Taking care of your mental health during the COVID19 pandemic

Devasish Palkar
Thursday, 26 March 2020

Till a few weeks back, we were discussing artificial intelligence, robotics, how to go deeper at the genetic level, how to go to space and today all we seem to discuss every day is how we are going to go to a grocery shop. In such times, human minds are bound to panic and mind you, panic spreads faster than the virus.

Just over a month back, Rakesh managed to put his savings to good use for his much-desired Italy trip and watched his childhood hero Cristiano Ronaldo live. He returned with memories and didn’t realise that he was back with something dangerous, which would not only put him and his family at risk but also put humanity at stake.

Till a few weeks back, we were discussing artificial intelligence, robotics, how to go deeper at the genetic level, how to go to space and today all we seem to discuss every day is how we are going to go to a grocery shop.

Forget yourself or Rakesh; no human would have anticipated this. The situation is unimaginable for the people who have grown up in a post-World War era. The cities are locked, the roads are empty, and the human minds are panicking. Even during those wars, safe destinations did exist around the world.

There’s no clarity on how our essential demands are going to be met, how long our situation is going to be despondent, and how the world will change post this COVID19 pandemic. This sudden upheaval is bound to come down heavily on some of us and believe me; we are all vulnerable because we have suddenly realised that we are mere living creatures against the daunting nature.

The struggle is real, and unless we embrace our vulnerabilities, we are bound to get agitated, frustrated and succumb to this gargantuan stress of living in times of a pandemic. We are already witnessing some of its ugly outcomes.

A couple of boys got beaten up by fellow citizens in Hyderabad when they had gone shopping groceries in a supermarket, and their only fault was – they were not wearing a mask. It’s such an irony that those who beat them up came in close physical contact with them, which is exactly the thing you should be avoided if you are suspecting someone to be infected.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has made it clear that only those who are serving the coronavirus positive patients should wear a mask and most masks that are available on the streets are not protective enough because the virus is tinier than the tiniest of pores. This entire episode is even more shameful because the people who were beating these boys up were themselves wearing a handkerchief around their face in the name of a mask.

Then there are the other resultants of stress like nurses killing themselves after contracting the virus. This week’s suicide case in Italy is another heart-breaking tale of a depressed mind.

Psychiatrists like myself and other doctors have been getting a few messages and calls from our friends and acquaintances that they are worried they might have COVID19 because they found their symptoms of coughing to be similar to an article they found on Google.

The panic is real and problematic. One of the basic principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy says you have to always frame your goals in a positive manner yet you will invariably find many of the top politicians exclaiming aloud, “Do not panic!” 

Wish it was this easy.

But panic spreads faster than the virus. What acts as the catalyst is the misuse of social media for sharing unauthentic, fake, dangerous and sometimes illogical forwards over Whatsapp. There are other reasons why this disruption can take a heavy mental toll on us like thinking about the possible economic crisis in the near future; the opportunities missed during the period of lockdown, etc.

While some things are beyond our control, there are many things which we can control to lessen the impact of stress and live a relaxed lifestyle during this period of lockdown.

Take a break from the news: As we sit at home for the next few weeks, we have to consciously minimise ourselves from reading depressing stories and watching videos of people struggling around the globe for want of basic medical care even in a country as developed as Italy. Starting today, reduce your news consumption related to COVID19 to not more than half an hour. 

Learn to work from home: While work from home was a social experiment, the world was thinking for a long time, we never thought that we would be forced into it suddenly. We have to use this opportunity to develop ways and means on how you can work from home. After COVID19 is done and dusted, this can be considered as a viable option to reduce pollution and manage work-life balance. 

Use time constructively: Staying at home during this time can be not only protective but also productive as you will never get so much of free time to do the things you always wanted to do and learn. It could be from as simple as learning to make a tea to learning how to play the guitar through a number of online tutorials. Utilise your time for something constructive and creative.

Rekindle your passion: So many of us always complain about the shortage of time when we are not able to follow our hobbies like reading, writing, painting, cooking, etc. You can’t ask for a better time. Just pick that book up which you wanted to read so badly.

Adopt a minimalist life: People around the globe are beginning to realise the vanity and futility of so many things which we hoard at home only to find them absolutely useless. This is the best time to take control, declutter and adopt a minimalist life. That pair of shoes you rarely wear, those clothes you have been hoarding all along, etc. There are many such things at home, and you know it. If you still don’t know then relax you have three weeks to find out.

Fall in love with a healthy diet: It will perhaps be for the first time that our generation won't go out on weekends for dinner. It's the perfect time to fall back in love with your mother's food, and after we come out of this pandemic, we might just not get the need to go out and party all the time. Home-cooked food is healthy, and there is a lot of science to back and 21 days is good enough to develop a healthy habit.

You can still exercise: Just because the gyms are closed, and you can’t go out and play your sport doesn’t mean you can’t exercise at home. There are hundreds of videos on YouTube on how to exercise even lying in your bed. It’s not a bad time to make exercise a part of life. You can also add meditation to your routine.

Reconnect with your family: Those who are lucky to have a family at home, please understand that you are privileged. Share time with them and reconnect with them over a hot cup tea and some good light music.

Remember it’s still the best time to be alive: This might appear shocking to many but understand that in the entire history of humanity we were never so equipped to handle the pandemic as we are now. We know the virus, we know how it spreads, and that’s the reason why we are isolating ourselves.

Our poor forefathers who faced encountered several pandemics couldn’t fathom what hit them and would just call it Black Death. We are privileged to live in this connected world and can still do most of the things, sitting at home.

Remember to breathe and have fun: Don’t let the humour die out even during these turbulent times. It’s okay to joke or enjoy memes, even on coronavirus. Stay happy and have fun at home. Binge-watch old comedies, new web series and have fun.

We are lucky to have the likes of Netflix as companies during such a crisis. Think of the previous century and compare. So, sing, love, laugh because this time won’t come back again and, 20 years later, we will look back and share our stories and experiences with the next generation of how it was like living during these times. Not a bad idea to even start penning your thoughts.

(Dr Devasish Palkar is currently working as a second-year MD resident in the Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College, Surat)

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