Movement Control Order (MCO) will be welcomed by many. We know staying home helps save lives, but it can be difficult to spend so long in one place. However, the changes to the MCO are unlikely to solve all our problems. We may still be concerned about our income or the health of our loved ones. It’s normal to be worried given the uncertainty and the drastic changes we’ve experienced in such a short period of time. Some of us may have found the quiet life under the MCO easier and be worried about what comes next. So, what can we do to improve our well-being during this pandemic? Here are three steps, backed by psychological science, that you can take right now:

1. Focus on what you can control

If you’re worrying about a problem, ask yourself ‘is there anything I can do about this right now?’. If the answer is ‘yes’, that’s great, solve the problem and you’ll feel a lot better. However, COVID-19 has created a lot of problems that we cannot solve.

Nobody can answer questions like ‘when will we have a vaccine?’, ‘when can we travel?’ or ‘when will life return to normal’. Worrying about problems like these just makes us feel bad. 

It’s better to focus on things we can control. For example, ‘which friend or family member can I video call’ or ‘what can I learn today’. Shifting our attention from worries to things we can control is difficult but the more we practice the better we get.  We can also develop this attention shifting skill with exercises.

One exercise you could use to train your attention involves listening to music. Play any tune and try to focus your attention entirely on the music: What sounds can you hear? Can you tune your mind into the sound from one particular instrument? Can you shift your attention between different instruments? How do the sounds merge together?

As you try to focus on the music your mind will drift. You may begin to think about work or another random thought. This is normal – our minds regularly bounce between different thoughts. Don’t get frustrated at your mind for being so busy; it’s useful for creativity and problem solving. Instead, just notice that your mind has drifted and gently direct it back to the music. You might need to redirect your mind every few seconds. This is fine as the aim isn’t to maintain a zen like focus on the music, the aim is to practice redirecting your mind when necessary. If your mind drifts, it’s just another opportunity to practice shifting your attention.  

You can practice this at any time and if you don’t have music you can just listen to the sounds in your environment. It can be quite tiring but just a few minutes each day will improve your ability to shift your attention.  

2. Notice & acknowledge your emotions but don’t let them decide what you do

During the COVID-19 pandemic it’s completely normal to feel emotions such as fear, frustration, anger, loneliness, sadness, boredom or even joy and happiness. However, emotions can become a problem if we let them push us around.

For example, feeling sad makes us want to do less but the less we do the sadder we feel. Fear makes us avoid trying new things but the more we avoid the more afraid we become. Frustration causes us to find fault in others but the more faults we see the more frustrated we become.  

We shouldn’t just do whatever our emotions tell us. It’s tempting to think that it would be better not to have emotions, but we don’t have the ability to switch our feelings on and off. If we try not to have emotions it usually makes us feel worse. The more we push our thoughts and feelings away the more those thoughts and feelings will come back.

Even if we could turn off our emotions it wouldn’t be a good idea. Every emotion is useful; fear keeps us safe, anger fights for fairness, sadness helps us learn from our experiences. So, we shouldn’t ignore our emotions, but neither should we do exactly what they want.

We should treat our emotions like over-eager friends. They may have something useful to tell us but even if they are very insistent, we should take a step back and decide how to act based on our own values and what’s important to us.

Acting in line with your values rather than following your emotions isn’t easy but you’ve probably already managed it. Have you ever spoken in public despite being afraid? Ever felt tired and demotivated and still made it to the gym? Have you wanted to shout angrily at your boss but managed to keep things professional?

So, how can you improve on your ability to take appropriate action even if your emotions are telling you to do the opposite?

First you need to notice what you’re thinking or feeling. The earlier you notice your thoughts and emotions the easier it is to resist being caught up in them. Practicing the attention training exercises described earlier can improve your awareness of your thoughts and emotions.  

The first sign of an emotion might be physical. Perhaps you’ll notice your heart racing, the muscles in your shoulders tensing, that sinking feeling in your stomach. Try to label the emotion, ‘ah, here comes fear’.

You may become aware of thoughts such as ‘I won’t be able to cope’ or ‘I will fail’. Try to get a little distance from these thoughts by noting to yourself ‘I’m having the thought that I won’t be able to cope’. This reminds us that what we’re thinking is a thought, not necessarily the truth.

Be curious about the thoughts and emotions your feeling. Why might you be feeling this way? What is this emotion telling you? Ask yourself ‘if I let this emotion dictate what I do what would happen? Would it take me towards or away from the life that I want?

Taking this approach won’t necessarily make you feel better immediately. It just gives you the space to make a better decision about what to do. You might still have strong thoughts and feelings as you take action. But if you’re able to do more of what’s important to you then you are likely to feel more satisfied and fulfilled by life.

3. Do something that’s important to you

Imagine that the COVID-19 pandemic is over and you’re looking back at how you responded. What would you like to be able to say?

There’s no ‘correct’ answer to this question because it depends on what you value. Your friends’ response might be completely different from yours. Listed below are a few ways of being that are important to some people. Do any appeal to you?

Values:

Creativity: Express yourself! Dance, draw, paint, write, craft or do your normal tasks in a new way. It doesn’t matter how good your efforts are it’s the process that matters.  

Learning: Expand your knowledge with the help of books, audiobooks, online courses, documentaries and podcasts.  Most people won’t have the time but there’s even the option to study free courses from universities such as Harvard, MIT and Oxford at www.edx.org.

Mastering skills: Teach yourself to cook, bake, juggle, speak a new language or play a musical instrument. Or if you don’t have free time get even better at your current role.

Spirituality: Deepen your relationship with God.

Curiosity: We may not be able to explore outside but there’s plenty we can discover via friends and family or through the internet.

Connect with others: The MCO makes physically meeting people difficult but we can still reach out to friends and family by phone or video call. We could even try to meet new people via online video games.  

Health: It’s more challenging to keep fit in your own home but there are YouTubers out there who’ll talk you through it. With the partial lifting on the MCO we may be able to get back to the more traditional means of keeping fit.

Helping others: You don’t need to be a frontline medical professional to make a positive difference to someone’s life.  If you enjoy helping others can you think of anything you can do for someone else?

If you try to follow your values, remember to treat yourself kindly. It’s best not to compare how much you do with others as some of us have more time and resources available to us. Don’t just make a list of tasks.  It doesn’t matter how much you achieve; it’s about doing something that’s important to you whenever you can.

Doing things that are important to you won’t immediately make you feel better. However, if we can do things that are important to us, then over time, we will feel more satisfied and fulfilled by life.

If you can apply this approach during a pandemic, you’ll be well set for what life brings next.

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