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COVID-19: An overview of recommendations for improving mental health when in isolation

The struggles of being in isolation have taken a toll on all living through COVID-19. Although the extent of isolation varies between countries, restrictions have been placed across the board to “flatten the curve”. Citizens are expected to do their best to abide by the rules. However, it can become increasingly difficult to do so when living in fear of what is to come next. There is no prediction of if our lives will return to what it once was or if it will continue to change.

Slowly, the anxiety of uncertainty overwhelms those without the right coping mechanisms. Mental health at this time is fragile, and a vulnerable population is growing. The recovery of the existing vulnerable population is prolonged, and the mental health care system is burdened with more patients, longer waiting lists, and limited resources.

Two clinical psychologists from Spain and Sweden offered us a unique insight into the effects of COVID-19 on the psyche. As a continuation from our previous review on the challenges individuals and the mental health care system face, we discuss overall recommendations to aid against any dysfunctional or negative thoughts that can arise.

Finding methods to improve your well-being can be draining. There is an array of coping strategies, but it is not guaranteed all of them will work. Finding the method that gives ease to any negative feelings requires persistence, and individuals must remain optimistic for the future. Seek strategies that are feasible and ensure a reliable support system in the process. This way every person can find their own strength to overcome the hardships of COVID-19.

What are the techniques?

Techniques most strenuous are typically ones that change dysfunctional cognitive patterns. Altering a negative perception to a more positive one can sound simple but requires tenacity and determination.

Positive reinforcement is the most effective way to improve motivation.”

Reinforcement is a concept that can be used to strengthen future behavior. Techniques can target the lack of motivation and productivity the majority experience. External reinforcement can take form as praise. For example, praising oneself for meeting a deadline or having someone else use a verbal phrase like, “You did a good job!”. Rewarding yourself after certain periods of productivity is also a promising technique. An example is the Pomodoro Technique - breaking down work into intervals. 20 minutes of work can be rewarded with five minutes of social media time, eating a snack, or another pleasure activity. Distinguishing spaces at home can also reinforce motivation. Separating rooms by dedicating them to either pleasure or productivity can reinforce the notion that once in this space, one will be motivated to work.

Internal reinforcement can be similar, but the responsibility is placed on yourself. For example, one can use self-praise instead of receiving it from another person. Reinforcing existing capabilities and skill can inadvertently boost your productivity by targeting your self-esteem (e.g. “I have overcome a challenge before, I can do it again”). In addition, reminding oneself of the values and goals behind why the work needs to be done can be beneficial (e.g. “I am doing this so I can graduate and be proud to have earned my degree”). Finding the appropriate words can boost confidence and reinforce a standard level of motivation driving you through the responsibilities that need to get done.

Structuring one’s day and week can help stabilize a consistent routine. Waking up, having meals, and sleeping at the same time everyday are vital. If there is no scheduling, it leaves for an open and endless time period with distractions preventing you from being productive.

Even a minor routine of changing clothes in the morning to what would be worn at work can help.”

Being in isolation can fuel large amounts of relaxation and comfort, it is highly likely many can become complacent with their ambitions and physical health. Establishing an exercise routine can add variation within the work week whilst also releasing hormones to alleviate stress and anxieties felt by the COVID-19 period. It is never too late to start, and what better time to do so when all one has is time.

If you really want to change and have an impact on how you are, you need to be consistent. You have to discipline yourself.”

It is also important to stay in contact with others in any way possible. Isolation means being separated from loved ones for extended periods of time without knowing when you will see each other next. Take advantage of social media or calling to have as much social support as possible. Even for those struggling before the pandemic, it was recommended to surround yourself with those offering love and comfort. Sharing emotions, doubts, and worries can alleviate negative feelings. It is also likely those fears will be reciprocated by others.

For more techniques, here are 10 simple tips:

1. Take time to prepare meals.

2. Eat enough fruit and vegetables.

3. Drink lots of water.

4. Limit alcohol consumption.

5. If in a country where total lockdown is in place, open your window for fresh air.

6. Walk to the grocery store to buy healthy food.

7. If you can still workout outside, go for walks or runs every day.

8. Try meditation at fixed moments in the day.

9. Disconnect regularly from the online world.

10. Limit the consumption of news.

A reminder

There are a multitude of techniques that alleviate any dysfunctional and negative thoughts that arise during COVID-19. All of which are easy and can make a large impact when done with consistency and discipline. Finding motivation is challenging, but slowly we are learning to overcome this. It is a struggle everyone faces, and we are in this together.

“With time this situation will pass."

Our current project investigates student’s mental health and well-being across Europe. The next publication will compare the policies of two countries leading the charge on mental health during COVID-19.

This article was based on the compiled interviews from two clinical psychologists.

Caroline Nordeman, Sweden.

Anneleen Franssens, Spain.

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