Individual, Practices, self-care, Stories of Hope

Mental Health and COVID (how to look after your mental health if you have suffered from the virus or if you are/have been the caregiver of those affected by it)

It’s been more than 9 months since the COVID outbreak had our country shaken and brought to a standstill. We have now reached a space of navigating quite well through this new normal. Socially distanced gatherings or reduced outings/no outings have become our way of living.  Masks, sanitizers, sanitation sprays and face shields have become our regular accessories. If we look at our lives superficially, we seem to be doing good given the present scenario. It’s only when we delve deeper into ourselves do we realise, how this pandemic has affected us psychologically, each one of us in some way or the other.

COVID brought with itself drastic changes. Our old ways of living had to be stopped, and new, much more conscious ways of living had to be practiced. These changes have been accompanied by negative effects on mental health. Loss of life as we knew it, grieving over this loss, feeling trapped, hopeless, stuck, anger at the situation, helplessness on not being able to do much about it, along with feelings of frustration, annoyance, irritation, sadness, fear, worry, concern, loneliness have been some of the common responses/experiences/side effects of the pandemic. Apart from these, those with pre-existing mental health conditions have also been experiencing a rise in their issues for instance increased anxiety, and depression relapsing, to just give two of the most common examples. The entire social distancing and lockdown process in itself has brought about feelings of loneliness, which has aggravated the issues of those people who constantly need to be around others/ away from their family members. Some of us might be aware of what we are going through, while some of us, might not, however I am sure each person reading this will agree to the fact, that we do feel different/ like something is wrong/something is missing/ or just general feelings of distress, now and then. Please know that these feelings are normal, and you deserve to let them out.

My article today is going to focus on specifically two categories of people: those having suffered from COVID, and the caregivers/family members of the same.

Dealing with the virus is a subjective experience. Each person, who’s been diagnosed with it, has had their own set of symptoms, physically, as well as mentally. The virus is known to deplete the person of energy in general. Even after the virus has subsided, it takes months for a person to completely recover. Lingering effects of the virus are many. Tiredness, weakness, extreme loss of hair, to name just a few. Other than these, the virus also weakens the functioning of the various internal body organs and deteriorates their functioning permanently, for a lot of people. These physical symptoms, added to the various psychological symptoms are sure to take a massive toll on the person experiencing them. The long periods of isolation, not being able to come in contact with loved ones, sitting all alone, isolated from everyone, the regular intake of various medicines, the general unease and pain can lead to mild, moderate or serious depression and/or other mental health diseases. Those people who already suffer from Major Depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD), Health Anxiety, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Bipolar Disorder and Substance-Abuse Disorders, might find their ailments getting worsened on been diagnosed with COVID. The fears and beliefs, that otherwise could be challenged as irrational during normal times, can no more be challenged because they are very much rational and true for them since they’ve come true. It is a difficult path to ride. Along with these multitude signs and symptoms, can exist feelings of anger, (“why did this have to happen to me?”, “I don’t/didn’t deserve this”, “when will I get okay?”, “I was doing everything to protect myself, why didn’t any of it work?”), feelings of being detached or lonely/disconnected from close ones,(“They won’t get what I am going through”), feelings of annoyance/irritation where in little things can tick them off, loss of interest from activities that were once liked/loved. The stigma that the virus brings with it in itself can get very overwhelming (untouchability, staying away from the one affected, avoiding the one affected).

Source: Google Images

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN AFFECTED BY THE VIRUS:

Having said all the above, I am not here to tell you about a right way to look after your mental health if you have been affected by the virus. There is no right way, neither is there one way. However, if you are in the space to focus on your mental health right now, then here are a few things which you could do.:

  • It’s okay to feel whatever it is that you are feeling. All your feelings are valid. Try to accept and embrace each feeling as it comes. Fighting our feelings, judging them, or trying to suppress them does more harm than good. If you are someone who does not know how to connect with your feelings, use a feelings chart to help you make sense of them. Another way would be by using the technique of free- flowing drawing or colouring. When I say free- flowing I mean your creation does not need to make sense, it can just be scribbles, scratches, just a way for you to let those feelings out.
  • A sense of loss, sadness, pain is normal. Grieving all that mattered to you is valid and you deserve that.
  • Gradually trying to resume your life, doing things that are somehow normal, can be scary and that is okay. Try not to pressurize yourself into anything that you are not comfortable with. Your body and mind is recovering and that takes time. Give yourself that time.
  • If you are someone who is experiencing the lingering after-effects of the disease like massive hair fall then I understand that this can be painful and scary. The future can seem bleak and uncertain but remind yourself that your thoughts are not facts. Do what is needed to care for yourself and trust the recovery process. Talk to someone you feel safe with. When the ailment hits, your body’s natural reaction is to use all its resources to fight the virus. In this process, its focus naturally shifts from all other functions (apart from basic functions), to what is the important thing in hand. That can be a reason why side effects of the virus can occur like hairfall. As your body resumes normal functioning, all other areas get their focus again, and things start to get better. Monitor your symptoms and and report to your doctor in case of any issue.
  • Therapy: you deserve s safe space to vent/process what you are going through. Therapy can be that space for you. It does not mean you are weak, it’s just another way of giving love to yourself.
  • Spend time with people who feel safe and provide you with comfort. Spending time need not always be physically, it can also be virtual (chats/video calls). Remind yourself that you are loved and that you have people who want to be there for you. Let them in.
  • Try to give yourself ample rest. You do not have to plunge into normal life as soon as possible, your mind and body need to recuperate.
  • Try to do one thing a day that makes you happy. It can be as simple as waking up early/late, eating chocolate/ having a warm/cold water bath, having your favourite fruit, talking to someone you love and care about, watching/reading something you like.
  • Journaling is another thing you could do to help you put down on paper, whatever it is that’s bothering you. Any kind of journaling works, be it taking up what was the highlight of your day, to random stuff, or even, just putting down whatever comes to mind. It need not make sense or be linked. Writing down or typing, whatever works for you, do that.
  • Avoid researching about the disease on the internet at this time. Agreed that researching is good and can enlighten us, but the internet and media can be a very uncertain place and at this time when your mind is fragile and gullible, it might not be a very good idea to search the web. As much as you try, something unpleasant might pop up, engaging in which may backfire.
  • Give yourself the due credit for dealing with the virus. That in itself is a big achievement and may sometimes get ignored or shadowed by other things.
  • Changes in appetite and sleep cycle might be there and that is okay. Try to inculcate meditation/ guided meditation/breathing exercises before sleep, and stay away from gadgets at least an hour before sleeping. Avoid keeping clocks anywhere nearby because the ticking sound might increase the stress of being unable to sleep. When it comes to food, try not to force yourself to have a full meal if you cannot. Focus more on green leafy vegetables and salads if possible. If not, at least try to maintain a regular (2-3 hour) food intake so as to get your body accustomed to the proper digestive functioning.
  • Try to maintain a routine. The recovery period may get uncomfortable and sometimes feeling helpless might come along with it. Maintaining a routine means having some amount of control in your life and this can help with negating feelings of helplessness.
  • Engage in mild exercise/walking if you can. This can help in increasing blood flow throughout the body and release happy chemicals in your brain.
  • Try to connect with how you are feeling within, listen to your body and go easy on yourself.
  • If you already are living with a mental health condition, make sure to be regular with your appointments and be aware of any symptoms worsening or new symptoms arising.
  • In case you feel your mental health is deteriorating and you feel like you are on the verge of making any rash decision, please be sure to reach out. If you are not in the space to reach out, just try to focus on the next minute at hand and remind yourself that this feeling is temporary. Avoid being close to any objects/spaces that might be dangerous to you.
  • Please know that feelings of guilt (not being to look after your loved ones, not being able to work at your full potential at work, not keeping the house or room clean and tidy), worry (of being reinfected or affecting your loved ones even though you are clear of spreading infection) are natural and may arise. It is okay to feel them and you do not have to fix them. Neither do you need to act on them (by being more productive or avoiding people). These are feelings and not facts, and no feeling is final.
Here’s a Feelings Chart to help you figure your feelings out

Source: Google Images

FOR THE CAREGIVERS OF THOSE AFFECTED BY THE VIRUS:

Being a caregiver/family member/loved one of someone suffering from the virus may also be a difficult/challenging task. It can get overwhelming, worrisome, frustrating as well. In fact, caregiver stress is a very well researched area. Caregiving has all the features of a chronic stress experience: It creates physical and psychological strain over extended periods of time, is accompanied by high levels of unpredictability and uncontrollability, has the capacity to create secondary stress in multiple life domains such as work and family relationships, and frequently requires high levels of vigilance.

Here are somethings you can do (as a caregiver) to look after your mental health:

  • Understand that caregiving comes with a lot of responsibility and that can feel exhausting. It is okay to let your guard down from time to time. You do not need to be perfect and there is a limit to what you can do. Feelings of protecting our loved one from any more harm are natural but it is important to remind ourselves that there is only so much you can do, keeping in mind your mental health as well. Such times can make it difficult for us to focus on ourselves since we get engrossed in looking after the person. It is important to check in with yourself from time to time.
  • Create a support system. Talk or reach out to people if you need to.
  • Therapy: as suggested for COVID patients as well, therapy is something that I would highly recommend. Giving yourself that safe space to vent/process your feelings is very, very important. Make time for yourself, whether once in 2 weeks or once in a month, but consciously chalk a time out where you could seek therapy.
  • At times feelings of anger toward the person we are looking after might set in and that is normal. Understand that you are allowed to have these negative feelings and feeling them does not make you a bad person. You can love and care for a person and be angry toward them. Anger and love can co-exist.
  • If you are not keeping well or are going through physical pain or tiredness, then understand that you need to be looked after too. Your pain is not insignificant just because you are looking after someone who has been keeping really unwell. You deserve rest. Avoid undermining your experiences.
  • Maintain a proper sleep and appetite cycle, as much as possible.
  • Practice mindfulness from time to time. This helps you check in yourself and focus on the present moment. It’s easy to spiral into negative thoughts when we are in an emotionally fragile state. Focusing on the present moment helps alleviate anxiety.
  • In case you feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts, try to challenge these thoughts by looking for evidence for these (Ask yourself if you are assuming the worst will happen or blaming yourself for something that has not gone the way you wanted and then think about other possible outcomes or reasons that something turned out differently than you hoped, on a scale of 1-10, how true do you think this thought is? how many times in the past has this come true? What realistic and grounding statement can you use instead? Is there an alternative way of thinking here that is reality-based? try to bring into awareness whether this is a distorted thought and accept it if it is. Acceptance need not mean that the thought is true. At times in order to protect us, our brains can have a tendency to come up with scenarios and thoughts so as to help us stay prepared and make us feel in control. It is important to realise that this is just a coping mechanism and every thought need not be true.
  • Journaling/putting things down on paper is also another helpful way to deal with the myriad emotions and feelings that keep arising on a day to day basis.
  • Release any judgement that you may have toward yourself..you are only a human and judgement adds an extra layer of anxiety and stress to the already existing stress that you may be experiencing.
  • At times when we are venting to someone, the first reaction of the person listening might be (maybe even unintentionally) to get into a solution mode for you, or to focus more on what to do. You might not want that at the moment and you might just want to vent, express your frustration, wallow. And that is fine. Communicate about what you want and let the other person know how they could help you best.
  • Consciously give yourself a “me time” daily. This can be the time you engage in doing something that you like/love, or the time you sit with your feelings.

These lists are not exhaustive, there is a lot more one can do depending on the circumstances that they are going through and the resources available. What matters is, that you do something that works for you and helps you.

Take care.

Khyati

I am a practicing psychologist. I’m interested in art and design. Mandala art is my stress buster. I’m also into the upcoming field of fashion psychology. Binge watching, reading, engaging with art and listening to music are my current pastimes. Oh, and adding new places to visit in my travel bucket list too can be counted!

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