Wellness Guidance during COVID-19 Isolation
Josh O'Leary | Bermonsdey House Manager
Hello, wonderful Watch Housers. As the world moves into an entirely unprecedented state of affairs, the wellbeing of our community remains our number one priority. Over the past weeks, we have all been inundated with advice from the government regarding how to combat the spread of coronavirus and keep the NHS functioning. Unfortunately, the measures we now must all undertake, while hopefully saving many thousands of lives, will undoubtedly have a negative impact on many individuals' mental health. The humble café, along with the noble British pub, acts as a social hub for many people in our community and we understand the affect the loss of these centres could have on some of us. With that in mind, we thought it would be valuable to issue some helpful tips for how best to cope with self-isolation. That way, we can all, hopefully, come out the other side of this crisis with our minds fully intact, or at least no more warped than they were going in!
We are touching on Structure / Routine, Sleep, Movement, Mindfulness, Positive Thinking and Connection. We also added in some further resources where you can find additional information about the various topics. Enjoy the read!
We see you, ordering the same coffee, at the same time, every day, week on week, for all eternity. Many of you have even reached the point where you don't need to tell us what you want. Clearly, none of us would find the idea that people are creatures of habit to be a strange one. Routines and habits allow us to feel like we have a certain level of control over our lives and this is of particular importance when the rest of the world is spiraling so wildly out of control. The first thing to acknowledge is that you can not control what is going on in the world right now. You are doing the most important thing you can do, staying at home, nothing more than that is required of you. Once you have come to terms with letting go of the bigger things that you simply can’t control, you can focus instead on the aspects of your life that you do, in fact, have power over.
As the rate of change is so dramatic during this crisis, it’s difficult to try and make plans far into the future. So don’t. Instead, plan for the day. Devise a daily structure that, when you get to the end of it, will leave you feeling satisfied. It is entirely up to you exactly what this would look like but having the structure itself is crucially important. If you sit down with a pen and paper and plan your day every morning, you can sit down with the plan every evening and tick off every item on the list, allowing you to feel productive and useful…even if the items on the list might seem trivial. If it keeps your anxiety at bay and allows you to follow the self-isolation rules, it’s far from trivial!
Explore: 5 minute Journal
Coming from peddlers of caffeine, advice on the importance of sleep may seem a little hypocritical (in our defence, we do offer an excellent decaf option), but these are crazy times we are living in so that's exactly what's happening.
The importance of sleep when it comes to mental health has long been underplayed, but in recent years scientists are coming to terms with just how critical it is for the maintenance of all aspects of health, particularly mental health. Poor sleep is associated with an increased likelihood of developing both anxiety and depressive disorders, mood instability, inability to concentrate and it makes it difficult to maintain good relationships. Big Yikes. To give yourself a fighting chance of tackling isolation with resilience, it’s vitally important that you have your sleep locked down (pun intended).
Your sleep cycle is determined by an area of your brain which controls your circadian rhythm (your body clock). There’s no need for us to go into the neuroscience behind how this works, all you need to know is that this body clock is primarily influenced by two things, routine and environment.
First thing’s first, you should set an alarm to wake up at the same time every morning and you should try to go sleep at the same time every night. This will may seem silly when you don’t have a job to go to, but the routine will train your body clock to run on this cycle and will make sure your sleep isn’t disturbed. Another routine that your body clock is keeping track of is your pattern of eating. Try and ensure you are eating your meals at the same time every day – your body clock will thank you.
The biggest aspect of your environment to consider regarding your sleep is your exposure to light. Sunlight in the morning activates the areas of your brain that start your body clock, gets your metabolism fired up and helps you start your day. If you can find a way to get some direct sunlight on your face (take your daily walk, sit on your balcony, in your garden, on your doorstep or even just shove your head out of your window), you will really help your brain regulate your sleep patterns. At the other end of the day, it’s time to limit your light exposure. We all already know we should be limiting our screen time before bed (because the light makes your brain think it’s still daytime), but obviously most of us don’t heed that advice. Give it a go, maybe it will help.
I know I don’t have to tell you guys the effect caffeine can have on your sleep…
Read: Matthew Walker - Why We Sleep
Read: MHF Sleep Report
It’s with good reason that the government has included going for a walk or exercising outside as one of its caveats to the lockdown conditions, and no it’s not because they are concerned about the state of the nation’s abs. Clearly, they are trying to combat the potential negative mental health impacts of self-isolation. They are right to do this.
Most of you don't spend all day on your feet like we usually do (yes, we are heroes, and yes, you are welcome) but even so, whether it's walking to and from the tube, up and down the escalators or even that small step up into an Uber, your bodies and minds are inadvertently benefitting from the movement patterns inherent in everyday life. Only a few days of sitting around at home and you’ll start to see how much your body and mind crave movement.
You’ve got two strategies for how to approach integrating movement into your self-isolation time.
As already stated, the government has given you the option to go outside for the purpose of exercise. Take them up on their offer. Even if it’s just to go for a walk around your local park. Take advantage of the spring sunshine and the remarkably fresh air we have in London right now (even coronavirus has its upsides).
The other strategy is to integrate small bouts of movement throughout your day. These can be anything you like, one of the benefits of self-isolation is there are no longer any nosey colleagues around to watch and judge your weird and wonderful movement habits. So, if you’d rather practice your flossing (dance move, not dental hygiene practice) for 5 minutes rather than do 5 minutes of star jumps, you do you. Remember, it’s not about getting jacked and shredded, it’s about getting your blood flowing, releasing some endorphins and just generally feeling good.
Read: Mental Health Foundation - How to exercise, Christopher Mcdougall – Born to Run
Read / Listen: Katy Bowman – book/podcast Move Your DNA
People have been meditating in some fashion for thousands of years, all the major religions having some meditative practice, but it’s only in recent years that the world of science has started to understand the amazing benefits of this simple practice. Mindfulness (the modern, secular term for meditation) has been shown to improve sleep quality, reduce anxiety and depression, improve learning and memory, emotional regulation and perspective-taking. For anyone uncomfortable with the spirituality often associated with meditative practice, try and reframe it in a way that fits your world view. I like to think of it as bicep curls for my brain!
At a time when focus on the future is so difficult, focusing on the moment seems like an appropriate alternative.
Headspace (a wildly popular mindfulness app) is giving away a few of its meditations to help people cope with the pandemic – it’s a great place to start.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl, the author of this quote, wrote an amazing book called “Man’s Search for Meaning” chronicling his time in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl found that, even when everything else had been taken away from him by his captors, there was one thing that couldn’t be taken from him – his attitude to the situation.
Frankl’s circumstances were indeed extreme, but his philosophy was nothing new. In fact, it is built on a tradition dating back thousands of years to the Ancient Greeks – Stoicism. Ancient stoics included people from all strata of society, from slaves like Epictetus to emperors like Marcus Aurelius. The philosophy which bound them focused on one central theme; you can’t control the world around you, only your response to it.
So powerful is this way of thinking, that it formed the basis for one of today’s most popular and effective forms of psychotherapy – C.B.T. (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). What the world has learned from stoicism and C.B.T. is that you are not a helpless victim at the mercy of your most anxious thoughts. You can fight back, argue with them and reframe how you think about yourself and the world you live in.
The best and easiest way to start reframing your mindset is to start keeping a gratitude journal. The simple act of keeping track of all the things that you are grateful for trains your mind to think positively and combats negative or distorted thought processes. Your gratitude journal is a private place for you to really open-up about all the things you love in the world. No one is going to read it, so there’s nothing to feel embarrassed about. Personally, I’m grateful that I live in a world that produces TV shows like Love is Blind. Yours might be different. Let’s be honest, yours is probably different.
Explore: 5 minute Journal App
Read: Marcus Aurelius-Mediations, Viktor Frankl–Man’s Search For Meaning, C.G. Jung – Modern Man in Search of a Soul
The hyper-connectivity of the modern world is a double-edged sword and so connection is something we must all consider carefully. It can be tempting, in times like these, to stay glued to the 24-hour news cycle to keep ourselves updated with the development of the crisis throughout the world. Our brains have evolved to be hyper-aware of anything that could threaten our survival, and this makes the drama of the constantly updating infection rates and death tolls incredibly addictive. However, I’d like to make the argument here that constantly refreshing the BBC live feed is not a productive use of your time and is in fact most likely to be detrimental to your mental health. Again, we come back to the issue of control, it’s important to stop focusing on things going on in the world that you can’t control. We all know what we need to do, stay at home. Any important updates are given to us in the government’s daily briefing, this is arguably all we need.
The positive edge of the connection sword is that there has never been a better time to stay connected with friends and family using technology. You can arrange a Zoom call with your best friend at dinner time so that you both have someone to eat and chat with or organise a House Party group chat. Facetime a family member while you’re out for your daily walk and suddenly you’ve got company. With so many of us finding ourselves with nothing but time on our hands, what better way to use it than to reconnect with old friends and rebuild relationships you haven’t had the time to maintain?
Explore: Zoom, House Party
So, there you have it. Some hopefully helpful tips for looking after your mental health while you are cooped up at home for the foreseeable future. Remember, as I have tried to make clear throughout, the most important thing any of us can do right now is the simple act of staying at home. If this guidance can help you stick to that rule, while providing you any sort of alleviation from the negative side-effects of isolation, that would be just great. We look forward to welcoming you back and brewing you something delicious once this passes.