Some degree of anxiety is normal as we live through a COVID-19 pandemic. Feeling low or down about restrictions on our normal lives is also a normal response. That means it’s more important than ever to know the key steps to managing your mental health.
Resilience is the ability to adapt well to any challenges and stress you may face in life. The more resilient you are, the more you will feel able to bounce back from difficult experiences.
Taking steps now can protect your mood from dropping or your anxiety increasing during the pandemic and build your resilience for the long haul.
There are 5 key strategies to help take care of your mental health while staying at home:
- look after your physical wellbeing
- do the things that boost your mental health
- avoid the things that harm your mental health
- know when and how to get help if you need it
- remember the reason we're all doing this together.
Image credit: Twenty20
Look after your physical wellbeing
Taking care of your physical wellbeing provides a good base for your mental wellbeing. Make it a priority to get enough sleep, be active every day and have regular nutritious meals. This is because sleep, exercise and diet are all linked to how you feel emotionally.
Get enough sleep
While stress and anxiety can cause sleeping problems, or worsen existing ones, lack of sleep can also cause anxiety.
You may not have the routine that going to work provides, so it takes a bit more effort to create one yourself. However, a good routine helps with good sleep. Regular bedtimes and waking times set your body clock into a rhythm, making it easier to get to sleep each night.
So, resist the temptation to stay up late streaming movies and go to bed at about the same time each night. Read more sleep tips.
Be active every day
Exercise lifts your mood – especially aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, running and cycling, or resistance training (lifting weights). People who are inactive are up to twice as likely to have depressive symptoms than active people. Read more about physical activity and mental health.
Even though options are more limited at the moment, you can go out for a walk, run or bike ride in your local neighbourhood, so make the most of this and do it every day.
If you have a backyard or garden you have space for more activities, such as ball games with your family or flatmates or catching up on the gardening.
Even if you are confined to an apartment, you can still move regularly throughout the day. Do an online fitness class, dance to your favourite music, get into a yoga routine. Read more ideas for exercise while staying at home.
But if you can get out into nature in your backyard or neighbourhood, make the most of that. Research shows spending time in nature improves physical and mental wellbeing.
Eat a healthy diet
The link between food and mood is clear – what you eat affects not only your physical health but also your mental health.
Eating some foods can improve your mood and mental wellbeing, while other foods can have a negative impact on how you feel.
The key is to choose a diet high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains and fish, with smaller portions of lean meat and dairy – and to limit those sugary, salty and processed foods. Read more about food and mood.
Do the things that boost mental health
As well as taking care of yourself physically, there are a few things we know that build up emotional resilience, making you less vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
You can still be in touch by text, social media, phone calls and video calls. You talk to your neighbours over the fence or on the street – just stay 2 metres away from them.
Reach out to your usual supports over the phone – family and whānau, friends and workmates. Be in touch more often with the people you care about. Make sure they’re doing okay and that will help you too.
Get creative: arrange a morning cup of tea time with your elderly parent while you chat on the phone, read a book to your grandchild over a video call, have an end of day social message chat with a friend each night and a video conference drink on Friday night with all your mates.
Accept the situation
Knowing what you can control and what you can’t control helps to cope through times like this. Focus on what you can do in a challenging situation helps to make you stronger.
Some things are out of your hands – and in this case, you can’t do much about the existence of COVID-19. But there are things you can do: stay at home and save lives, wash your hands often and cough or sneeze into your sleeve so you don't spread the virus (or other bugs). And when you go out for food, medicine or exercise, stay 2 metres away from others.
Following these rules is doing the most profound thing any of us will ever do: help to stop the people we care about from dying.
Breathe and be present
Knowing how to use your breathe to calm your nervous system is a key tool in your wellbeing kit. Taking a long, slow breathe in, holding it for a few seconds and then slowly, slowly breathing out really makes a difference. Try out the breathing exercises at Hikitia Te Hā All Right?
Being mindful helps you become more present to yourself and reduces the build-up of tension, stress and anxiety. The more you practise being mindful, the more you benefit from it.
Check out the resources, including a daily practice, as well as videos and apps to get you started, in our mindfulness section.
Do something for someone else
It seems counter-intuitive, as feeling anxious or depressed can take up all your headspace. But making the effort to be there for someone else is actually a good way to pick up your mood and settle your nerves.
Find the lighter moments
Even in times like this, there are still moments that can uplift us.
Make a point of finding something beautiful in nature each day on your walk or out your window.
Give your other senses some stimulation too – stroke a pet, cuddle your children or your partner. Notice smells on your walk or in your garden. Have variety in your meals, including some that really stimulate your taste buds.
Image credit: Canva
And listen to music – choose something that will uplift you if you’re feeling a bit low or under-stimulated, or pick something calming if you’re starting to feel anxious.
And when you're online, check out the memes and other things people around the world are sharing to lift our moods and remind us we’re all in this together.
Make the most of resources you can access from home
There are useful ways to spend time online, such as accessing resources to support your mental wellbeing.
This Way Up has made access to its mindfulness-based CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) course for managing anxiety and depression and their managing insomnia course. You can also take a test to assess how well you're doing with managing anxiety and depression.
There are many other online resources. We've listed some mental health resources for young people, most of which are suitable for most age groups.
There are many mental health and wellbeing apps on the market. We've reviewed some of these to make it easier for you to decide which one might work for you. Check out the reviewed mental health and wellbeing apps.
Videos can also be useful, so we've selected some mental health and wellbeing videos that you might find helpful.
Seek spiritual comfort
Turn to your cultural or spiritual practices that connect you to a sense of purpose and meaning. It may be the care you take of the others around you, or pets or the environment you're in. It may be a formal practice, such as meditation. You may need to find online services to replace your usual community gatherings. And remember, you are showing manaakitanga in a shutdown by taking care of people by staying away from them!
Avoid the things that harm your mental health
Avoid news overload
Stay informed, not overwhelmed.
Having a drink can be great for a temporary soothing of your nerves or boost of mood. But doing that too much and too often has a big risk in terms of your ongoing mental wellbeing.
Alcohol disrupts the balance of chemicals in your brain, including serotonin – a chemical that helps to regulate your mood. This is why if you drink too much or too often you can end up feeling worse.
If you use alcohol as your main way of relieving stress and anxiety, there is a risk that you may become dependent on it. Clearly, the same is true for use of any other recreational drugs. Read more about alcohol and mental health.
Reduce screen time
The internet is a lifeline at a time like this: many people can continue to work at home and earn a living. You can entertain yourself with streamed moves, gaming, YouTube videos and so on. But you can have too much of a good thing!
Researchers have found that the amount of screen time can predict the depression level among adults, for children and adolescents, more hours of daily screen time were associated with lower psychological well-being, and teenage high users are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
Take regular breaks from the screen and suggest a board game or a card game, make something, bake something, fix something, organise something, clean something – anything that gets you moving and gets you off the screen.
Know when and how to get help if you need it
If you’re struggling, that’s understandable. Don’t try and soldier on alone. Get help as soon as you notice signs you are becoming anxious or depressed.
If you are concerned about your own mental wellbeing, or that of someone else, you can call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor. They have interpreters if anyone needs one. They’re available for free, day and night.
Other phone lines include:
- The Depression Helpline (0800 111 757)
- Healthline (0800 611 116)
- Lifeline (0800 543 354)
- Samaritans (0800 726 666)
- Youthline (0800 376 633)
- Alcohol Drug Helpline (0800 787 797)
- Support with grief, anxiety, distress or mental wellbeing (Freephone or text 1737)
You can also get medical help at any alert level, including emergency care if needed. Your doctor and practice nurse are also still available, although sometimes this may be via a virtual consult (by phone or video). Read more about telehealth.
Remember the reason we’re all doing this together
He waka eke noa – we’re all in this together. Sometimes it helps when we’re doing something tough to connect to the purpose to it.
The following links provide further information about taking care of your mental health. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.
Looking after mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19 Mental Health Foundation, NZ
Looking after your mental wellbeing Unite Against COVID-19, NZ
Managing triggered thoughts and emotions Mental Health Foundation, NZ
Mind, mood and wellness Fresh Minds, NZ
Getting through together All Right and Mental Health Foundation, NZ
Staying on track A free online course that introduces easy-to-use, practical strategies to support Kiwis through the COVID-19 outbreak. Just a Thought, NZ
Mindfulness in isolation course Wanderble
Whakatau mai Free, virtual community events aimed at supporting wellbeing in real time, with real people. These diverse sessions invite you to connect with others, learn and practice new skills, and start to look at things differently – one conversation at a time.
- How does anxiety affect sleep? National Sleep Foundation, US
- Madhav KC, Sherchand SP, Sherchan S. Association between screen time and depression among US adults Prev Med Rep. 2017;8:67–71.
- Twenge JM, Campbell WK. Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Prev Med Rep. 2018;12:271–283.