30 March 2020
By Cassandra Barrett, Team Leader – Healthy Communities
COVID-19 has changed our lives in many ways, both big (job insecurity; financial stress; the challenges of unexpected homeschooling) and small (longing for your preferred brand of toilet paper; discovering that Year 4 maths is a lot harder than you remember; realising that the family cat is rapidly becoming your favourite conversationalist). Irrespective of our circumstances, these changes are undoubtedly taking a toll – and the impact on mental health and wellbeing is one of the most significant.
Some of us will be feeling those impacts more than others, for a range of reasons. Perhaps we have existing mental health issues that are being exacerbated at this time. Maybe we’re feeling anxious for loved ones who are more vulnerable by virtue of health or age. Perhaps you are someone for whom social isolation or loneliness – a heavy burden for anyone – is especially difficult to cope with. These factors can be shared as well as individual; for many in the Jewish community, for example, our collective history of trauma and scarcity mean that empty shelves and long supermarket queues can be particularly triggering.
Whatever the reason, it is vital, now more than ever, that we make a conscious and concerted effort to support our mental wellbeing. We’ve compiled some of our favourite tips below. This list is by no means exhaustive, nor prescriptive – take what works for you, leave what doesn’t – but whatever you decide to do: make a plan of action. We’re in this for the long haul, and your mental health matters.
1. Validate your feelings
Sitting with uncomfortable feelings is – well, exactly that: uncomfortable.
For many of us, when things are hard our instinct is to dismiss the experience: “you shouldn’t feel that way” or “stop worrying so much”. But as you probably know, telling someone to stop feeling a particular way is rarely successful. Rather, it’s important that we allow ourselves the space to name and sit with these feelings, and to acknowledge the discomfort.
It is okay to feel scared for your loved ones. It is okay to feel anxious about the future. It is okay to feel sad that Pesach will be different this year. It is okay to feel sad that your family simcha wasn’t how you had imagined it would be, or that your much longed-for holiday has been cancelled.
Validation doesn’t mean endlessly ruminating or dwelling on negative feelings. It is about giving yourself permission to feel and to move through them. A simple technique you can try: rest one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Close your eyes and name what you are experiencing. “I am feeling really uncertain right now – and that’s okay.” Breathe through it.
2. Maintain perspective
While it is understandable to feel concerned, we can also keep perspective. Without berating yourself for how you are feeling, reassure yourself that countless experts around the world are working incredibly hard to contain the virus and provide treatment to those who are affected. Remember that humankind has experienced many, many difficult times, and we have come through it. Remind yourself that these changes are temporary. It is going to be okay.
3. Stay informed
For many, knowledge is power, but it’s important to seek out information sources that are reliable and factual. Remind yourself that it's natural for the media to promote headlines that are attention-grabbing; you might prefer to seek information from more neutral or data-based sources such as the Department of Health or the World Health Organisation. Take rumours and unconfirmed details with a grain of salt. Seek information with a focus on practical advice; stay abreast of relevant updates or changes and adjust your behaviour accordingly.
4. Take a break when you need it
Take notice of how you feel. Are updates making you feel informed and empowered, or helpless and anxious? If it’s the latter, there are things you can do. Disconnect from the things that are unhelpful. Turn off the TV. Unfollow people or pages that make you feel more anxious. Mute WhatsApp notifications from the relative who just can’t help forwarding the latest misinformation.
Some people find it helpful to limit information updates to specific times only, for example, checking the news once in the morning.
5. Focus on what you can control
Distinguishing between what is within your control, and what is not, can be a helpful technique to manage anxiety.
The feelings of uncertainty and helplessness associated with COVID-19 can be particularly challenging.
Focus on what you can control:
- Stay home as much as possible.
- Minimise contact with others.
- Wash your hands thoroughly and regularly.
- Avoid touching your face.
- Maintain good cough and sneeze hygiene.
Each of these actions significantly reduces the likelihood of becoming unwell.
6. Embrace the new normal
We can acknowledge that things are difficult, yet still look for opportunities to make the most of the situation. Re-engage with that long-forgotten hobby. Enjoy the slower pace. Join a reading challenge. Spend time in the garden. Practice meditation. Build a fort or have a scavenger hunt. Find a new podcast. De-clutter. Make chicken soup. Learn something new.
7. Look for positive stories
Actively look for the good, and share it with your friends. Look for the uplifting stories of communities in quarantine joining together to sing or make music. Mix up your approach to the news: try a good news network like SunnySkyz, Positive News or Good News Network.
Or, better yet, be a positive story. Participate in The Bear Hunt or The Kindness Pandemic. Tell retail staff they’re doing a good job, or leave a chocolate out for the postie. Find a way to brighten someone’s day.
8. Maintain your self-care
- Establish a routine. Consistency helps us to feel safe and secure, especially when other parts of our lives feel uncertain. This is just as important for adults as it is for children.
- If you’re working from home, strive for balance: plan your working hours and take regular breaks. Set up a dedicated work space if you can; if not, consider rituals that signal the beginning and end of the work day to ensure that work-time and life-time feel distinct from one another.
- Maintain good sleep habits.
- Eat regularly. Look for foods that help you feel nourished and energised.
- Move your body - walk around the block, try an online workout, dance in the living room.
- Spend time in nature if you can. Sit outside in the sunshine.
- Plan things to look forward to, both short term (hours/days) and longer term (weeks).
- Have a laugh. Humour is an incredible coping mechanism – just look at the role of comedy in our Jewish tradition.
- Be gentle with yourself. If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed or panicked, try a grounding activity.
9. Stay connected
“Every hand that we don't shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern.” - Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky.
Physical distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation. Our technological world offers some incredible opportunities to stay connected – many would say the silver lining of COVID-19 is that it has forced us to become creative and intentional when it comes to social connection. Skype, Zoom, Houseparty, WhatsApp, TikTok. Zoom Shabbat, virtual dinners and coffee catch ups, group chats, online games – there are so many ways to stay in touch.
If you prefer the old fashioned way, that’s great too: call to check in on an elderly friend. Pop a letter in the neighbour’s mailbox. Send a card. Have a chat with the person at the checkout. Smile and wave when you’re out for a walk. Even the smallest or most fleeting of connections can make a difference and remind us that we’re all in this together.
If you think you might struggle to stay connected then plan accordingly. Set yourself a goal; for example, Monday night Zoom dinner with friends; Tuesday afternoon phone call while walking around the block, and so on. Don’t be afraid to ask others to check in with you.
10. Reach out
Remember that you are not alone. If you need someone to talk to, please reach out. It doesn’t need to be a crisis. Many of us find it difficult to manage at times, and support services are being ramped up accordingly. A friendly ear is just a phone call away.
Jewish Care COVID-19 Helpline: 8517 5555
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636