Just when Australians thought we had almost beaten COVID-19, the unwieldy virus has raised its ugly head again. As the goalposts keep moving, mental health is one of the biggest concerns for those feeling like they are back at coronavirus square one.
In the last 24 hours alone, Victoria has recorded 374 new cases and three more deaths, while NSW has recorded 13 new cases – bringing Australia’s total number of active cases to 3,553.
As many head back into lockdown, start working from home again (if at all), stop socialising and don face masks, the realisation is sinking in that “life as normal” is still a long way off.
Although authorities have long warned that COVID restrictions will remain in some form until a vaccine is found, losing the snippets of normal life gained over past months is a bitter pill to swallow for those in affected locations.
“So much of our response to life is based around expectations – like expectations that we will move towards normal (despite warnings that this is unlikely to happen quickly).”
Keith and his wife Sarah Condie (also Co-Director of MHPCI) give the following tips on how to endure this changing and challenging season.
1. Acknowledge the losses
Acknowledging losses is the first step in shifting our mindset to cope with the moving COVID landscape, according to Keith.
“We need to grieve the genuine losses that we’ve experienced. And it’s okay to feel a bit on edge. That’s very normal.
“This is a stressful situation that’s impacting us. It’s naive to think ‘I should just roll along as if nothing’s happening’, because something is happening.
“For a lot of people that impact has been very, very significant, in terms of losing jobs and financial security, being cut off from normal relational supports, all of that sort of stuff – particularly for people in Melbourne now. This is difficult and this is hard.
“But if there is some way that we can do the sorts of things that help us in difficult times to maintain a sense of equilibrium and to be able to move forward, that’s really important as well.”
2. Keep doing the “little things”
For those facing lockdown again, now or in the future, Sarah says: “There’s value in looking at the things that enabled me to cope before.”
These include healthy eating, exercise and having a consistent daily routine – such as the time you get up, start and finish work (if you are working), eat meals and go to bed.
In regard to exercise, apart from the physical and mental benefits, Sarah notes that it is also particularly important as a building block of daily routine for people who are not working.
In keeping on doing these – and the following – “little things”, we are actually building resilience to cope with coronavirus and other trials, according to Sarah.
“It’s by going through something that’s hard that you get to exercise the muscles of resilience and perseverance. It’s like a marathon. If you asked me to run one tomorrow, there’s no way I could do it. But if I was to start training for it, perhaps in a year I might be able to run (a quarter of) a marathon.
“If we keep doing these little things, they become automatic responses that are part of us, and so we build our resilience.”
3. Seek help if needed
The Condies clarify that for some people, these practices will not be enough.
“We don’t want to downplay that for some people – particularly those whose mental health is not particularly robust – this is another big hit. For people in that situation, we really encourage them to seek further help,” Keith stresses.
“If you are experiencing ongoing significant distress and this is affecting your relationships and work, contact your GP or other resources [listed at the end of this article].”
Keith continues: “To seek help when you need it is not a sign of failure; it’s a sign of wisdom and strength.”
4. Try not to catastrophise
“Part of the trouble, for some of us, is that we naturally catastrophise. So we go into a negative space, anticipating the worst, that often is not very helpful,” says Keith.
“For those whose mental health is a bit more robust, we can recognise that this is a disappointing situation. This is going to affect us,” he says about losing “normal” freedoms again. “But, as Sarah said, think about what strengths can we draw upon, what we did last time that helped us, and make use of those resources and practices once more.”
5. Focus on the present
“Just kept focusing on each day – just getting through the day – and not thinking too much about next week or next month or next year. And you just break it down that way. If thinking about today’s too much, then just think about this hour,” Sarah advises.
“It’s also really helpful to ground ourselves in immediate sensory experience,” Keith adds.
He gives the examples of focussing on your breath or simply noticing what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell.
“Ask yourself, what can I see at the moment? I’ve got the sunlight coming in on a pot plant and it’s beautiful …
“When our mind is racing off, in either worries about the past or worries about the future, focus on your sensory experiences. It just grounds you in the immediate and it takes you away from those ruminating, catastrophising sort of thoughts.”
6. Connect with others
Connecting with others needs to be a top priority at this time, the Condies say.
“For some, particularly those who live on their own, this season is really hard,” says Sarah.
“For those of us who are not alone, a challenge is to reach out and include and love those we know who are feeling isolated – whether by inviting them over (if we are allowed), a phone call, a meal, a text message, a tiny gift to communicate that someone cares for them and remembers them. If we all did this, we would be offering the benefit of connecting in a rich way.”
She adds: “I know a lot of us are so fed up with screen connecting, through Zoom or Face Time or Skype, but actually to look at people and get eye contact is important. So, if eye contact over a screen is the best we can do [in terms of contact with people], then it’s good to do that in order to reach out and talk to someone.”
7. Connect with God
“This pandemic is a reminder about our human frailty and our dependence upon God – that we are not in control of our lives, but he is,” says Sarah.
“God is sovereign and God is unchanging. We can trust him. He is faithful. He hasn’t abandoned us. He’s with us. He’s our rock. He’s our refuge. We need to remind ourselves about all these things about God that are true.”
“What God says, he does,” Keith adds. “So, when he says ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’ [Deuteronomy 31:6], that means he will never leave us or forsake us.
“When the Bible says nothing can ‘separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ [Romans 8:38-39], it means just that – nothing can.
“These are deep enriching truths that if we reflected upon, they can calm us and bring us some stability in this situation where we feel like we’re in limbo.”
In light of this, the Condies recommend making time with the Lord part of your daily routine, casting your cares upon him (1 Peter 5:7) through prayer. For Bible reading, they suggest the Psalms, which “can be particularly helpful in giving us words to voice our fears and longings, and in providing hope and comfort in our knowledge of the power and goodness of God.”
8. Be a calm presence in an anxious world
Coronavirus offers churches and individual Christians a unique opportunity to witness by being “a non-anxious presence” among their communities, friends and families, according to the Condies.
“We have a worldview that speaks into so much of the anxiety and distress in the wider society,” says Keith.
“When our neighbours and others see us navigating this experience without going into complete panic, I think that’s a pretty powerful testimony – to say ‘I feel secure because I’m eternally safe, I have a loving Father who has demonstrated his love for me in the Lord Jesus.’ This does make a difference.”
For more information and resources visit mentalhealthinstitute.org.au.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call one of the following national helplines:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467