Mental health and COVID19

Mental health and COVID19

Handling anxiety during life stress and COVID-19

By Dr Adrian Allen, Clinical Psychologist, PhD, MPscyhol (Clinical)

It’s common to feel anxious and worried at times of life stress. This can be really challenging when the source of stress is uncertain, not completely controllable and seems to have potentially terrible consequences. So it’s understandable if you feel this way about novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and the impact that it’s had on how we work and live. You’re certainly not alone. The constant media reporting, social media posts and the speed of its impact on daily life have all made it hard to switch off from what’s happening.

The good news is that there are ways to handle times of stress to make them as manageable as possible, including the time we’re experiencing now. These can all be used even with the need for physical distancing.

Here are a few things to try …

Stay connected – with family, friends, colleagues and trusted others. There is a range of apps that can be really handy to stay in touch with people – whether it’s video, phone, messaging or email. Try to plan regular contact with people in this way. Examples might be speaking to at least one friend or family member once a day, messaging other people daily or organising a group video meeting with friends. You could even try combining this with another activity that that you enjoy e.g. playing online chess or boardgames while chatting to those people on the phone.

Plan regular exercise – This might mean adjusting what you usually do. Ideally it would be great to exercise most days for 20-30 minutes. There is good research support for regular exercise in helping with anxiety and mood. Going for walk or jog is great if it’s reasonable to do so. Otherwise, other ideas for exercise at home are yoga, pilates, stretching, isometric exercises, isotonic exercises or other exercise routines that can be done from home. There are often freely available tutorials on online services like YouTube or apps. Check with your doctor or physio if needed about the exercises you’d like to try.

Keep routine – Regular routine and structure to the day is really important for mental health. As much as possible, try to keep regular times for things like waking up, meals, bedtime and other activities though the day. It’s ok to be flexible with these times, but try to keep each one within the same 1-hour range from day to day.

Engage in activity – this overlaps with the points above about exercise and routine. Activities fall roughly into four areas – activities that are:

  • Pleasurable – these are activities that are usually enjoyable (even if it seems harder to enjoy them when anxious or when mood is low). These vary from person to person, so choose activities that are/might be enjoyable to you e.g. things like cooking, playing with a pet, reading in the sun, have a relaxing bath or shower.
  • Physical – this is anything that you do for exercise.
  • Useful – these are activities that may be done out of necessity and can give a sense of achievement e.g. paying bills, preparing a meal, house chores, helping someone do something, contributing to others.
  • Intellectual – these are activities that get your sense of curiosity going e.g. doing brainteasers, reading, learning a skill, watching a documentary, listening to a podcast.

Aim to do one activity from at least two of these activity areas each day.

Limit times and sources of news info and limit use of social media. Try to limit sources of information to reputable, reliable sources. e.g. Limit the time spent on news sources and social media (e.g. twice a day, no more than half an hour each time). Consider switching off phone notifications for social media and news apps.

Start a regular mindfulness practice – Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention to the present moment in an accepting, non-judgemental way. Regular practice for 10 minutes daily is a great habit to build. It’s a useful skill to shift attention away from worry and anxiety. There are lots of apps and tutorials available online that can be used to help.

Helpful realistic thinking – when anxious, the mind often jumps ahead to worst case scenarios, can make them seem highly likely and often tells us that we won’t cope. But often, those ideas are not completely right or helpful. As much as you can, try to consider more helpful, realistic ideas e.g. while this is a challenging time, it will not be forever; there are ways to adapt to help cope (like the suggestions in this handout); I can find ways to get extra support if I need it (e.g. my GP, family and friends, government and community support services, speaking to a mental health professional). List examples of times when you have coped well with challenging times before – and note down what this could mean about coping well with this challenge. 

Avoid alcohol and substances as a way to cope – while these may seem to lower anxiety in the moment, they can be unhelpful in the long run. Try alternative ways handle anxiety on this handout.

Be compassionate with yourself if you notice feeling anxious and finding it difficult to do all the things you usually would. It’s normal to feel some anxiety at times of stress. And it’s usual for people to take time to adjust to changes to daily life. Allow yourself time to make these adjustments. Even though this is hard at first, people mostly adjust over time.

Seek professional help if needed. If you have tried the tips above, but still feel uncomfortably anxious or have uncomfortably low mood, speak to your GP about getting a referral to see a clinical psychologist who can provide further assistance.

Please feel free to contact our practice if you would like assistance to manage how you feel. We are able to provide appointments by phone and video conference. You can contact us on (02) 9119 8778. Rebates from Medicare and your private health fund may be available for appointments.

If you are in a mental health emergency, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14, the Mental Health Line 1800 011 511, Emergency 000 or go to your nearest hospital emergency department.

For information related to novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), please check: