There is no denying that the pandemic has and continues to have a major impact on our mental and physical health, resulting in unmanageable stress in some cases. Many have turned to unhealthy habits to cope with the pressure and substitute for the feeling of isolation and disconnect due to limitations on our movement and no physical contact with others. We have been forced to adapt to this new reality without knowing when things will end, leading to fear and frustration for many. Even though more people are vaccinated and restriction getting lifted, the loneliness continues because the risk of catching and spreading COVID remains, especially for those who have underlying illness.
So, here are useful strategies to adopt during this time to help deal with the stress so that you can maintain good health and wellbeing:
1. Establish a daily routine and structure
With many of us now working from home while navigating homeschooling, it's become even more important to establish a consistent routine for yourself and the whole family. Routine helps to ease some of the anxiety, especially in the context of a life that is now consumed by constant uncertainty, fears of catching the virus, worrying about loved ones and not knowing whether we can ever return to normal.
Routine gives us one thing that is within our control in an unpredictable environment - leading to reduced anxiety, improved stress management and better sleep. This will also ensure that you have more structure that enables you to plan your days so you’re more productive.
- Waking up and going to bed around the same time every day
- Making sure you shower first thing in the morning before logging into work
- Consistent daily meals around the same time
- Regularly scheduled workouts
- Making time to connect with loved ones (add it as a meeting in your calendar)
2. Sleep, sleep, sleep
Sleep is an often overlooked pillar of our health. Given the fact that humans cannot voluntarily stay awake for more than two to three days, sleeping is vital! Without adequate sleep, almost every major tissue, organ and system in your body suffers. For instance, a lack of sleep can impact your immune system by causing your body to make fewer cytokines, which are the proteins that help your body fight infections. It may be tempting to continue working late into the evening when working from home, but this sacrifice is not doing your health any justice.
You also need that 7-8 hours of rest because inadequate sleep has been linked to weight gain, with studies suggesting that those with poor sleep tend to be stressed the next day with increased appetite (especially for unhealthy food options), and unlikely to workout. All of these factors result in poor mental and physical health. A 2011 study also concluded that not getting enough sleep can result in an increased risk for stroke and heart disease. So, the quantity of sleep leads to a better quality of life. Get some sleep. Work can always wait, but your health and wellness can’t.
If you want to know more about how you can sleep better to improve your overall wellness, you can take a Health Fit test so you can uncover what your genes say about your sleep quality, with degrees ranging from very light to very deep sleeper - these insights will empower you to create the right environment that enables you to sleep better.
3. Get active
It's currently gloomy with the cold winter all around, many of us feel unmotivated to stay active, but it's now even more important to move consistently. Staying active is known to uplift your mood while keeping you fit. This is even more important to curb the lockdown weight gain (considering how very little we get to move in lockdown) and manage our mental health when many are feeling at their lowest. Thus a recent survey by Forth studied how the mental health of about 2,000 people across the UK was impacted by the first lockdown. They concluded that:
- National anxiety levels increased by 60%
- Stress by 46%
- Depression by 46%
- Fear by 107%
- Worry by 89%
Health and wellbeing ranking at the top of their worry list - with respondents saying they are worried about their health and that of others around them. So the key to maintaining physical fitness is to stay active throughout the day, especially now that we're homebound and run the risk of getting no activity. This is an opportunity to get creative and seize moments of active time during the day to get the body moving and fired up.
Doing this is also important because it releases the happy chemicals (aka 'endorphins') released during exercise to help combat anxiety and depression, leaving you feeling calmer, happier and less likely to rely on unhealthier coping strategies. Remember it's not about engaging in an hour workout, even as little as 10-20 minutes of exercise can reduce anxiety - a goal achievable for everyone!
This can include:
- Booking your workouts into your calendar
- Incorporating dance challenges
- Do simple exercises like jumping jacks or incorporating squats in between calls
- Stand while working from your kitchen counter
- Running up-and-down the staircase
- Get a virtual workout buddy (if you live alone) to motivate and keep each other accountable
Remember, physical activity is essential to keep your immune system at peak condition, it eliminates bacteria from the lungs and airways while increasing your white blood cell circulation and raising body temperature. This is important because a strong immune system can help your body fight infections during this time. So let's get moving in lockdown!
4. Seek social support and care
As social beings that enjoy being out and about, and connecting with our communities, it's been a struggle for many to be in isolation with limited movement. Thus based on the Forth survey, 64% of people reported being lonelier since the lockdowns began in 2020. The #lockdownblues have become common across the UK due to the pause on our usual ways of seeing and connecting with family, friends and acquaintances, with interactions being limited to zoom videos, calls and texts. It's pivotal to reach out to your loved ones and professional support, like therapy, even just for a check-in.
Connecting is good for our mental health - it can help keep some of the loneliness at bay knowing that even though we may be by ourselves, we are not alone in this. It also helps to join virtual communities around some of your hobbies, like book clubs, virtual runs, and cooking classes. Participating in activities can make you feel like you’re still part of something meaningful while acquiring a new skill, keeping busy and staying mentally preoccupied. Find an outlet for your loneliness, so it doesn't cripple you.
5. Cook your own meals
According to the WHO, you should be preparing healthy homemade meals more often instead of ordering out to help you make healthier choices. Cooking can also be turned into a fun activity that involves the whole family. Make the most of the wealth of freely available information online, join a cooking masterclass to learn new techniques, and experiment with healthier ingredients you’ve never tried before. This is also a chance to evolve your cooking skills and try new taste flavours, but always keep in mind the important principles for healthy eating to get all the nutrients your body needs daily.
Eating healthy, homemade meals can also improve your mental health, thus eating food filled with vitamins, antioxidants and minerals can nourish the brain and protect it from stress and reduce the effects of depression. So, make eating better a priority to boost your mood while refining your culinary skills at home.
6. Limit alcohol intake
With many people feeling either bored, anxious, isolated/lonely and stressed, alcohol is being used as a catalyst to suppress what we're feeling. So, if you are struggling to kick the alcohol habit, you are not alone. Lockdown 2020 saw a 500% increase in calls for assistance with uncontrolled alcohol intake, according to the British Liver Trust.
With those living alone, binge or excessive drinking (even during the week) has become easier since they work from home - this removes the fear of being judged that would have deterred them previously from drinking on a workday. Working from home makes it easy to hide the hangover. Thus picking up the drink is being used as means to avoid facing intense emotions, so it's important to be more mindful about how much and why you’re drinking.
The Department of Health recommends limiting alcohol to 14 units or less per week, spread evenly over a minimum of 3 days, with several alcohol-free days per week. In terms of beverages, 14 units could be:
- 6 Pints of beer (4% strength)
- 7 Glasses of wine (175ml, 11.5% strength)
- 14 Single shots of spirits (40% strength)
Remember that this is the MAXIMUM allowance per week. Despite the small positive association between heart health and alcohol, the risks far outweigh any minor benefit. So avoid drinking and seek support, if you don’t think you can do it on your own.
7. Cut down on screen-time
With limited social activities available, people are drawn more to their screens to kill time - mobile devices, tv, computers, video games, etc have become our new go-to activities by default. This is heightening an addiction to our screens, also resulting in unforeseen health problems, like obesity, due to inactivity and mindless eating, eye problems, sleep interruption and others. So it's important to regulate how much time we spend in front of our screens daily, especially since we all know how easy it is to mindlessly scroll through our phones for hours, without notice.
Screen time is also said to increase anxiety and depression during the pandemic, as it tends to expose you to negative news that impacts your mood and overall wellness. Although screens have been a lifeline that enabled us to learn new skills, stay active, work, study, stay connected and communicate with our loved ones while in lockdown, it's still important to regulate our use. Put it away more often, ensure that you prioritise quality screen time instead of quantity.
- Intermittent social media detox every few months
- Muting notifications to avoid looking at your phone sporadically
- Putting your phone away at 8 pm
- Starting a ‘no emails’ policy’ after a certain time
- Scheduling screen time into your calendar
Instead, move away from the screens, go for a walk, read a book or listen to some music to get some creative juices going.
8. Practice mindfulness
This involves an intentional awareness of our everyday experiences, to live and be in the moment as we engage in activities like eating, walking and breathing so that we are more present and fully engaged instead of worrying about the future and other things in life.
This practice has been said to reduce anxiety, the effects of depression, make us more productive, attentive, insightful and more connected to ourselves and our surroundings - leading to improved health and wellbeing. Being mindful unlocks an ability to hear and listen to what our body needs so we can respond timeously. This is necessary during a time when we are all feeling heightened anxiety and worry about the state of our bodies, the present and future, it can help us feel calmer and grounded so we take each day and task as it comes.
So, wherever you may be during this time, remember to still put yourself first so that you can stay healthy by sleeping better, eating nutritiously, managing your stress levels, indulging in the little things that bring you joy, staying connected, supported and grounded. Life in lockdown may not be the life we envisioned for ourselves, but for now, remember that you’re not alone and keep looking ahead. There is hope yet!
With mental health month about to end, why not take a test to learn new wellness strategies that are tailormade to your genetic makeup.