Surviving isolation: Q&A with a psychologist

The Advertiser spoke with psychologist Simon Henry for some tips on keeping your mental health in check while in isolation.

Here's the full interview:

- What are some simple techniques that people can incorporate into their daily lives in isolation to look after their mental health?

One of the biggest difficulties that people are likely to find is the sudden change in everyday routine. It can be useful for people to look at ways to introduce routine within their isolation; this could be creating 'movie nights', or having a time when they phone a friend or have a video call with family members outside of the home. This can be especially important for school-aged children, who may struggle with a very different daily routine compared to the order of a typical school day.

Being in close and sustained proximity with others may also lead to increased stress, and it is encouraged that households find a way to allow for together time as well as quiet/alone time. Having conversations on how this might happen, and even putting together a basic timetable/schedule for this, could be useful in achieving a balance that benefits everyone.

Trying to maintain normal sleep patterns would also be encouraged - good sleep is linked to good health. Being creative with how people approach physical activity is important due to reduced opportunity to engage in active sports or even move around as much during the day (incidental exercise). It might be helpful to set a regular time to do some basic physical activity - there are plenty of suggestions that can be found on the internet looking at exercises that can be done at home without any equipment, and it might even be possible to involve the kids in these as well.

- What are some of the traps that people can fall into at this time, and how can they be avoided?

Information overload can be an issue as it can trigger anxiety; making sure that people are well informed (by reputable sources) while also allowing some time away from the news is encouraged.

Managing worst-case thinking and keeping perspective are important, as our thoughts can sometimes make us think that things are worse than they actually are. Taking a moment to challenge our thoughts - 'Am I thinking that something will definitely happen even though there is no evidence to say it will?' or 'Am I overestimating how bad the consequences might be?' - can be helpful in getting our perspective back.

Other traps might involve attempts to cope by using alcohol or drugs, or by becoming overly isolated. Neglecting our physical or psychological health could also be a trap due to difficulties accessing traditional supports; this can be avoided by exploring and establishing alternate supports, such as online or by telephone.

One pitfall for people not used to working from home is likely to be the lack of distinction between 'home' and 'work' - unclear boundaries could leave to increased stress and a feeling of not being able to have adequate downtime as a result. A strategy to address this could involve making and working to a timetable which clearly identifies start and end times for working as well as breaks - much like how work would usually be structured for many occupations. Another strategy could be to set up an area of the home which is the 'work' area - such as a dedicated table - to make a visual and practical distinction between 'home' and 'work'.

- Why is it so important to be mindful of your own mental health at times like these?

The stresses that we are all facing as a result of the current situation are considerate and pervasive. It is imperative that we look after our mental health, as well as the mental health of those around us, as we are more likely to emerge from the crisis where we demonstrate solidarity, show compassion and kindness, and maintain our sense of community.

- What advice would you give to people who are perhaps experiencing feelings of anxiety and/or depression for the first time?

It is important to keep in mind that feeling anxious or depressed are normal responses to the situation which we are all facing; these are clearly uncertain times. People are encouraged to be upfront with their concerns and to be confident in sharing these with others - whether this is to people they are living with, to a relative or friend they can call, or dedicated telehealth/online counselling and support services. Making contact and talking to their GP may be considered and could lead to referral to a local psychological service; health and support services have needed to adapt quickly in response to the current situation much like many other professions, with many of these now providing assistance remotely (online or telephone). While people may be in isolation, they are certainly not alone.

- Do you have any advice for friends or family of people with anxiety or depression to help them be as supportive as possible?

Encouraging friends or family members who seem to be having a difficult time coping to talk about their concerns, and to let them know that these are normal and understandable responses given the circumstances, can be helpful. If they feel that more assistance might be needed, they would be encouraged to talk to their GP and a referral may be discussed to local health services who can provide assistance and support.

At the end of the day, people may be experiencing a number of significant responses simultaneously - uncertainty about the future, fears around their health as well as the health of loved ones, feelings of loss relating to changes in financial security or work, disruptions in social connectedness, reductions in physical activity or forms of recreation, and limiting of personal freedoms due to isolation and social distancing. These are all understandable but can be overwhelming, which can then compromise a person's ability to care for ourselves or those around them. Taking steps to access assistance is likely to be helpful for the individual as well as those around them.

- Similarly, is there a good way parents should approach their children's fears at this time?

It is important that parents are not afraid to talk about the coronavirus and the purpose of isolation with children, however it needs to be done in a sensitive and age-appropriate way. This is especially important given the amount of media coverage that we have at this time. Parents would be encouraged to let children know that any anxiety they are feeling is understandable given the situation, and to given them as sense of control by explaining what they can do to stay safe and healthy. They can be reminded that the coronavirus is less common and severe in children than adults. Trying to find and maintain daily routine can help to alleviate some feelings of unpredictability or instability, and maintaining contact with relatives (such as grandparents) by phone or video can help to reduce any feelings of disconnection as well as provide reassurance that they are okay.

- Anything else you'd like to add?

In my discussions with people this week, a recurring theme has been the importance in being flexible and realising that this is a new situation for everyone and will require us to adapt to the way we approach our daily lives in new and creative ways. I would also emphasise the importance in maintaining our sense of community, and that this too may need to be approached differently but is critical in maintaining our connections to others.