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Mental health experts warn against denying stressful reality of life in lockdown

Thow out those tea towels and mugs bearing the farmous wartime slogan, Keep Calm and Carry On.

Leading mental health experts warn that trying to stay cheery and denying the stresses of life in coronavirus ­isolation may be one of the worst things we can do.

Instead, we should be acknowledging the anxiety we feel and finding practical ways to curb it.

The number of people reporting ­significant levels of anxiety rose by ­almost a fifth after Boris Johnson historically announced Britain would go into lockdown three weeks ago.

Researchers at Sheffield University found that on Tuesday, March 24 – the day after the Prime Minister ordered people to stay at home due to the ­pandemic – 36 per cent of people ­participating in a study about anxiety reported significant stress.

This compared with 17 per cent the day before.

Strategies

The coronavirus lockdown has seen anxiety levels soar (Image: Getty)

Previous outbreaks, such as the 2009 influenza pandemic and 2003 Sars ­epidemic, suggest a public health ­emergency can have lasting effects on the population’s psychology.

But everyone, young or old, can ­improve their resilience by learning some coping strategies

Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist on behalf of Healthspan, says: “Trying to ignore, repress or displace worries will only make them bubble up in other ways. These could be comfort eating, drinking too much alcohol and a lack of self-care, resulting in poor sleep, fatigue and a lowered immune system, which is the last thing you need.”

Here, she reveals the best ways to keep yourself ­mentally healthy – and ­­calm your mind in just 30 minutes.

Acknowledge your fears

Just as you would help a child ­confront the monster under their bed, acknowledging your fears or concerns will diminish their influence over you.

If you’re feeling a surge of anxiety, embrace the uncomfortable sensations as attempting to escape them only ­magnifies them.

Embrace the uncomfortable sensations (Image: Getty)

Try: Observing. What does anxiety feel like to you? It is in certain areas like your head, chest or limbs? Can you give it a colour? Doing this will help reduce the negative influence your symptoms have.

Alternatively, try 10 minutes of emotional writing. Jot down what you feel anxious about in the form of a story and take some time to describe the characters, even if you’re one of them.

Note the situation and how it’s made you feel. If you’re more visual, draw your anxiety, anger, frustration or any other unpleasant feeling. What does it look like? Does it have spiky edges or soft lines? What colour is it?

Labelling your feelings in this way will allow you to process them better.

Take control

Remember to connect with nature (Image: Getty)

 

You can’t control the spread of this virus, but you can control certain things like following recommended guidelines or reducing how often you check the news during the pandemic.

Try: Gratitude Bingo. Nurturing a sense of gratitude has been shown in research studies to lift mood and anxiety.

A quick and fun way to do this is to make your own Gratitude Bingo Board. You can play this with friends and family too. Simply divide a sheet of paper into squares and label each one with things you feel
grateful for – family, friends, good weather, food or a comfy bed, for example.

Every morning, place a counter on each of the squares. Whoever fills their board first, wins. This can be a real worry-buster.

Connect, connect, connect

Use tech to stay in touch with friends and family (Image: Getty)

 

Make time to connect with others, nature and with yourself.

Schedule regular video chats with colleagues during working hours rather than relying solely on email. Be sure to pick up the phone and call your friends and family too, ­instead of just relying on the odd text.

Try: Taking a daily walk. Observe five sights, four sounds, three smells and two sensations while you
bring your mind back to the present moment.

You can also write yourself a letter each week. Fill it with either profound reflections or simply some recent observations. When the social isolation period is over, you can sit down and read each letter in turn, either alone or with loved ones. It will trigger self-development that might potentially enhance your entire future.

Thrive is a free app that’s recommended by the NHS and helps you prevent and manage stress and anxiety by helping track your mood.

Users can learn popular relaxation techniques such as meditation and deep-breathing to help them
cope better ­with stressful situations.

It is also great for managing negative thoughts during this uncertain time.

The Thrive app can be downloaded in the NHS apps library, or from the App Store on Apple or Google Play on Android.

Battle for control in our brains

Human survival has depended on fear and anxiety. It requires us to react immediately when we encounter a threat (think: the lion around the corner) and mull over perceived threats (where are the lions tonight?)

Panic starts when a negotiation in the brain goes awry. Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explains that the amygdala – the emotional centre of the brain – wants us to get out of harm’s way and doesn’t care how we avoid the lion.

But the frontal cortex, behind behavioural responses, insists we think the lion situation through first – when we might run into a lion again, and what to do about it.

When it all short-circuits, panic occurs.

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“Panic happens when that more rational part of your brain gets overrun by emotion,” Prof Koenen says. “Your fear is so acute the amygdala takes over. Adrenaline kicks in.”

Panic can be life-saving. When we’re in danger of being hit by a car, the most rational response may be flight, fight or freeze.

But it doesn’t help with long-term threats. The frontal cortex must stay in control, alerting you to the possibility of a threat while taking time to assess the risk and plan.

Some anxiety can also be good in a global pandemic. Fear can be a motivator, raising alertness and energy. It reminds us to wash our hands, listen to the news and buy essentials. But anxiety can be terrible in the long-term.

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