COVID-19: six tips that may boost your mental health

While each and every one of us is unique with different perspectives, experiences and circumstances, we are also similar despite our differences: as a lowest common denominator we all need oxygen to survive and we are all right now impacted by COVID-19 in one way or another.

With that in mind, here’s a list of things you may like to try to maintain or improve your mental health – some ideas might be right up your alley and some not really your cup of tea…you decide.

1.   Label your emotions

Are you experiencing unwanted or distracting emotions due to COVID-19 that are impairing your performance or productivity? Research suggests that labeling emotions is significantly more effective in numerous ways than suppressing them. If you’re not comfortable with telling someone else how you’re feeling, in three words or less, try telling your reflection in the bathroom mirror, or even blurt it out to your cat or dog – the recipient isn’t as relevant as the process itself. This technique serves to shift resources (oxygen/glucose) from the limbic system (your brain’s emotion centre) to the pre frontal cortex (your brain’s cognitive centre) as you employ executive functions to decide on what those words are that most accurately label your emotions. Repeat frequently throughout the day and it may act like a steam valve releasing some of the emotional pressure.

2.   Stay connected

You may find yourself working from home or socially distancing yourself and this could be from a little unsettling to downright disturbing. A sense of being connected to others in your world is an important ingredient for emotional well-being – this is the time to try out new things like setting up online groups, virtual coffees or doing whatever you can to continuously remind yourself that you’re part of a greater whole, both personally and professionally. Connect with another person/people at least a few times on a daily basis if you can.

3.   Manage your threat response

Some people can instantly notice their responses to stress via the physiological symptoms caused e.g. a tightening sensation somewhere, like chest, stomach or shoulders, or a quickened heart rate, whilst for others an increase in cortisol levels (the stress hormone) may go unnoticed even though it has occurred. Some research suggests that by simply lengthening the out breath (count your normal inhalation and exhalation and if you breathe in to a count of say 3, then make the out-breath last to the count of 4) you’re sending messages to your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems that could create a better, more healthy balance and reduce the impact of stress.

4.   It’s OK to not be OK

Vulnerability researcher Brené Brown proposes that “we love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we’re afraid to let them see it in us”. COVID-19 is like nothing any of us has ever experienced, and by being open about how vulnerable, scared, confused, angry, bewildered, perplexed, irritated (the list goes on…) you’re feeling, you may be inadvertently helping others by normalising their experience and uncertainty and invoking a shared sense of vulnerability.

Only a certain amount of stress is good for us, and the uncertainty and fear invoked in the coming days, weeks and months by COVID-19 shouldn’t be underestimated. Neither should the feelings of guilt and shame we may experience as we observe others around us suffering enormously as a result of this epidemic while others may be less impacted financially, emotionally or physically. It’s important to acknowledge your own suffering no matter what level at which it is experienced, and the concept of comfort will be a crucial element in resilience for each and every one of us. It can be a useful exercise to define and articulate what it is that brings you comfort so you can refer back in times of need and take necessary steps to maintain or improve positive mental health. It could be something simple, like looking at an image of a loved one on your smartphone, or finding something to make you laugh, or zoning out by watching a box-set or movie or going for a run.

5.   Be mindful not mindless

This phrase is commonly used in relation to our interactions with others. On the flip side of the coin, being mindful can mean being present to your own experience. This can lead to improved self-compassion and empathy and if you’re mentally and emotionally healthy then you are likely to make better decisions and judgements, and interact better with others at work and in general. By regularly checking in with yourself on your moods and emotions, you may notice needs that have previously gone unnoticed, manifesting in improved self-care. Try setting an alarm on your phone for every couple of hours and taking 15-20 seconds to check in with yourself to see what you need in this moment – a deep breath, a glass of water or a quick chat with someone could be just the thing to re-calibrate you in real-time.

6.   Help others

We have a unique and unprecedented opportunity to widen our in-group to include every human who breathes oxygen, as COVID-19 isn’t picky. Be aware though that offering help exposes vulnerability for both parties – even the person offering, who may subconsciously harbour a fear of rejection. Acts of kindness are proven to boost your immune system as well as having other positive impacts not solely limited to the recipient of your kindness, so be brave and vulnerable and find a way that is mutually beneficial for you and others.

About the author

I spent close to two decades in technology in investment banking, subsequently running businesses in Asia and the UK providing executive coaching and training services.