Understanding mental health and how to keep it strong during this pandemic
Nowadays, everyone is talking about mental health, yet do they understand what this is?
Let’s begin this blog by first understanding what ‘mental health’ actually means. At least to me, a blogger and final year undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay.
Many people sometimes refer to mental health as the “absence of mental disorder”. But it’s not just an absence of mental disorder. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO):
““Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.””
The WHO stresses the fact that mental health is not just an absence of mental disorder or disabilities, but rather mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices everyday.
Mental health is important at every stage of life right from your childhood to adolescence and through adulthood. Peak mental health is about not only avoiding active conditions but it also includes looking after ongoing wellness and happiness.
So, to narrow it down, in my opinion people who are mentally healthy would have:
A sense of contentment
A zest for living and the ability to laugh and have fun
The ability to deal with stress and bounce back from adversity
A sense of meaning and purpose, in both their activities and relationships
The flexibility of learning new skills and ability to adapt to change
Self-confidence and self esteem
For some of you reading, these things may seem trivial, but there are also many people out there who are struggling in more than one of the above. According to WHO, one in four people will be affected by mental health at some point of their lives. According to WHO, around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.
The thing that’s most troubling is that people often choose to neglect their mental health issues, and some can be reluctant or unable to address problems they are having.
Why, you ask?
One of the biggest reasons may be due to poor understanding and empathy from others; in many societies, mental and emotional issues are often seen as less legitimate than physical issues. They can be seen as a sign of weakness or somehow as being our own fault.
Some people mistakenly see mental health problems as something we should know how to deal with it ourselves. Men, especially, would rather prefer to bottle up their feelings than seek help. As per a research done by National Centre for Health Statistics (NCHS) on 21,000 American men, nearly one in ten men reported experiencing some form of depression or anxiety, but less than half sought treatment and men die by suicide 3.5x more often than women.
In the modern age, we’re obsessed with seeking simple answers to complex problems instead of finding out the root cause. We look for an out with others by compulsively checking social media instead of reaching out to people in the real world.
We should look for an outlet for our feelings not on social media but by building deeper connections with our friends and family.
Burying your feelings inside can lead to a spiral down into depression and anxiety issues. As said by Beth on bustle: For people in depression, it’s like being in a dark room where the light switch and door handle is missing.
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Coming back to the title of this blog, we all know that this ongoing pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of almost everyone in society. With all the traumatic things that are going on around the world, the situation is getting worse and has been affecting our mental health negatively.
Let’s understand how all this is affecting our mental health by using an analogy. Assume life in pandemic is an internet browser and you have a million and one browser tabs open, all demanding different thoughts.
Some of these tabs are making different noises such as several social media tabs shouting negative and anxiety-provoking news and thoughts at you. Some are playing those little annoying tunes that get stuck in your head on repeat.
Some tabs are things you genuinely need to worry about in the sense they demand genuine attention like deadlines at work, looking after the dog, keeping the house tidy, or appointments.
Others are detrimental.
The pop-ups that come up in front of everything else telling you that you are going to fail or you can’t do it or tell you other people think badly of you or that someone is better than you, are the most concerning. Sometimes, these pop-ups are so demanding and just keep appearing no matter how many times you try to click on the little ‘x’ to try to get them to go away. But you need to click ‘x’ every single time and block that pop up.
Sometimes, your browser may also hang or stop working due to reasons beyond your control, like losing your job or having a serious accident or getting hospitalized. In these situations, you need to be patient, have faith in yourself, not overthink on the cause of the reasons, and just restart the browser.
Also, one of the main reasons why this pandemic is affecting our mental health negatively is because, what we are fighting, we can’t completely control.
And, as the psychiatrist Paola Dazzan says in her Inspire the Mind blog:
“We are used to having control in many aspects of our lives; I know I certainly am. We decide what books we read, which movies we see, which friends we go out with, which jobs we prefer and even which cities we would like to live in.”
Suddenly, we find ourselves stuck in a situation over which we have little control left. Our brains are not wired to tolerate this type of uncertainty, but rather to evaluate the threat and decide what actions to take.
The numbers of COVID-19 cases in India, where I live, have been rising exponentially and the curve is not flattening anytime soon. Even after this, the government decided to lift the lockdown to revive the economy. But the pandemic has definitely had a major impact on everyone. Many people have lost their jobs, businesses are facing losses and there is so much uncertainty everywhere. I live in a city where the cases are constantly increasing day by day. And the fear increases when new cases are emerging every week in your society itself. These things definitely take a toll on our mental health and the atmosphere of fear is still there, everywhere, even though the lockdown has lifted.
But there are ways to keep our mental health strong during this pandemic. Well, I do not have that silver bullet, but if you keep reading, perhaps you will find some understanding of how you can make it work for you.
Take part in some form of physical activity
It has been proven that exercising daily can give your mental health a boost. A study showed that people who exercise regularly say that it gives them an enormous sense of well-being. According to helpguide, they feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts your overall mood.
And you don’t have to be a fitness fanatic, you can join an online yoga class, start gardening, go for 15-minutes walks or jog. Just rejuvenate yourself through physical activity. Furthermore, in times like these it is even more important as there is evidence which suggests that physical exercise can improve the function of you immune defenses — you can read more about this in a recent InSPIre the Mind blog.
Practice mindfulness in everything you do throughout the day
According to this blog, mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
Mindfulness improves your well being, mental health as well as physical health. Some ways to practice mindfulness are basic mindful meditation, body sensation, sensory and emotional check. Above all, practicing mindfulness involves accepting whatever arises in your awareness at each and every moment. It involves always being kind and forgiving toward yourself.
One tip to keep in mind is to gently redirect to the action you are currently performing. If your mind wanders into daydreaming, or criticism, or negative thoughts notice where it has gone and gently redirect it to sensations in the present. By focusing on the present actions, many people find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past, are less preoccupied with concerns about success and self-esteem, and are better able to form deep connections with others. Again, you can read more about this in another InSPIre the Mind blog.
Make social connection a priority, especially face to face
After all humans are social creatures with emotional needs for relationships and positive connections with others. We’re not meant to survive, let alone be happy, in isolation. Our social brains crave companionship, even when experience has made us shy and distrustful of others. But why is face to face communication so important? Phone calls and social networks have their effect, but nothing can beat the stress-busting, mood-boosting power of quality face-to-face time with other people.
Of course, this isn’t as simple as today’s life so, have those zoom or Skype happy hours with your friends and family, this will make you feel wanted and lighten up your mood instantly.
Also, please keep in mind that reaching out is not a sign of weakness and it won’t make you a burden to others so you should also consider sharing your feelings. Most people are flattered if you trust them enough to confide in them. If you don’t feel that you have anyone to turn to, there are good ways to build new friendships and improve your support network.
Reduce your screen time
Our screen time has definitely increased during this lockdown period and with all the rumors and negative news that floats around on social media, it affects our mental health indirectly, and more than you think. Negative news can get stuck in our minds and we can keep pondering over it for days and weeks to come only to find that the news was fake.
So, stick to some few reliable sources and feed yourself information only from those sources. And try to reduce your screen time as much as possible. Start reading those books you always wanted to read, listen to podcasts (there are very interesting podcasts out there) or create something yourself.
Be grateful for what you have currently.
You are very lucky if you are at home, have food on your table and getting a good sleep. There are many people out there who aren’t at their home in this lockdown, don’t have food to eat and can’t even get a comforting place to sleep at night. You must be thankful for whatever you have. Being grateful will help you focus on what you have, have a positive outlook on life and boost your mental health.
Change the meaning of the lockdown in your head. The way you perceive it will influence your emotional state. Think of it as an opportunity to slow down from the madness of a hurried life. A chance to connect with yourself — to pause, to re-evaluate and to reset your life. It is perhaps nature’s way of giving us a wakeup call!
It is important to remind yourself that you are not alone in this and this will not last forever. As Dr. Dazzan says in her blog:
“This thing will be over soon and one day we will say “Do you remember those months during the coronavirus crisis?”. Let’s get to that day as soon as possible.”