This article discusses mental health hygiene, and offers one simple tool you can use today to manage difficult emotions in quarantine.
There has been a huge emphasis on physical hygiene to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is a logical and needed step in order to prevent harm for our loved ones, and those affected around the world. Likewise, mental hygiene is needed to prevent mental health issues now and down the road. Often, it’s easier to brush aside mental health hygiene, especially when we need it most. But like washing your hands for physical hygiene, there are simple mental hygiene practices that can keep your mind safe and healthy, with small consistent effort.
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How COVID-19 is Impacting Mental Health An estimated 2.6 billion people are currently in some form of lockdown or quarantine worldwide. A Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost 50% of Americans reported that quarantine was having a negative impact on their mental health. Assuming that the survey results are applicable to a wider audience, an estimated 1.3 billion people are feeling their mental health decline in quarantine. To be more specific on the effects, the Lancet conducted a review of 24 studies on the psychological impact of quarantine on mental health. The results showed higher levels of insomnia, low mood, stress, anxiety, depression, anger, irritability and emotional exhaustion. No surprises there for many managing multiple demands at the moment.
Stress Response My aim is not to bash you with the negative effects of quarantine. Too many articles on mental health contribute to the problem by sensationalising the negative. There’s nothing like reading an article on anxiety only to walk away with 12 more worries than when you began reading. My aim is for you to acknowledge that if you have recognised any of those symptoms arise lately, you are not alone. You are just responding to what is happening in the world around you. Stress is a natural and sometimes healthy response. Being able to sense danger and respond appropriately is how the human race has survived this long. It is only when we are constantly worried, stressed or run down from an over active stress response that it becomes chronic, and no longer serves our health and wellbeing.
A Simple Mental Hygiene Tool for Uncovering Your Resilience So let’s get practical. There are many coaching techniques that could support your mental health by enhancing your coping techniques, reframing your perspective and finding a way forward that makes sense for who you are and how you think. Let’s choose one simple practice you can do right now to impact the week ahead.
1. Identify what emotion is causing you the most difficulty at the moment (Get specific on what it is that is causing you the most amount of discomfort on a daily basis lately. Is it Overwhelm / Frustration / Boredom / Anxiety / Stress / Irritability / Something Else?)
2. Think back over your life and remember a time where you overcame this emotion in the past. Try not to compare the situation to now, but rather the emotion, even if you felt it in a different intensity to how you feel it these days. (Get specific on how the emotion felt in your body at that time)
3. Identify 3 healthy and helpful ways you overcame this emotion in the past (What did you do differently then, that you are not doing now? Ensure you highlight healthy practices only, wine doesn’t count I’m afraid)
4. How can you incorporate the actions that helped you in the past to your current situation? (Yes, you are dealing with different restrictions, but you are creative and resilient enough to have managed this emotion once before, get creative on how you can bring the same or similar actions into your day today)
5. ACT. Now that you know what you need to do, do it. It’s not enough to know what you need to do, do it before the end of the day. If you leave it any longer you are less likely to change. Make one small action right now.
An Example of this Tool in Action Let’s take an example of how this tool looked recently with a client who for confidentiality reasons, I will not name. Let’s call him Joe.
1. Identify what emotion is causing you the most difficulty at the moment Joe thought back over the week and identified stress as causing him the most difficulty at the moment. He is worried about reaching work deadlines, keeping motivated and managing finances if COVID-19 continues. He feels stressed every day.
2. Think back over your life and remember a time where you overcame this emotion in the past. He thinks back to a time he felt stressed in the past. When he first took on his current management role, he felt stressed for about 6 months. He remembers feeling tense, and tight mainly around the chest, shoulders and stomach.
3. Identify 3 healthy and helpful ways you overcame this emotion in the past At that time, he overcame the stress by: i.) Getting to know colleagues he could talk openly to - venting and asking questions so he could get used to the role ii.) Identifying clear boundaries on his time and energy - turning his phone on flight mode in the evenings iii.) Running - he first let fitness go when he took over his role, but as soon as he brought back daily exercise, he noticed that his stress levels reduced.
4. How can you incorporate the actions that helped you in the past to your current situation? Joe thinks it through and decides he can: i.) Create a 5 minute venting window with a colleague he’s friends with - they create a weekly call where they each get 5 minutes uninterrupted venting time, after which they can talk more proactively, including asking each other questions about how they are managing current challenges in work. ii.) Create clear boundaries with his email. Turning off at the same time he would if he were in the office, not looking at work emails after 6pm each day, adding his work times to his email signature and putting the phone on flight mode while he sleeps so he doesn’t wake up with 50 work emails being the first thing he sees. iii.) He decides to do 30 minutes of physical fitness each day, from YouTube videos to walks to short jogs while he listens to music or podcasts about light topics.
5. ACT. Now that you know what you need to do, do it. At first Joe says “Great, I’ll start all that tomorrow”. But in order to make changes happen, it is important to start immediately, in any small way possible. He is motivated right now, because he just found an answer to his problem, which is hugely energising. So he needs to channel that energy into making these changes happen so that tomorrow if he is less motivated, he has already begun. He gets out his phone and sets the times for ‘Do Not Disturb’, he changes his email signature, he texts his work colleague to make a calendar appointment for the following day to chat, and clears the time this evening to go for a walk with a reminder set and playlist selected. Already, he feels a bit lighter.
Try this tool out right now. The beauty of it is that you can do it with very little guidance and connect back to your own resilience and resources. If you have a pulse, you have overcome difficult emotions in the past, and you are capable of overcoming them now with the right awareness, self-kindness and commitment to mental hygiene. It is so human to get caught in a sense of disillusionment with the continued quarantine and lack of certainty, which can reduce your motivation and creativity. So break the habit by doing a simple mental hygiene practice, like the tool above, and unlock all the other mental hygiene practices that have worked for you in the past. Make it personal to you, and specific to now. Then start right away, even if you are experiencing resistance. Wishing you well this week, and sending you warmth and kindness on your journey. All the best, Laura
I'm offering a Free 28 Days to Confidence and Calm challenge designed to help people manage stress and uncertainty in this bizarre time. If you would like to sign up, follow this link for more information: www.naturalbalancecoaching.ie/online-resources