Feeling overwhelmed with the pressure of the pandemic? You are not alone.
A large-scale outbreak such as the COVID-19 can be nerve-wracking, confusing and all-consuming. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently stated it was just as important to care for mental health at this time as it is physical health.
Losing hope is not the answer, professionals say, offering a healthy, balanced perspective to help you take back control of your well-being.
Dubai-based psychiatrist Dr Naresh Kumar Dhar of Prime Hospital provided us these 15 tips for dealing with this pandemic in the healthiest way, from basic concepts to more complex realisations.
1. Keep in contact with loved ones: “Social distancing is the wrong word — I will advise that social distancing is not done at this time, but rather, physical distancing. We should not get together, meet or go to parties. But, you should still talk to your friends, relatives [and loved ones] on the phone, through Facebook, and so on. That has to be encouraged in this kind of time.”
2. Be careful not to let your fear control you: “This situation creates anxiety and nervousness — it is a normal and necessary human behaviour,” says Dr Dhar. “But, many people have cognitive distortions, which means they will see more negativity, and go to the very extreme. They start thinking, 'There is no world to exist after some time, or we all will die. I will be affected. My family will be affected'." A normal level of anxiety is normal, suggests the doctor, but catastrophic thinking will be hazardous to your mental health.
3. Reach out to a professional if things get worse: “Anxiety is normal. You, me, even the doctors — I am afraid when I go to my clinic. You must take precautions, but precautions have to be up to a limit only. If you start thinking too negatively, it starts [impacting] your functioning. You become very depressed and anxious, and you won’t be able to take care of yourself or your family,” says Dr. Dhar. “In that case, it is required to see a particular doctor and get help.” Dhar said some signs to watch out for include “interference with your personal upkeep, your duty, bathing, shaving, eating and sleeping.”
4. If you’re overconfident, you are part of the problem: “Some of the people with cognitive distortions think [that this virus] is nothing,” says Dr Dhar. “They will say, ’This will not do anything to me, nor to anybody else.’ They will try to flout the rules and go outside. They will not take precautions as they should. Those people who are feeling overconfident are more dangerous to themselves and to others.” In short — conquering one’s fears should not be taken to the extreme of recklessness.
5. Limit exposure to unreliable news: “Some of the WhatsApp messages, they are not authentic. If you are surrounded by this 24 hours a day, it will affect your psychological and mental health. Knowledge is very important; you should be aware about what is happening and watch reliable channels....”
6. Keep yourself busy and keep away from negativity: “Some people get pleasure out of spreading fear, terror and negativity in the world. The best thing is to stay at home and do what you like: you can read books, whether they’re novels or religious books; you can listen to music; watch TV; cook food or invent something. You can do exercises at home, too, and even watch websites that will teach you how to do it.”
7. Engross yourself in a project, whatever it may be: “Suppose somebody is interested in science, he can read about science,” says Dr Dhar. “Somebody else is interested in the stock market, then she should study about the stocks and what she should buy once things are under control. If you’re a journalist who wants to write about some topic, do your research. It is not a waste of time. When you are engrossed in a particular project, your anxiety and other worries come down.”
8. Exercise is a great dopamine release: “Exercise increases your endorphins and moreover, when you are not doing anything, your metabolism gets deranged,” explained Dr Dhar. “We are all animals, we require activity and movements to keep our body fit. We all have to walk and jog. Back in the day, we had no cars, no telephones, we had to do everything — we even had to farm by ourselves. Our bodies need to be used, in order to keep healthy.”
9. Try not to turn to eating out of boredom: “What happens when you eat? It gives a little pleasure — that is what is called stress eating,” says Dr Dhar. “That is why we advise you to eat sensibly and keep yourself occupied in other activities. For example: when we go to office and are working, we don’t feel hungry. If we are really busy, we will not even take a tea in the office. Sometimes, if I go eight hours with no patients, I will go and take a tea or coffee every hour. But the day I am busy, I will not take even one coffee because I’m engrossed in the work.”
10. If you’re disagreeing with people you live with, focus on yourself: “You might start quarrelling, fighting, and all that. That is why it is advisable try to keep busy on your own work and your own thoughts. And be sensible. It’s an extraordinary situation. There are many family issues, so one should be, at this time, very careful and maintain normalcy.”
11. If you are a parent, talk to your children honestly about the virus:1 “If they are sensible and they can understand, we should discuss this with them. Don’t hide. Many parents don’t tell any bad news to their kids. But, if those kids are at an age where they can understand everything, it becomes, ‘Why are my parents hiding things from me?’ That is not good psychology. Good psychology is to discuss and give them optimism, like, ‘It will last another three, four weeks, and then it will all be normal again.’”
12. Prepare yourself for a good night’s sleep: “If you do your work, your exercises and you eat normally, there’s no reason that you would not sleep. The recommended hours of sleep vary from individual to individual. Some people, after 10 hours of sleep, will still feel like they haven’t slept well. Others are happy with four or five hours. For the normal person, six to eight hours is sufficient to maintain a good balance.”
13. It is normal to feel grief, even if nobody in your immediate circle has died: “People are not able to go out, they are not able to see the light towards the end of the tunnel. Let’s say your neighbour has died. He’s not your father, he’s not your mother, he’s not your relative. But he’s still a human being. You sympathise. This kind of grief can happen to anyone; we are social animals. For example, if you read in the news that an airplane went down, you will also get affected, even if you don’t know them. Whether they’re Korean, Malaysian, Indian, Arabs, English, or European, you feel that this [kind of tragedy] should not happen.”
14. If you have pre-existing mental disorders, it is normal for things to feel worse right now, but stay hopeful: “These situations are definitely going to be exacerbated. For example, OCD patients — who have obsessive compulsive disorder — will be [feeling their OCD] much higher, even when we recover from this. Because of a defect in the brain and the neurotransmitters, they experience more negativity than the optimistic person. That is why it is very important for them to continuously be in contact with their therapist, or if they are on medication by any chance, they should not try to play with it. They should take it regularly. If required, they should consult a doctor. If you are a depressed patient or an anxiety patient, these kind of issues can affect you much more than a normal person. Try not to miss your medicine if you are on it, and if you are taking therapy, you should contact your therapist. But, don’t give up.”
15. Finally, don’t feel shame for how you feel: “Why shame? As a psychiatrist, I am fearful. I am afraid. I understand the situation and If I am not afraid, I would not take precautions. If I were corona positive, I would infect 100 more people [if I wasn’t afraid]. Fear up to a certain extent is good — like fear of exams. When there is a fear of exams, you study hard. But when you develop anxiety or panic, then it is counterproductive and impairs your performance.”