by Dr. Lim Wai Jenn, Consultant Psychiatrist, Sunway Medical Centre Velocity,
According to reports, currently, about a third of the world’s population is under some form of lockdown due to COVID-19. Lockdowns and our own MCO (Movement Control Order) act as a sort of social vaccine so to speak, corralling human behaviours to help individuals stay safe from infection and stem the spread in the community.
Whether we are stuck at home or working in the front lines or in essential services, the economic, social and/or psychological implications of this pandemic and the MCO affect us all. It is prudent to also pay attention to our mental and emotional well-being during this time.
What are some of the precautions to take in order to take care of myself mentally during this MCO?
- Know the facts. The brain is naturally prone to stress when faced with unfamiliar situations and uncertainty. Feeding it facts enables the brain to plan, prepare and problem-solve. Check reputable sources for factual and reliable information. Rumours and false news can be counteractive, planting doubts and creating more uncertainties.
- Focus on what we already know and can do. Counter any negative thoughts or fears by actively reminding ourselves of solid information we can lean on, and pursue constructive activities. Make a task list. The simple act of taking care of each task and checking it off can help us feel more empowered and secure.
- Routines. A good way to get our brains to stay calm and focused is by having and maintaining a daily routine. Routines inject some reassuring predictability and structure to our lives, helping us regulate our emotions and behaviours better. Having each day planned out and staying busy keeps us from boredom, overthinking and worrying.
- Information detox. With the Internet and social media, we are all prone to information overload, and a lot of it skews towards the negative. Studies have also linked social media use to depression, anxiety, inattention, and hyperactivity. Seek out positive news (eg recovery cases, heart-warming stories) to keep a balanced perspective. If getting too overwhelmed, try to stay away for a while. You could limit news checking to say once a day. Be focused in seeking out only the information you need, rather than passively scanning.
- Social connection. Human beings are social creatures, so it is not surprising that having social support does wonders to our health including improving resilience towards stress, boosting our immune system, decreasing depression and anxiety, alleviate emotional distress, even lowering our blood pressure! This is especially pertinent to people living alone, or in isolation or quarantine. We can all benefit from mutual checking in with friends and family, and maintaining connections, digitally if need be.
- Healthy body, healthy mind. Adequate sleep, proper diet and exercise are important to strengthen our immunity and combats stress and anxiety. Exercise lowers stress hormones and prompts the release of feel-good endorphins.
- Relaxation. Find some time to unwind and let loose in whatever way works best for you; deep breathing, soothing music, cooking, meditating, gardening etc. Some may find this trivial or a waste of time in the face of more pressing issues. On the contrary, a relaxation is a powerful tool that puts the brakes on stress and allows us to widen our perspective and tap into our brain’s flexible thinking, self-control and creative problem-solving capabilities.
How do I identify if I’m going through anxiety/depression?
It is normal to experience ups-and-downs in mood, or have worries and be anxious sometimes. However, if these become prolonged or excessive, and start affecting your sleep, appetite, functioning or ability to enjoy or find interest in things, then it is wise to consult a professional early to minimize disruption to your life.
Some people can also have panic attacks, where they experience physical symptoms such as heart-racing, shaking, sweating, difficulty breathing, or feeling like something bad is going to happen. These events are sudden, and often quite scary and distressing. Some may feel they are having a heart attack.
How do I support an individual who is going through anxiety/depression during this period?
Being non-judgemental and emotionally available is very helpful. You may do more or less, depending on the individual. Some may desire routine checking in (eg being asked “How are you doing?” every day), others may prefer to be given space and time to deal by themselves first. For every case, it is appropriate to communicate clearly that you care about the person and are available to talk or help.
It is important to note that the MCO does not prevent one from getting medical attention if necessary. Patients can and should continue care.
Caregivers should also be sure to take care of themselves and not overextend, as caregiver burnout is not uncommon.
How can parents cope with taking care of their children during this lockdown period?
If your child is anxious or displaying behavioural problems, having a regular daily schedule and set times for waking up meals, homework/study period, and bedtime, etc can go a long way. Knowing what to expect and having a structure to their day helps with the child’s internal regulation of emotions and behaviour. When things occur as and when they are supposed to at home, the child is shielded from the uncertainties going on outside in the world. Timetables and daily plans also help parents organize and co-manage.
What can parents do to keep their children physically, mentally and emotionally well during this time? How about for themselves?
Information. Explain the current situations to children and why they have to stay at home. Use age-appropriate terms and explanations.
Older children may want to discuss things they come across. Listening without judgement and asking what they think allows them to feel heard, validated and more comfortable to speak their mind.
Monitor their social media use. If concerned about overexposure, misinformation, anxiety or depression, or disruption of routines, you may want to limit social media access.
Role-modelling. Children are constantly taking cues from their parents or closest adults on how they should perceive situations and respond to them. This is all subconscious and picked up from nonverbal cues such as parents’ facial expressions, tone of voice and behaviours, rather than what the parents say. If parents are constantly anxious about the COVID-19 and MCO, the children are more likely to be anxious as well, and this may come out in overt anxiety, or physical symptoms, or behavioural issues.
Ensure everyone gets enough sleep, physical activity and proper nutrition.
Facing each other all day can take its tolls on families, at times leading to unnecessary friction and conflicts. Allow for each member to retreat and get some time and space alone if needed with no questions asked.