Staying Mentally Healthy in times of COVID-19

COVID-19 strikes the whole world by surprise. Within the span of 10 months, we have seen more than 40 million confirmed cases, with a death toll of more than 1 million worldwide.

Singapore has been in DORSON Orange since 7 February 2020, when there was evidence of community spread transmission including several positive cases without any connections to previous cases or travel history. We went through the Circuit Breaker period from 7 April to 1 June 2020, with closure of non-essential workplaces and were encouraged to stay at home or work from home as much as possible. Thereafter, we moved on to Phase 1 till 18 June 2020; and we are now in Phase 2.

No one can say he or she is not affected by this disease outbreak. Anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress and some degree of anxiety is in fact beneficial in allowing us to improve our coping abilities. Events are more stressful if they are unpredictable, uncontrollable and challenge our limits. COVID-19 is unprecedent and till now we are not sure how long the situation will last.

Without doubt, the disease has caused a huge change in our lives and we have to make numerous and constant adjustments. There is also huge impact on jobs and income especially in industries such as aviation and tourism.

Depending on one’s personality and coping style, one may feel more anxious and worried than others. Other emotional responses include feeling of shock or denial; anger or irritability and mood changes. There may be behavioural responses such as social withdrawal, restlessness and agitation, and cognitive responses such as forgetfulness, nightmares and difficulty in making decisions. Fortunately, these symptoms and responses experienced by individuals are ‘normal reactions to abnormal situation’ and do not amount to any mental disorders.

However, there are also those who are more vulnerable during this period especially the elderly and those with limited social support; as well as persons with mental health needs and preexisting medical conditions, including persons with heart disease.

To ease our anxieties, I would recommend the following simple strategies:

  1. Try to maintain the same lifestyle habits as before the outbreak.
  2. If there is no special task to deal with, try to take up one or two activities to focus one’s attention upon. This can be reading a book, listening to music or learning a new skill.
  3. Continue to exercise daily – for persons with heart disease, please consult one treating cardiologist on the type of exercise one can do and its duration.
  4. Have a balanced diet as it helps to maintain one’s body immunity.
  5. Have enough sleep (ideally not less than 7 to 8 hours).
  6. Master a few simple relaxation techniques. One may find a quiet and comfortable place, close the eyes and inhale with the nose and then exhale through the mouth. By repeating these cycles five to six times, one would feel the whole body relaxes.
  7. Only trust information from formal or authoritative channels – unverified and untrue information will only make one more anxious.
  8. Continue to maintain regular contact with friends and relatives. As safe distancing measures are still in place, one can keep in touch with their loved ones via phones or other modern communication platforms such as social media or zoom.

It is important for one to express his or her negative emotions in the right channel – such as talking to or even crying in front of a family member, trusted friend or colleague.

If the anxiety symptoms are distressing and intolerable, and start to interfere with one’s usual activities; or if one develops symptoms of depression such as loss of interest, low mood, sleep or appetite disturbances, poor concentration and attention, loss of energy and even suicidal ideations; one should seek the help of a mental health professional early.

Article is contributed by Adj A/Prof Lee Cheng, Senior Consultant & Vice-Chairman (Clinical), Medical Board at Institute of Mental Health.

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