Feeling blue? You’re not alone. The Covid-19 pandemic has had clear repercussions for mental health, with some people impacted more than others. A study published in the Lancet journal comparing our mental health in April 2019 to this year found the prevalence of “clinically significant” levels of mental distress have risen from 18.9% to 27.3%. Increases were greatest among 18- to 34-year-olds, women and people living with young children.
With a new national lockdown coming back into effect after weeks of local and regional ones, more people are once again confined to their homes without social contact, and many of us are experiencing an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.
Dr Niall Campbell, psychiatrist and consultant at the Priory hospital in Roehampton, is also worried about the impact of what he calls “Covid burnout” on the generation of women, mostly aged 50-60, who are “sandwiched” between jobs, a dependent child and an adult relative who requires care.
Many people are working long hours through fear of losing their job and because days and nights are blurring into one, he adds – and alcohol can become a crutch for some when there’s an absence of support. “Long hours generally mean less sleep, poorer diet, less exercise, more stress, feeling you are constantly ‘on’ and having to prove yourself,” he says.
On top of that, as autumn turns to winter, some of us are facing down the prospect of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which sees roughly one in 15 in the UK hit with feelings of lethargy and depression on a life-altering scale.
So, how can you keep your head above water in the months ahead? Thankfully, there are ways. Here’s your ultimate self-care toolkit for staying buoyant in the months ahead.
Take your annual leave, even if you stay home
Current local lockdown and quarantine restrictions make planning hard, but taking leave is crucial right now – even if the only place you go is your living room.
Dr Gary Wood, author of The Psychology of Wellbeing (out in October), says a well-earned break is crucial for us to reflect and plan. “When we relax, we access the full range of higher-level functions such as problem-solving and planning,” he says. “But over the pandemic, we might have not had the time out to stock-take and plan.”
If you can’t go anywhere, Wood recommends creating a mini-break or spa day at home. Stuck for ideas of what to do? Holistic health and lifestyle coach Milla Lascelles previously shared her top tips with HuffPost UK.
Keep in touch with loved ones
“News of tightening of social measures to combat the rising number of Covid-19 infections will be making the winter months ahead look even darker for many people,” says Dr Keith Grimes, a GP for online doctor service Babylon.
Feelings of sadness are understandable, he notes, but know that we have learned a huge amount about how to reduce the spread of this illness and treat it successfully. So it’s not all doom and gloom.
During this time it’s important to stay in touch with friends and family, he says. If you live alone, it’s worth bubbling up with another household so you can spend time with them. And if you can’t see others, it might help to schedule regular FaceTime conversations or phone calls with your nearest and dearest.
Dr Giuseppe Aragona, a GP and medical advisor for Prescription Doctor, says calling friends and family will not only lift you, but also be a lovely surprise for the other person. “We may not be able to meet all our friends at the pub, but a Zoom call or a phone call should help to boost your mood and remind you what’s waiting at the end of this lockdown.”
Social media can be useful for keeping in touch with others however it should complement phone calls and face-to-face chats, rather than replace them.
Plan time to enjoy yourself
We might be stuck at home day in, day out but that doesn’t mean you can’t plan smaller activities to look forward to – whether that’s a trip to the coast for a blast of fresh air and a long walk, a night away from home in a hotel, or a visit to that restaurant you’ve been meaning to check out for some time.
“Make sure you plan time to enjoy yourself, exercise, and get outside in nature and experience the change of the seasons in person,” advises Dr Grimes.
Failing that, why not treat yourself to a pamper day? Hair salons, massage parlours and nail bars are still open and in need of your support.
Create a self-care box
One of Mind’s top tips for people with SAD is to fill a box with things that comfort you or help you to relax – also known as a self-care box.
Try including your favourite book or film, and a notebook and pen to write down your thoughts or notes of encouragement to yourself, suggests the mental health charity.
Not feeling up to the task? Depression charity Blurt has created a self-care subscription box called The BuddyBox, which is full of mood-lifting treats and costs £21.50 a month. Each box contains at least five surprise products hand-picked to nourish, inspire and encourage self-care.
It might be hard to find the motivation to keep fit – especially as the days get shorter and the temperature drops – but it’s really important to try and stick to an exercise regime if you can. As Dr Aragona explains: “Exercise is not only a great way to keep yourself fit and healthy but will also increase your overall mood from the endorphins being released during and after each session.”
You don’t have to do anything too strenuous – even moving your body once a day can help to alleviate a low mood, or feelings of lethargy and depression, he says. This could mean getting out each day for a brisk walk, even a run, or doing a bit of yoga. And with the nights drawing in, it might be best to schedule it in for first thing in the morning, or on your lunch break, rather than after work.
Start or learn something new
If there’s one thing we learned during lockdown part one, it’s how to amuse ourselves. Keeping occupied with hobbies or learning new skills can help us take our mind off the bigger picture, which let’s face it, is pretty overwhelming.
People will undoubtedly feel increased stress and anxiety over work and the possibility of redundancy in the coming months, says Dr Aragona. While there’s not much you can do about job security, there are ways to take control of other parts of your life, he says.
“Learning a new skill may help to keep you busy and your mind occupied, whether that is something you’re passionate about that you’ve never taken further or a new outdoor hobby such as cycling,” he says. “Taking up something which you can use to burn energy and keep yourself busy will really help with your long-term physical and mental health.”
It can be useful to set goals – and these can centre around your hobbies, too. That could be wanting to learn a certain amount of phrases in Spanish by Christmas, for example, or being able to run 10km non-stop by January.
Dr Claudia Pastides, also a Babylon GP, urges people to put their efforts into something productive which can help them feel good about themselves, whether that’s organising your cupboards, sorting your kitchen out, painting your front door, or upcycling and selling old furniture.
“All these things are positive tasks or hobbies that you can put your energy into and make you feel good at the end,” she says. “Motivation comes from inside us all. We are in charge of creating it and holding on to it.”
Do what you can to stay safe
Adopting Covid-19 safety measures can actually help people’s mental health, according to Penn State University research. Researchers surveyed participants between the ages of 18 and 90, measuring how much they felt the pandemic was affecting them financially, physically, socially and mentally; whether they were adhering to recommendations such as mask wearing; and what kinds of coping strategies they were using.
“Things like keeping a consistent schedule, reminding yourself that things will get better, finding activities to distract yourself, and taking care of others who need help are all helpful,” says Erina MacGeorge, professor of communication arts and sciences, of the most successful “forward-facing” strategies.
“Additionally, adhering to the national recommendations for protecting oneself from Covid-19, like hand-washing, social distancing and masking, was also associated with better mental health.”
“Sometimes we need to take a break from thinking about how we feel and do something to help alleviate the threat and make us feel a lot better about our situation in life,” says Jessica Myrick, associate professor of media studies.
“Covid-related messages that emphasise that even small actions are worthwhile might have the doubly positive effect of getting people to take small actions, like washing their hands more often, but also alleviate some mental strain, too.”
Structure your day
Humans are creatures of habit and we (understandably) like to feel in control, so sticking to a structure – where possible – can be incredibly stabilising. Planning your day out can also be helpful if you struggle with SAD.
“Try to maintain the same structure as you had back in the pre-quarantine days,” says Dr Aragona, noting that parents will likely find sticking to a daily routine much easier than just seeing how the days go. “When working from home, it can be tempting to fall into a bit of a lethargic lifestyle which could lead to negative thoughts and feelings of worthlessness,” he explains.
So, wake up early, change out of your pyjamas, do a bit of exercise and get into some comfy work clothes – maybe take a walk around the block to act as a faux commute, or make yourself a nice coffee to set you up for the day. Eating three balanced meals a day and sticking to a regular sleep routine is also crucial.
“Keeping your normal exercise routine is imperative and also making your work space separate from your living space should help you to separate your working day to your evening routine,” adds Dr Aragona.
Rethink your social circles
Another finding from Penn State’s research is that “social strain” – such as someone making demands, giving criticism, or simply getting on your nerves – is a strong and consistent predictor of mental health.
Yanmengqian Zhou, graduate assistant in communication arts and sciences, says: “This suggests that in difficult times like this, it could be particularly important to proactively structure our social networks in ways that minimise negative social experiences.”
Choose your friends wisely and don’t feel pressured to do anything you don’t want to do – these are challenging times and you need to be kind to yourself.
Another reason to focus on your friendship list is that both good and bad moods can be ‘picked up’ from friends, according to the University of Warwick.
Researchers found that having more friends who suffer worse moods is associated with a higher probability of an individual experiencing low moods and a decreased probability of them improving. The opposite applied to those who had a more positive social circle.
Don’t get too bogged down with the news
One tip therapists and doctors swear by is not to overdo your exposure to news and keeping on top of all things Covid. “Avoid excessive watching of coronavirus coverage,” says Dr Aragona. “It’s good to keep up to date with what’s going on however watching the news reel 24/7 will likely have detrimental effects on your mental health and will cause your stress and anxiety levels to rise.
“You can’t change or fix what is happening so obsessing over the news will not help you get through the next six months. If you want to keep abreast of the news, limit it to one news update per day, or every few days.”
Keep your friends close and your pets closer
Pet owners know that animals can be a huge boost to mental health – and new research backs this up.
The study, conducted from March to June this year by the University of York and the University of Lincoln, found that having a pet was linked to better mental health and reduced loneliness. More than 90% of respondents said their pet helped them cope emotionally with the lockdown and 96% said their pet helped keep them fit and active.
Co-author Professor Daniel Mills, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, says the research indicates how having a companion animal in your home can buffer against some of the psychological stress associated with lockdown.
Lead author Dr Elena Ratschen, from the Department of Health Sciences at University of York, warned that people shouldn’t necessarily rush to acquire a pet during the pandemic. But for those who do own animals – especially those who adopted pets during lockdown – the finding will surely be of comfort.
Shift your thinking
It can be hard to stay positive when everything feels like it’s working against you, however there are some ways we can reframe our thinking to focus on the positives, rather than all the negatives.
“Maintain an attitude of curiosity about the world and practise gratitude, even for the small stuff,” says Wood. “At the end of each day, write down three things you’re grateful for, and at the start of each day write down three things you’re looking forward to.”
Rather than thinking “I’m stuck inside”, Dr Aragona suggests looking at it a different way – “I am stuck inside however I can use this time to work on myself and my passions.”
The first lockdown has left us more prepared, we now know what to expect, and we can use this knowledge to our advantage. “If there’s something you wanted to start but never had the time, then this could be the moment.”
Don’t be afraid to seek help
Sometimes no matter how hard we try, we can feel down or anxious, says Babylon GP Dr Claudia Pastides.
If it gets to the point where every day is a struggle, this is the time to seek help. “Reach out to your GP, or a friend, and speak about how you’re feeling,” she says. “You won’t be alone in having those feelings and there is help available.”
Your GP should be able to offer more support and can also help with treatment options, which can include talking therapies or medication.
Dave Smithson, from Anxiety UK, urges people to surround themselves with a support network – and if you don’t have anyone in your life you feel comfortable talking to about how you feel, there are plenty of organisations out there, including mental health charities, as well as local peer-support groups.
“Talking to people and sharing your thoughts and feelings with others in similar situations can be really supportive,” he previously told HuffPost UK. “They understand what you’re going through and what you’re dealing with because they’re in the same boat.”
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.