19 March 2020

The news about Coronavirus has mostly focused on the physical aspects, but maintaining good mental health is also key to coping well, writes David Murphy.
Looking after Mental Health | Woman doing yoga on balcony

The pandemic can bring many psychological challenges including fear, isolation, and boredom. Fear is a significant factor, particularly for those older people and people with health conditions who face an extended period at home. Some may visualise themselves in hospital, possibly very ill on a ward or, worse still, on a trolley in an overcrowded corridor.

Anxiety has two components that are linked, rather like a seesaw. Firstly threat: fear of becoming seriously ill or even dying. We need to make sure that our perception of threat is realistic by understanding the symptoms and also the range of possible outcomes. We can reduce the threat by handwashing and social distancing.

The second component is coping, that feeling of the situation being out of their control. The most effective way to combat anxiety is to establish a coping strategy by thinking in advance about how you would cope if you become ill or have to self-isolate. Plan ahead and identify sources of support.

Think about how you could stay in touch with friends and family. Decide who you would call for help if needed and, if you are in an extended spell of isolation, how you would keep in touch with your wider social circle.

It's important to limit triggers that may increase anxiety; so don't spend more time than is helpful looking at news or social media, and limit how much time you worry about the outbreak. Give yourself permission to be distracted and utilise ways you have successfully coped with worry in the past.

Isolation is challenging because it's easy to slip into a mind-set that people aren't thinking of you. Keep in contact with friends, particularly those more passing acquaintances that can slip away more easily and may not be easily retrievable when the crisis is over. Plan in advance where possible how, for example, you might plan time online chatting to them. Phone calls are aso a valuable way to keep in touch but, with family in particular, don't feel it always has to be a long conversation that might feel like a chore. Regular short check-ins could be just as effective.

Don't be afraid to share your feelings, your worries with others. Chances are they'll be feeling the same. Agree with closer family that you will have regular contact by phone or online for reassurances. Or old-fashioned letters or cards can really brighten someone's day.

Tackling boredom is an important aspect of isolation and creating a routine is key. Isolation doesn't mean incarceration; a spell of fresh air and sunshine in your garden, yard, or balcony can help brighten your day. Think about starting a project you've been meaning to tackle but nothing too ambitious that might add to your frustration.

Remember, particularly if you have a pre-existing mental health problem, services are still there for you if you feel you're going downhill; don't be afraid to make contact if needed.

David Murphy is studying for a PhD at the University of Edinburgh Business School, on the subject of leadership development in NHS clinicians. He is president of the British Psychological Society. This article first appeared in The Times.

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