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How to cope with the fact the pandemic may go on for an indefinite time

Each day a new announcement is made. Each day plans are cancelled and big life events get a little further from our grasp, as we’re told to limit contact with others in order to limit the spread of coronavirus.

If you’re feeling despondent without a set timeframe to when we’ll ‘go back to normal’, you’re not alone.

New levels of alert in Scotland have been put in place until a vaccine is distributed, and in England there has been no clarity on when the tier system may end – or when certain areas may be moved to lower tiers.

Couple this uncertainty with the fact we’ve been cooped up in our homes without much interaction and the real-life consequences of the pandemic including job losses and health worries, and it’s understandable that people’s mental health might suffer.

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Dr Laira Gold, Babylon Health Psychotherapist says: ‘The fact that people have been locked into confined spaces with no real end in sight, 24/7, day in, day out made a lot of people reflect on their lives and their sometimes really desperate circumstances.’

Babylon found that more than half of people they surveyed had struggled with their mental health at the start of lockdown, with certain coping mechanisms – like drinking – exacerbating problems.

‘Alcohol was readily available and drunk as early as could be in quantities unmeasured, without the thought of having to remain sober for work the next day, as many people had been furloughed or lost their job during the pandemic,’ adds Dr Gold.

According to Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health, there are ways to reduce the toll this seemingly never-ending pandemic takes on your mind.

‘It’s been a tough year for everyone – with the coronavirus pandemic bringing fear of illness, drastic changes to our lifestyle and constant negative news flow,’ he says. 

‘Many of us feel like we don’t have control of our lives at the moment, constantly asking ourselves ‘what if?’, without an answer. This ongoing uncertainty can spiral out of control, leading to long-term stress.’

His tips on how to look after yourself amid the uncertainty are as follows:

Switch off

‘In uncertain times, checking the news is common,’ says Brendan.

‘We’re searching for answers and we feel like news updates will provide them. But for many of us, gluing ourselves to the TV and endlessly scrolling social media only fuels feelings of anxiety.’

The overload of bad news can drain you, particularly when you’re seeing it on a live feed on social media.

To avoid becoming bogged down in the feeling that the world will never return to how you once knew it, Brendan advises only checking one trusted news site once in the morning and again in the evening.

This way you can keep up-to-date with the announcements, but not be glued to a rolling cycle of doom and gloom.

Start healthier habits

One of the problems with being furloughed or working from home is that we lose our sense of routine – potentially creating a feeling that the days all roll into one.

Brendan says: ‘While there are many things we can’t change, creating a routine shows us it’s not all up in the air. 

‘Start creating healthier habits. For example, setting your alarm for the same time each morning, going for daily walks and cooking a nice dinner each night. You could even prepare meals in bulk at the weekend, so you know they’re ready. 

‘Not only does exercise help relieve feelings of stress by giving us a mood-lifting dopamine spike, but enjoying a nutritious diet, drinking plenty of water and getting enough sleep help balance our brain’s chemicals to give us much-needed mental clarity.’

Focus on your breath 

‘When we become stressed, our bodies go into fight or flight mode, which can lead to sensations like increased heart rate and faster breathing,’ says Brendan.

While we might not be able to change the trajectory of the pandemic, we can use techniques to improve our mental state in the moment.

Brendan advises: ‘Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Take long, slow inhalations through your nose, hold for a few seconds comfortably and then exhale out through your mouth.

‘Not only will this take your mind off the uncomfortable feelings, but research suggests around six exhalations a minute can trigger a relaxation response, which helps alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.’

Challenge unhelpful thinking

The first step in recovering from stress it to notice when it happens and challenge it.

‘Try to understand your common unhelpful thought patterns,’ says Brendan.

‘When you feel stressed or anxious, write down the trigger, associated thoughts, and the mood you experienced. Also note how the situation turned out. Often, we read back through our experiences and learn, while our thoughts may focus on the worst-case scenario, things rarely turn out like this.’

Babylon Health call it ‘the power of reframing’. For example, if your initial thought is, ‘This pandemic will never end. Life will never be the same,’ try to think instead, ‘This pandemic won’t last forever, we will emerge from this experience more creative, innovative, and resilient.’

Experiment with small changes

It may feel like the world has flipped in a matter of moments, with your life going from carefree to the exact opposite almost overnight.

That fear of change might seem like a protective instinct, but it can be detrimental long-term.

Brendan says: ‘Consider ways you can make small adjustments to activities you otherwise feel confident about. This may include switching up your usual running route or volunteering to help with a new task at work. 

‘You’ll start to learn that you can cope with uncertain outcomes and that allowing yourself to release some control doesn’t always have to be a trigger for stress and anxiety.’

Adding a little variety to your day helps bring you back to a more stable state and see that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

We will get to a stage where life is ‘normal’ again, and looking after yourself in the meantime is the best thing you can do.

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