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How to prepare yourself for the long-term mental health effects of coronavirus

The COVID-19 outbreak isn’t only taking a toll on our physical health – it’s playing with our minds, too. Here an expert shares ways to help you get through the next few months.

Gone are your Friday night drinks in the city.

Gone are your trips to the theatres and cinemas.

Your gym is no longer opened.

Sunday brunches with the girls are a thing of the past.

Bondi Beach is now deserted.

And you can say goodbye to that summer Europe trip you’ve been looking forward to since last year.

Basically, for an indefinite period of time, life will consist of staying home and practising social distancing.

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It’s a given – our mental health will take a heavy toll from self-isolating to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

It’s inevitable.

In fact, a review of studies published in The Lancet in light of the coronavirus outbreak, found that symptoms of confusion, anger and post traumatic stress were common psychological impacts of quarantine.

But as difficult as life may present itself at this moment, it’s important to try and reframe the situation and see it as an opportunity to flourish and focus on you. Most importantly, it’s crucial to establish fact from fiction in a world of fast-paced information.

“One of the important things to remember is that while COVID-19 is indeed a serious global concern, there is also a great deal of fear and panic which is not always based around the facts,” Gestalt Therapist Lesley McPherson, tells body+soul.

“This is what we need to avoid in order to preserve not just our physical health, but also our mental and emotional health both in the short and long term. As the term was coined after 9/11 – ‘be alert, not alarmed.’”

Here are her 8 tips on how to mentally prepare yourself for the long-term effects of the coronavirus:

1. Recognising and acknowledging our fear

Fear itself is a phenomenon, which can be felt, experientially, in out bodies. It may exist from our past experiences or perhaps our anticipations of our future. If we’re feeling fearful, we need to check in and ask ourselves what is happening right in this moment – Am I safe? Am I okay? Quite possibly the answer will be ‘yes, I am okay in this moment’. There’s the first step – acknowledging you actually are afraid.

The fear we are seeing now is unprecedented and while it is understandable – especially for those who are elderly, immune compromised or have pre-existing mental health conditions – we need to find ways to understand fear is around us and probably within us.Acknowledging fear is a healthy thing – once we do that we can then sometimes manage to take a step back and see the situation, and the moment we are in as it really is.

We need fear to have as a survival mechanism – it hails back to our ‘flight or fight’ response. Having a rational and healthy fear of COVD-19 is a very good thing, as it will encourage social distancing and self-isolation for those who think they may have been exposed to the virus. The issue becomes when fear gets out of hand. If this is you and you are not coping with your fear, it is strongly advised that you see a health care professional to discuss your anxieties. There is absolutely no shame or stigma around doing so and I would encourage almost every Australian to do this.

2. Limit social media exposure

Social media is the old ‘chain letter’ of our modern times. Anything you see on social media surrounding COVID-19 that does not come from legitimate and credible news source, or a certified medical or scientific journal, should be immediately ignored and certainly not shared or passed on to anyone at all. The amount of incorrect and non-factual information spread amongst social media platforms is unhealthy on every level and only feeds into the irrational panic buying we see when supermarkets are cleared of toilet paper and other household essentials.

Turn it off and read a book. Listen to a podcast. Lay in your garden and soak up some vitamin D. Create a playlist of the music you really love – play them and sing along. Now is the time to simplify life again and stop staring at our screens as much as we do.

3. Be kind

What we have been seeing in supermarkets, with people physically fighting over toilet paper is the worst of human nature. While the recent bushfires seemed to bring us together as a community and brought out the ultimate best in so many, COVID-19 seems to be bringing out the worst in so many people. Again, this harks back to fear.

If you find yourself approaching the edge in this way, try to stop, take a breath in as you count to 10, and then count backwards from 10 as you exhale. Do this 10 times. You will inevitably calm down. And from there, treat people you meet as though it was their last hour on earth. Kindness and compassion are more contagious than this virus and will take us a long way in getting through the next few weeks and months.

4. Listen to what the authorities say – and do it

If the authorities say don’t go to gatherings, don’t go to gatherings. Don’t eat out. Don’t go to the casino. Don’t go to the pub. Don’t throw a dinner party. There are plenty of restaurants that are offering home delivery for free, so you can still support your local eateries. People are now enjoying self-isolation cocktail parties on apps like ZOOM or Facebook Watch.

We are so lucky that we live in a time of technology where you may not leave your house for 10 days, but you could still interact with plenty of people and have a fantastic time.

5. Do something good for someone else

If you’re healthy and able, reach out to someone who is older or vulnerable and go visit them, take the shopping, walk their dogs, or clean their home. It’s a scary time for these people now and quite likely very lonely, too.

6. Employ positive thinking techniques

Your brain is a powerful muscle that can be trained in whichever way you choose. If you choose to be negative, you will reap the effects of that. Conversely, a positive outlook leads to a positive life. Every day, make a list of positive things in your life and recite them throughout the day, remembering how lucky we truly are.

Take the 20-plus seconds you need every time you wash your hands to recite affirmations of positivity and joy. The old saying, ‘fake it until you make it’ is real. No matter how despondent you feel, you will definitely turn it around when you train your brain to think positively.

7. Be wary of the language you use around your children

Children respond to fear in very different ways the adults and very easily blow things up to be monsters inter closets. Speak gently and softly around them and don’t refer to statistics around diagnosis or death. Instead, just keep them busy, healthy and happy, with joyous music, movies books and entertainment.

8. Take advantage of the extra time you will have

Most of us will be working from home already, if not soon. This will give us an extra few hours each day to either A) get more work done and earn more money, B) get more sleep and build on our immunity, or C) start that novel we’ve had at the back of our minds for years. Take an online class in something you’ve wanted to learn your whole life, like yoga, or oil painting, or knitting.

For more from Lesley McPherson, find her here.

Essential coronavirus reading: what you need to know

How Australians should sensibly prepare for a COVID-19 pandemic, the most dangerous myths to not buy into, why surgical face masks aren’t the answer, the five-step hand washing method to memorise, the proper way to use hand sanitiser, why hand dryers are a part of the problem and the seven most effective ways to protect yourself, according to a doctor.