Six months into the Covid crisis, RTÉ undertook a national poll to examine how people across the country, ages 12 and up, have adapted to the 'new normal' and gauges their outlook in areas such as mental and physical health, the economy, finances, family and going back to work and school.

The findings were revealed and discussed in a special broadcast on RTÉ One with Miriam O'Callaghan and Mark Coughlan. Catch up on RTÉ Player now.

A focus on mental health and a desire for change in lifestyles were strong themes that came out in the results of the survey, with 33% of people saying their mental health has suffered in the last six months.

As we go forward into the 'next normal', we want to arm ourselves with as much expert advice as possible. With this in mind, we spoke with Nicole Paulie, a Chartered Psychologist with the Psychological Society of Ireland to find out how we can mind our mental health, get the kids through the holidays, battle 'touch starvation' if living alone and finding routine if living with others.

Have you noticed an uptake in clients looking for counseling during Covid-19?
Yes, we have seen a marked increase in demand nationwide with an approximately 10% increase in inquiries and consistent requests for services over the past five months. The support needed can be short to medium-term intervention (two or three sessions) indicating clients have more immediate mental health concerns to be addressed.  We would normally be seeing clients for four to six sessions of more in regular circumstances.

We recently surveyed our clinicians back in May about the impact of Covid, you can see the results in the infographic below.

Are there common problems/concerns that are arising with clients this year?
Of a recent survey conducted on our client base, we found the two primary concerns were:

Conflict in the home (56%)
We’ve had a number of people who have struggled with the extremes we’ve been seeing in relation to our social support. As Covid started, we went from seeing people we’d spend less time with all of the time, while we couldn’t really see the people we wanted to spend more time with.

For some of us that may have meant being stuck at home with family members all day or flatmates that we weren’t particularly close with. Depending on ages maybe parents are trying to work from home while older kids are also trying to work and younger kids are trying to do school (before schools re-opened).

People struggled to find personal space for themselves, especially as they weren’t allowed to leave their houses. This has improved some with schools reopening and being able to see people socially outdoors, but you still see it arising as an issue.

Feelings of uncertainty (56%)
As restrictions were first introduced, and especially as they go up and down, people have been struggling with the uncertainty around what this all means. It's really hard to plan around life when you don’t know what’s going to happen, and we as human beings really like certainty (even if we’re spontaneous).

Our brains rely on certain routines so that it frees up time to think about other things. For example, before Covid, you didn’t have to think too much about what work was going to look like other than getting there. But now (especially if there are others at home) you have to think about things like "ok, if my flatmate is using the living room to do their call, can I walk through there to get my lunch? Or will I be interrupting? But also because my bedroom is next to the living room, so when I join my call they’ll hear my flatmate talking in the background…"

Every single thing we do requires more planning and thinking, which can leave a lot of us feeling tired over the course of the day.

Winter can be a tough time for those dealing with mental health issues, and Covid might make things especially trying - what issues do you expect to arise for people?
Depending on how close people live to their families, as we get closer to Christmas time, I think a lot of people are going to struggle (It doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to, but people will be at risk of this). Once they realise the Christmas parties aren’t happening, and wondering if it’ll be safe to visit granny over Christmas or will I risk giving her Covid, etc.

Additionally, as it gets darker and colder outside, we have fewer opportunities to socialise with others in an outdoor setting. This will be especially hard for people who either don’t live in the same county or same country as their family. As we all well know, Ireland is becoming a very multicultural country and it will be tough for those who can’t spend what is normally a cheerful time with others.

granny at christmas

Is there anything we can do now to help ourselves in the future? Are there key behaviours we can bring into our routine to help our mental health?
There is loads that we can do to help "inoculate" ourselves from upcoming difficulties, and the main thing is to look after the basics in our self care. Normally, the basics are the first thing to go out the window, so it’s important to ensure we keep those in mind.

Re-introduce anchors into the day
For those working from home, they may find that they’ve been struggling to introduce a structure into their day. As such, the days and weeks can begin to feel like they’re running into each other. For example, many people would use their commute home to unwind from work, so I urge people to find ways to mimic this in their routine.

If they would previously walk to and from work, try walking around outside for 10 minutes while listening to music at the end of your day, or engage in some sort of routine that includes putting your laptop away where you can’t see it after you finish.

Affectionate mature woman embracing pet dog in nature

Continue to engage with others socially
We’re all sick of doing Zoom calls and pub quiz nights, etc so see if there are other unique ways you can engage with others (that doesn’t involve a screen if at all possible). Bundle up and go on socially distanced walks, find ways to still celebrate events like birthdays and anniversaries. If restrictions end up going up again, we may have to do the odd video call here and there but find ways you can still connect with others.

Remind yourself of the positives
There’s something called the Baader Meinhof phenomena which is essentially a frequency illusion. Our brain has to have certain filtering processes to decide what to pay attention to because our brain only has so much processing power. For those who drive a car, I often invite them to think about how exhausted they were after their first couple of driving lessons, or how tired someone was after the first couple of days in a new job. This is because you didn’t yet know what to filter in and filter out.

If we’re going through a tough time (i.e. reading negative news article – because let’s face it there’s a lot of those at the moment – not being able to socialise with others in the same way, maybe worrying about family members who are in at-risk categories for Covid, etc), then your brain is primed to identify the negatives in your environment first.

So, by reminding yourself of small positives that happen each day, this can help to re-calibrate that filtering process. It doesn’t have to be something massive, but the small things like not getting rained on while queuing at the grocery store, or having a nice lunch, finishing off a project at work, etc.

Move
Physical activity is vital to improving our mood and many people in my own clinic have mentioned feeling low on the days that they don’t get out of the house. So even if it’s for a small walk, find little ways to get out of the house and move a little bit. Exercising at a cardiovascular level for three times per week is incredibly effective.

Draw on past experiences
This might sound counter-intuitive but one upside as we’re looking down the barrel of this second wave is that we’ve all been through this once before. So take some time to reflect on what helped you before… what things worked well? What things didn’t? And try to start re-introducing things that helped previously now. This will help give you a head start on managing your resiliency and mental health should further restrictions come down the road.

Reduce screen time
Think about how much you’re looking at all of the different articles around Covid and how much time you’re engaging passively with social media. When we’re going through uncertain times, we have a tendency to look things up and research them in an aim to understand them more.

Sometimes, however, this can go too far and we can find ourselves in an "infodemic" where you’re overwhelmed by the amount of news you’re consuming. So try to be mindful about only checking what you need to check, or limiting only a certain amount of time to Covid and/or negative news stories.

What advice would you give parents who are worried about their children's mental health? Young kids in particular who may feel cut off from friends and family as the holidays get closer.
It’s important to talk to our kids about what’s going on, and this will look different for each age group. Kids thrive on routine (even though many claim they don’t want it) so as much as possible try to keep kids on as stable of a routine. This will help provide them with one less thing to be anxious about.

Along with that, see if you can still find ways to mark the different holidays. Can your neighbourhood do a "Halloween march" where everyone can show off their costumes while remaining socially distanced? Instead of going to parties, see if you can make Halloween themed treats and maybe do a Halloween movie marathon at home? Same again for Christmas - how can you still leave presents for others and engage in random acts of kindness during this time?

We will have to see what the government's recommendations will be when it comes to the holidays but there will always be ways and means to celebrate the holidays.

It’s also useful to note that kids learn how to cope with stress by watching the adults around them. So by openly discussing what you’re doing to mind your own mental health (and then actually doing it), you’re teaching your kids a valuable lesson on how to improve their own resiliency.

So, for example, I will invite my son to go on a walk with myself and the dog, explaining that just like the dog needs exercise so do we because it helps us feel better.

What advice would you give to people who are worried about friends or family?
Firstly, to remember that many of us are experiencing this worry and we’re not alone. One thing that can help is to focus on what you, specifically, can do to protect yourself and your family. It’s easy to get caught up in what other people are doing, which can sometimes leave us feeling helpless and not in control of the situation.

So while we can’t control if others are socially distancing or following government guidelines, what we can focus on is our own hygiene. What are we doing to help slow the spread of the virus? Anything you can do to remind yourself of what you have control over can help to ease some of the anxieties associated with this.

If someone is single and living alone or are feeling especially isolated, is there anything, in particular, they should keep in mind?
By definition, humans are pack animals, and we thrive on social interaction. Given that, this time can be especially tough for those living alone or who are single. There is actually a thing called touch starvation that is being talked about more with people living in isolation from others who are also single.

We are more likely to enter the fight/flight response when this happens, so it’s vital to really look after our self-care if we find ourselves in this type of scenario. While there’s nothing that can completely replace physical touch, we can do some things to help mitigate the effects.

Take care of ourselves and our environment
Actively caring for ourselves, both how we look and how we treat ourselves through the food we eat, the exercise we do, the space for reflection on how we’re doing, the invigorating things we watch or read all sustain us, now and over the coming weeks. Keep the space in which we live clean. Taking care of our environment again fosters a sense of value for ourselves as we move within the space.

Engage socially
It’s also really important to ensure you schedule social time in over the course of the day if it isn’t happening virtually or in-person on its own. Make sure you talk to at least one other person each day if not two. When the government refers to social distancing, they mean being physically distant. It doesn’t mean you should stop socially engaging with others.

Keep the pressure low
Just because you’re living on your own and don’t have kids to look after doesn’t mean you can’t still feel exhausted and stressed by the pandemic and working from home. Regardless of what other people’s realities and struggles are doesn’t diminish the fact that you might still be struggling. Try to take the pressure off and acknowledge that you are just as entitled to feel as stressed or feel like you’re struggling.

Nicole Paulie is a Chartered Psychologist and Corporate Services Manager. She works with Spectrum Mental Health (SMH), an Irish based network of private mental health support primary care services. For more information, visit Mentalhealth.ie.