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Dr Emily Baker's top tips for managing your mental health during COVID-19

Dr Emily Baker, consultant clinical psychologist at the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, explains the importance of looking after your mental health now more than ever, and how simple things like eating well, staying hydrated, and switching off from work and social media can really help during the pandemic.

We all know how it is to look after your physical health, but it’s equally as important to ensure you’re looking after your mental health, too. This has never been more relevant than it is now.

Mental Health Week 2020 comes in the midst of a global pandemic, bringing with it enormous changes both inside and outside of work. We know that change is stressful and places more demand on us when our brains are already on high alert and coping with the risks associated with COVID-19.

More than ever, we need to be kind to ourselves and take time to look after our own wellbeing as well as giving ourselves permission to recharge our batteries.

As lead for the staff support psychology service at the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (WSFT) I would like to share what staff at the Trust have found helpful in improving their wellbeing.

  • This starts with taking care of basic needs – making sure you’re eating well and often enough, combined with drinking enough water throughout the day. Physical activity is also beneficial for both your mind and overall health, and can help de-stress you. It doesn’t have to be ‘traditional’ exercise, but simply doing some gardening, connecting with nature, singing (even in the car or shower!) or undertaking a chore or active project at home.
  • Sleep is another important aspect of mental health, and something that people are struggling with due to the current circumstances. Sometimes people can struggle with intrusive thoughts or images, and the more we tell ourselves to stop thinking about something, the more the thought can pop into our heads. Be kind to yourself and try to let the thought pass, or tell yourself what you can think about instead.  There are apps for your mobile phone that can help with this, such as Headspace or Sleepio.
  • Limiting your time on social media platforms or watching the news is also likely to be helpful to your wellbeing. This enables you to separate what you can control from what you can’t, and puts your energy and time into activities that are likely to be better for your wellbeing.
  • Finding activities that give you a sense of achievement, mastery, or pleasure is a good way to focus your time. It might even be easier to pick up an old skill or hobby than to learn something new, when your internal resources are already dealing with the current pressures and unique situation.
  • Staying connected is also very important, particularly so if you are working from home. This is true for keeping in touch with friends and family, but also with the social elements of work.  Try calling a colleague, family member or friend and having ‘lunch’ together virtually or over the telephone. It can be hard to know when you are at work and when to switch off if you are working from home, so make sure your new routines are sustainable. ‘Commuting’, by going for a walk at either end of the day so you have time to switch between home-mode and work-mode, can be useful. You can also try getting changed into and out of your work clothes at the beginning and end of your home working day, so that others also have a visual signal of when you are working and when you are available.
  • It is important to take regular breaks throughout the day when home working too, and particularly between video meetings with colleagues. These are more exhausting than face-to-face meetings, as you aren’t able to get the feedback from body language and the occasional delays and poor connections can mean that you don’t get all the information. You may be juggling home-schooling and working, for example, or trying to work in a shared space with no privacy.  Always remember, you are at home, in a pandemic, trying to do the best you can.

Some people may be trying to cope with the uncertainty of the situation by taking control of what’s happening around them and telling others what to do. Other people may be finding it really difficult to make decisions. Some people may be irritable, or tearful, and others may be withdrawn and exhausted. All of these are normal reactions to trauma and stress. It is important not to medicalise or catastrophize them. They are normal responses to an abnormal situation. 

You may also have changes of appetite, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, panic symptoms, and intrusive thoughts or worries. This is entirely understandable so be kind to yourself. This will pass, but it can also feel quite unpleasant or frightening, and there is help available. 

It’s important to know that there are people and organisations out there that you can talk to if you need further help or support. Charities such as Mind (0300 123 3393), CALM (0800 58 58 58) and the Samaritans (116 123) have dedicated telephone lines but also offer support online through their websites.

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Dr Emily Baker, consultant clinical psychologist.

Dr Emily Baker, consultant clinical psychologist.