Professor Susan Rossell from Swinburne’s Centre for Mental Health shares how we can develop positive coping strategies to build our mental resilience in response to the ongoing COVID-19 situation.
In April 2020, my team at Swinburne’s Centre for Mental Health launched the COVID-19 and you: Mental health in Australia now (COLLATE) project to track the mental health of Australian adults throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our findings so far confirm that the COVID-19 situation has taken an unprecedented toll on the mental health and wellbeing of Australians. There are elevated levels of depression, anxiety and stress among the general population, with some groups — namely carers, parents, healthcare and essential workers, as well as older adults — experiencing significantly higher levels of negative emotion.
Past research suggest the mental health effects of pandemics worsen over the 12 months following the pandemic. Therefore, putting in place the necessary screening tools and resources will be crucial for the prevention and treatment of mental health issues in the future.
Following are five recommendations from the COLLATE team on how we can develop positive coping behaviours and strategies to build our mental resilience.
Be aware of what you can (and can’t) control
COVID-19 has changed the way we live, work and socialise. These changes are often outside our control; for example, government-imposed restrictions or changes to the economy and can lead to feelings of uncertainty about financial security, employment, relationships, and physical and mental health.
It is important not to dwell on factors outside your control. Instead, try to focus on the things you can control, including:
- taking reasonable precautions to prevent COVID-19 transmission, such as practising good hand hygiene, physical distancing and wearing a face mask
- keeping up-to-date with factual COVID-19 information from reliable sources, such as the Australian Government’s health alerts or the World Health Organisation
- limiting your media exposure so you stay informed, but not alarmed
- focusing on what you are a grateful for rather than what you wish would change or go away
- caring for your immediate environment – for example, getting odd jobs done around the house or in the garden
- finding ways to stay connected with friends and family – video calls are still a great alternative when in-person visits are not possible.
Look after your physical wellbeing
Looking after your physical health is important for your mental health and for building resilience. This is because stress is just as much physical as it is emotional. Taking the time to set up a positive routine that includes a healthy and balanced diet, ample sleep, hydration and regular exercise, can strengthen your body to adapt to stress and reduce the toll of emotions like anxiety or depression.
From COLLATE, we established that 24 per cent of Victorians reported they were drinking more and 19 per cent of respondents from other states also reported increased drinking. While it may be tempting to turn towards alcohol and drugs during times of uncertainty and stress, this only provides a temporary escape and will not help in the long term.
Problem-solve and set goals
It is important to acknowledge and accept any problems you are facing when you are anxious and stressed. If any problems you encounter seem overwhelming, break them down into manageable pieces. Being proactive will help you move forward, even if it only involves taking small steps.
Use your free time to think about what you have achieved and what your life goals and priorities are. Develop some realistic goals and move towards achieving these goals regularly. Even taking small steps and making small accomplishments will help you to achieve your ultimate goal.
Prioritise your mental health
COVID-19 has placed a spotlight on the importance of prioritising and looking after your mental health. This can be done through a few simple steps:
- Acknowledge the importance of your relationships - spend time with trustworthy and compassionate friends and family who validate your feelings; this will help to promote personal resilience. In turn, being there for others and providing comfort to those you care about can also help build your resilience.
- Practice mindfulness - mindful thinking, meditation, yoga and other spiritual or religious practices like prayer can also help build connections and restore positive thoughts and emotions.
- Keep things in perspective - how you think plays a significant role in your feelings, emotions and ultimately your resilience. Try to identify any irrational or catastrophic thinking and reframe these thoughts towards a more balanced and realistic thinking pattern
- Accept change - change is a part of life. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on what is really important.
- Maintain a hopeful outlook - it can be hard to be positive when we are in the middle of a pandemic; however, optimism is empowering and can help boost positive emotions.
Getting help is critical in building your resilience. For many people, using their own resources and the kinds of strategies listed here may be enough. However, in some instances, mental health or other medical professionals may be required.
Remember, it’s ok not to be ok and there are professionals and services that can help with your mental health and resilience journey. Everyone’s mental health journey is different. Don’t compare yourself with others and if you think you need help, ask for it.
If you are interested in participating in future COLLATE surveys, you can sign up through this link.