Analysis: how to deal with such unprecedented events as self-isolation, social distancing and quarantines

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In times of crisis, people have instinctively come together to share experiences, show solidarity, and to help each other. This social support has proven to be an important factor in protecting against the negative impact that these events can have on our mental health. The outbreak of the coronavirus is unprecedented in that the advice to self-isolate and distance ourselves from others is the exact opposite of what we as human beings want to do in times of crisis.

It is important in the first instance that we are aware of and acknowledge our own emotions. We may, at different stages, be feeling worried, angry, sad, restless, irritable or helpless. Whatever our experiences are, they are valid. In the words of Viktor Frankl, "an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour." 

Here are some tips for minding your mental health during the lockdown

Stay connected

Advances in mobile technology in particular mean that we can stay connected through calls, text, WhatsApp, email etc. Use this time to get in contact with people. Contribute to a sense of togetherness that is going to be pivotal in our ability to cope both now and in the weeks ahead. Try to connect with people who you haven't heard from in a while or people in your community who are likely to be isolated right now. The additional time at home can bring tension but it can also be an ideal opportunity to reconnect and strengthen relationships within the family.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Brendan O'Connor show, Kathy Sheridan, Tony Bates and Fr. Brian Darcy talk about coping with anxiety during the coronavirus lockdown

Limit social media usage

While staying digitally active, it is also important to carefully choose your news and media sources, particularly if some of the information you are receiving is leaving you feeling overwhelmed. Choosing one or two well-informed sources such as the HSE and WHO and limiting yourself to set times during the day to check for updates, can help to protect you from overwhelm and confusion. Remember that some of the information online is driven by the views, opinions and agendas of individuals, and it may not be helpful for you to take those on as your own right now.

Maintain healthy sleep habits

The negative impact of sleep disruption on mood is well-established. Without the structure of having to get to school, college or the workplace, it can be easy to fall into unhealthy sleep habits like going to bed later and getting up later. Changes to your sleep cycle now could go on to impact your mood in the weeks and months ahead. Scheduling a balanced range of activities in your day - including physical exercise, connecting with others and pleasant and relaxing activities - can also help with your sleep quality. If the uncertainty of the current situation is causing you to lose sleep, talk about your worries with others rather than ruminating on them alone.

RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on how we can get proper downtime in an always on world

Time for self-care

Remember the advice of every flight attendant in the case of an emergency landing. Passengers are advised to put on their own oxygen mask first before attempting to help others. We each have a responsibility, particularly in times like this, to practise self-care. Ultimately, we are less likely to be of use to ourselves or others if we are overstretched or our resources are depleted. This could mean preparing balanced and nourishing meals for yourself, taking time to engage in things that you enjoy or find relaxing and identifying the smells, textures, visuals, and tastes that you find soothing personally.

Self-care can also mean maintaining boundaries such as refusing visitors, reducing unnecessary demands, and saying "no". An important part of self-care is setting up the structures around yourself that will protect you from burning out. In the busy-ness of 21st century life, we can find it hard to introduce and consistently implement self-care in our everyday lives. Take the opportunity to sample some activities such as meditation, yoga, walking, baking, reading etc. Think of the small changes which you could bring with you into life post-coronavirus.

 RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on employers and staff mental health issues

Find meaning

Nietzsche said "he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how". Whether you are rushing into the unknown of a shift in a busy hospital or are isolated and missing loved ones, try to remember why you are doing what you are doing, and why it is important to you. When we stand back and look at what we are trying to achieve on a broader level, we can put the everyday difficult sacrifices we are making into some perspective. It helps to give meaning to what we are experiencing and to understand the greater purpose we are serving.

Like everything, this will pass, and we will withstand and weather the impact of it better together. In the words of an Irish proverb "Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine" – in the shelter of each other the people live.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ