Looking after your mental health during the pandemic. Psychological tools won’t change reality but will help your wellbeing
Article published in the OPINIÓN section of El Periódico de Cataluña https://www.elperiodico.com/es/opinion/20200918/salud-emocional-pandemia-articulo-connie-capdevila-8118661
The pandemic is omnipresent, marking the news, our conversations, and our relationships: rebound, social alarm, a new lockdown, economic crisis… It is a fact that drains our energy and generates fatigue. We go on with our lives in a general state of discouragement and it seems that this nightmare has no end. Obviously, we cannot change reality, but, from a psychological point of view, we need to strengthen ourselves, both personally and collectively. The way in which we manage the losses and opportunities that the current crisis presents us will define our experience and how we will face everything that has yet to come.
Psychology provides tools to help us accept the reality that we have to live with and carry on with it in the best possible way. This short self-survey will help us identify red flags: Am I often in a bad mood? Am I more tired? More bored? Do I feel like eating more or less than usual? Am I sleeping poorly?
And now, let us analyze what we can do to mitigate the impact of all this on our mental health. Human beings have innate reactions to danger, whether it is tangible and observable, or invisible, or imagined. The human nervous system is prepared to detect safety and danger, integrating the responses that come from the brain and the body. When we connect with our loved ones, their voices and facial expressions make us feel calm and safe. That is why the pandemic, by making us avoid or restrict social contact for fear of contagion, also creates a challenge to our nervous system.
Everyone knows that the concept of ‘trauma‘ is basic in the world of psychology and that it also applies when we talk about a pandemic. To overcome trauma, we need to feel alive in the present, rather than reconsolidate the memory of what we have lived. Trauma can cause emotional and behavioral dysregulation, while causing immobility and isolation, a depressed physical state in which we feel overwhelmed by our circumstances. A traumatized person perceives the world as dangerous and threatening and, therefore, has a tendency to attribute meanings to a given situation that do not correspond to reality, which can be specified in beliefs such as “I have no way out”, “I don’t I deserve…”.
Feeling fear is adaptive. It helps us protect ourselves. Therefore, we do not want to create a resistance to fear, and neither do we want to suppress nor control it. Instead, we want to observe moment by moment what happens to us and gain awareness of our internal experience: the sensations of the body, the images that the mind brings us, our behaviors, feelings, affections and meanings we give to them.
To overcome the current situation and minimize its emotional cost, you have to spend time each day creating seven ‘moments’ or ‘spaces’, which, according to Siegel, would be the ‘nutrients’ that will help you achieve optimal mental health. The moment of concentration focused on professional or personal goals. The moment of internal reflection, that is, paying attention to our feelings, thoughts, sensations, images, which helps to integrate them. The moment of connection with people, which activates and reinforces the relational circuits of the brain. The moment of playfulness, creativity and new activities, which promotes new neural connections. The moment to connect with the body in movement and to enjoy what we do (dancing, walking, running, playing sports, stretching on work breaks), which promotes mental, physical and emotional well-being. The moment of doing nothing, of relaxation, of letting our thoughts flow, without feeling guilty, which helps to recharge our minds and bodies. The moment of sleep, because seven to nine hours of quality sleep help consolidate what we’ve learned, and we recover from the experiences of the day. When living these ‘moments’, it is imperative that we keep in mind three basic pillars that are among the best predictors of general well-being: paying attention, awareness and kind intention in what we are doing. These simple things, in relation to nature and culture, will contribute to making us feel happier and healthier.
We know that the 2008 financial crisis increased mental disorders by 15%. Now, when it seems to us that there is no end in sight for the pandemic, it is more important than ever to be aware of how it can change us and face it with optimism. Using the simple tools that research gives us will not change reality, of course, but it can help us live better on day-to-day basis.