The national lockdown and ongoing restrictions on movement, socialising and work have shaped our lives and health for the past few weeks. Keeping psychologically strong in this uncertain time can be a key factor in how we are able to build resilience to endure the uncertainty of this time. 

Samantha Venter has been living alone during lockdown and struggling with “a lot of recurring feelings of loneliness and being sad, “especially because she misses family and friends. She explains that this time has been difficult psychologically, because “a lot of thoughts surface” now that she is not as busy as she would be normally.  

Sarah and Jaco Smit have been married for just over a year and are experiencing the lockdown in very different ways. Sarah has several mental health conditions and says that even though she has been taught many healthy coping tools, “it’s been challenging to try to manage those feelings.”  

In contrast, Jaco describes this time as “a little bit like a holiday, which has allowed him to explore a new skill and income stream in bread baking. He says, “I’m also experiencing things to an extent it’s just my coping mechanism to think of hopeful things that might happen in the future.”  

Samantha, Sarah, and Jaco, are in different situations and states of mind, but express similar concerns, such as worrying about the global pandemic and their personal and economic futures. These are challenges faced by most South Africans currently in a myriad of ways.  

Counseling psychologist Hanan Bushkin is the founder of A Really Good Therapist Centre and the Anxiety and Trauma Clinic. He says that the uncertainty and threat global pandemic is likely to bring up anxiety and depression, because “our brains like things that we can predict and control.”  

The ongoing South African Mental Health Check survey by Meraki Research is tracking the mood and experiences of people in lockdown. When asked what they are concerned about, the main worries were the economy, separation from loved ones or threatened incomes. Others simply chose to say that they were scared or depressed. 

Operations Director at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), Cassey Chambers, confirms that their call centres have seen many people reaching out, “feeling very anxious and worried, and quite overwhelmed by the seriousness of it all.” A SADAG survey showed that 65% of people were feeling stressed, or very stressed, during the lockdown.  

Mental health resources 

While there are many strategies to help you find balance in this time, here are some key things and resources that can support your mental wellbeing.  

  • Goals 

Bushkin says there are two main principles to keep in mind in facing this volatile time. The first is that “you always want to keep on moving”. Creating goals and plans for the future can keep you engaged and lessen the “learned helplessness” of depression.  

Jaco works in the wine industry, which is not operating during lockdown, which is causing a financial insecurity that is “tricky and disconcerting.” However, focusing on learning how to bake bread and sell it to neighbours has giving him a goal to work towards. “It’s quite a steep learning curve, so every day is like a new little victory or challenge,” he says.  

Practical ways to set goals could be by creating a vision board or a personal plan that you can follow. Make a list of things you want to achieve, such as learning a new skill or finishing a project. 

  • Control 

Bushkin’s second principle is that “even in a hurricane that you can’t control, you can still find things within your space that you can control.” Focus on these things, says Bushkin. Setting a routine for yourself is a key way of taking control, which you can do by writing one up or using alarms during your day to remind you. 

Samantha says, “it’s just been challenging to feel like I have a normal routine,” but using regular walks on her property or buying occasional groceries “feels like an outing” and has helped make her days feel more normal.  

  • Self-care

Lockdown is likely to change your routine and what it is possible, so it is important to still take care of yourself psychologically and physically, even if that is an adjustment. SADAG recommends practicing relaxation techniques, or you could learn how to meditate with apps like Headspace and Calm, who have created content especially for stress related to the pandemic. Finding ways to keep active at home may be difficult, but apps like Down Dog are opening up free content for easy home workouts. 

Sarah says that lockdown has made her feel “trapped and anxious about not being able to do things that would normally help my anxiety” like visiting bookstores and go on walks, even though she is in regular contact with her psychologist and psychiatrist. Bushkin says lockdown may put extra strain on existing mental health conditions. SADAG recommends finding a way to continue receiving needed medication and treatment and that you call your psychologist or psychiatrist and ask what their new protocol is, as many now offer online sessions.

  • Information regulation 

Another pillar of support for your mental health during this crisis is carefully choosing the amount, frequency and time of the information you consume, whether this is from the news, social media, or your personal circles. 

Jaco says he has mostly stopped looking at the news because “it can become very overwhelming very quickly” and he is trying to “limit my world” to focus on what he can control. 

Bushkin has a simple rule “If anything is in my space,” he says, “that 1) I can’t control, 2) adds no value to me, and 3) doesn’t have a solution, then I don’t engage it.”  

This means that while you should still be informed, you should do so in ways that are constructive and manageable. 

SADAG recommends not having news media running in the background for long periods of time and choosing respected sources that you only check certain times in a day. The group’s website includes a list of reliable resources including updates from health organisations.

  • Support networks

During a time of widespread anxiety and fear, our relationships are both a source of critical support and possible added tension. Prolonged proximity with a partner, or loved one, can show you sides of them you weren’t aware of. Bushkin describes this as adding new colours to your connection, but it can either be a shade that you like or one that you don’t, and it is up to you what you do with this new information. “It’s always about communication and negotiation,” he says, and can be an opportunity to deepen the relationship. 

Similarly, this may be an important time to develop your support networks or lean on them. This may be strengthening friendship networks or connecting with a counselor or professional psychologist. SADAG offers a variety of call centre helplines for specific issues such as the suicide crisis line (0800 567 567) or a more general mental health hotline (011 234 4837). The group is also running daily question and answer sessions with professionals on their Facebook page 

 While the lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic are likely to bring up emotional and psychological challenges, many of these are being faced similarly by a lot of people. Reaching out to existing or new tools and resources can improve your experience significantly. 

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