Reducing the impact of Coronavirus on your existing mental health difficulties

By Lizzie Stevenson (Mental Health Advisor)

If you are already struggling with anxiety or depression, you may be worried about how Coronavirus will affect you.

You may be worried about the uncertainty of things at the moment, or about how the possible impact to your everyday routine will impact your mental health.  

This is a stressful time of year with exams and deadlines coming up, and you may be worried about how your learning this year will be assessed. These are understandable concerns and hopefully some of these tips can help you.

Tips for managing your mental health problems during the coronavirus:

Its okay to say you are struggling:
Talk to someone about how you feel. Reach out to friends and family- let them know your concerns and don’t apologise for asking for what you need. This is particularly important if you were already struggling- and the current situation has exacerbated things. Your mental health is important right now.

Think about the information you are receiving
:
It is tempting to keep checking the news for updates, but this may be increasing your level of stress and worry unnecessarily.

Consider limiting checking the news or social media to twice a day. Maybe you could follow some helpful accounts on social media who post positive news stories, and pause those that are making you more anxious.

Maintain a regular routine:

Having a set routine can help to manage anxiety and depression. Often when we feel low we base our activities on our mood- ‘I am feeling rubbish so I stayed in bed all day’. However, this can often make us feel worse. When managing depression, it is important to base your day around activities that will help lift your mood and maintain your mental health, even if you don’t feel like doing them.
This is the reason why it is so important to have a routine.

Having a set routine of waking up at the same time of day, having your medication at the same time, 3 meals a day, etc. Currently, your routine may be disrupted, so think about how much normality you can maintain.

If you usually go to the gym on a Wednesday evening, consider doing a workout at home at the same time. 

If your usual lecture schedule is disrupted, try and dedicate time you would be in lectures to work you can do for that module at home. Try and make sure you change your clothes if you are at home all day to distinguish between awake and asleep time.

Consider the ACE acronym to keep busy:
Make sure that you do something each day that gives you a sense of Achievement, Closeness and Enjoyment. Achievement could come from tidying your room, finishing a piece of work, sending the email you were putting off, or organising revision notes.

A sense of closeness to others doesn’t have to be face to face. You could start a WhatsApp group with friends, maybe agreed to watch a certain TV show together and start a group chat around this.

You could video call a friend or family member, or perhaps join a new Facebook group around a particular interest.

Big White Wall is a 24/7 online community that the University has signed up to and is free for all students. 

For a sense of enjoyment think about what you can do, as opposed what you cannot do. Could you dance around the room to some music? Watch a funny Youtube video? Read a book?

Think about what you can control:
With things very uncertain at the moment, focus on what you can do now. Take 5 minutes to make a list of the things you are worrying about on a piece of paper. Then identify which of these worries you can do anything about.

For example, a worry such as ‘I need to finish my essay’– you can do something about this by making a study plan. Perhaps do an hour of research and then see how you feel.  

A worry such as ‘what if I can’t graduate on time?’ As the moment you cannot do anything about this, instead focus on what you can learn about your subjects.

Your department will inform you when they have more information. Remember all students are in the same situation.

In times of uncertainty we tend to try and create certainty through worrying about all possible outcome, but this doesn’t help us and creates more worry. Remind yourself to focus on the worries you have the power to do something about, rather than wasting energy on those you can’t. Cross out (with vigour) on the paper the worries you have no control over.

Our mind and body are connected:
When we feel at threat due to a worry or difficult thought, our brain tells our body we are at threat- then our body will response by going into fight or flight mode. This is called the stress response, which in turn tells our brain we are at threat, and we end up in a vicious cycle!

Practice deep breathing:
We can break this cycle by practising deep breathing. This will switch our body to relaxation mode- letting our brain know we are safe.

You may be understandably feeling at threat over the next few weeks- so it is important take some time to remind yourself to relax.

Try a mindful breathing exercise available on the Life Tools Blackboard course. Read more about how mindfulness can help with stress reduction.

You can also do this breathing exercise available on the NHS website..

Challenge negative thoughts:
A common unhelpful thinking style in depression and anxiety is ‘worse-case scenario’ thinking, such as ‘ I will fail all my exams’, or ‘All my family will become unwell and die’. It is best to challenge these thoughts and consider if they are based on fact or not.

When struggling with negative thoughts ask yourself ‘is this fact or opinion’If I wasn’t feeling bad… would I have the same thought?’Am I discounting any positive information here?’. Consider if the negative thought or ‘what if..’ has an equally valid positive ‘what if..’.

For example, “What if I cannot concentrate and then will fail?” ask instead, “What if I can take care of myself and study a little at a time?”. Ask yourself how helpful your negative thought is right now, and if it isn’t helpful considering letting it go.

Keep active, and keep moving:
Get as much exercise as you can. Perhaps use the time you would usually commute to lectures or work to do some exercise at home. Check out the NHS fitness studios range of at home workouts.

Managing OCD and Health Anxiety

If you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or Health Anxiety, these may be particularly difficult times for you. We are repeatedly being told to wash our hands and look out for symptoms- and this may have triggered your intrusive thoughts or health worries. As well as the above tips you may also wish to consider the following:

Limit exposure to the news:
Try to limit the amount of health-related information you are receiving. Limit access to the news or social media as much as you can. Open up to friends and family and perhaps ask them not to remind you to wash your hands and to be mindful of conversations.

Wash your hands as per NHS guidelines:
Not just until they ‘feel’ clean. If you notice the urge to handwash repeatedly, notice the thought and pause, take a breath, and ask yourself why you are doing this? Is it necessary? You can also practise breathing techniques to help with the anxiety.

Try not to seek constant reassurance:
It may feel temporarily comforting to check with others that you are okay. Perhaps you are asking them if your cough is normal, or checking they are okay. However, this may feel good for a moment, but you will soon need to ask or check again. Reassurance seeking can often make anxiety worse. Try to distract yourself when you feel this way. Googling symptoms never helps, it would be best to not do so.

Draw your attention to external things:
The more attention we pay to our bodily symptoms, the more we notice. For example, if you focus right now on your eyeballs you may notice they start to feel different. You might feel they are dry or wet, and perhaps you start to blink.

Although we are being told to monitor ourselves for symptoms right now, this does not have to be constant. Constant checking of your temperature or monitoring yourself for aches and pains can increase anxiety. If you notice yourself doing this, distract yourself and keep busy instead.

The most effective strategy is to engage your attention in something productive, for example making progress on an assignment or doing a creative task, or getting on with something you were putting off.

And finally remember- there is no perfect way to be or act right now – you are doing your best and this will pass.  

 

Imperfect perfectionism

Are you finding it difficult to make progress on your assignments or dissertation? Are you dissatisfied with your work? Do you find that it takes too long to finish tasks?

Do you notice that, despite your hard work, it feels it is not good enough? Are you wondering how you will get it all done in time?

If so, you are not alone. It is common to experience these feelings when we care about producing high quality work.
Continue reading “Imperfect perfectionism”

Introduction to Mindfulness: Part 1

By Lizzie Stevenson (Mental Health Advisor)

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a topic which has become very popular over recent years, and which you may already be somewhat familiar with.

Understanding the theory behind mindfulness can be helpful, however it is the doing of the practices themselves that will show you the benefits.
Therefore, after you finish reading this you can listen to a recorded mindfulness practice that you can find on the Life Tools Blackboard course.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of what mindfulness is, briefly put, mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness: it is about an awareness of what’s going on, both outside in your environment and inside through your internal experience.

Research has demonstrated that regular mindfulness practice has many benefits including managing stress, thinking more clearly, improving memory and helping with emotional resilience.  So, you can see how this technique can be particularly useful to do well in your studies.

Definitions of Mindfulness

The Oxford Dictionary (2015) describes mindfulness as:

A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is a professor of Medicine in the USA. He founded an 8-week course called ‘Mindfulness Based Stress reduction’ in the 1970s. A metaphor he used to describe mindfulness which I find sums it up well is:

The thoughts in your mind are like a waterfall filled mostly with thoughts of ‘me, me, me’. In this metaphor mindfulness allows you to step away from the current of the gushing waterfall and observe the contents of your thoughts in the waterfall non-judgmentally, from a distance.

It is not trying to stop or change the water as it flows, nor is it getting swept away by the torrent of water caught up in our thoughts. It is being aware of the water, watching and observing it from a distance.

What mindfulness is not

Despite many proven benefits of mindfulness, people are often wary when they hear that term. Therefore it is helpful to talk about what mindfulness is not.

People often think that mindfulness is about emptying the mind completely – a hard task. This is also not true. Mind wandering is very normal, our minds naturally get us tied up in knots over all sorts of things. Mindfulness is about noticing when our minds are doing this – and gently pulling our attention back to focus.

Another common misconception about mindfulness is that it takes a long time to do, and it requires lots of practice.

Whilst this is somewhat true in that mindfulness is an exercise that requires practice, a few minutes spent practising mindfulness can save you hours of wasted time fretting and worrying. And it is something that you can do in an informal way and incorporate into your every-day routine.

Mindfulness is also not about adopting a passive view of life, stopping us from striving or achieving things. It is about having an awareness of ourselves that can help us choose our goals. And it allows us to find the best path towards reaching these.

Mindfulness is also not a religion. Whilst it is true that many religions have used meditation for spiritual purposes, you don’t have to be religious to practice mindfulness.

How does it work? The Mind-body connection

The mind and body are connected. When we sense a threat, our body reacts and tenses up- ready to fight or run away. This ‘fight or flight’ response happens unconsciously and is quite simplistic.

It does not differentiate between an external threat, like a tiger roaming around campus, and an internal threat – like a bad memory or a worry. Both create the same reaction in our bodies.

This means that when a threat is sensed by the brain the body tenses up to fight or run. This then tells our brain that there is a threat, so it sends messages to the body to tense up further, forming a vicious cycle.

Our body changes and react based on our thoughts. A difficult memory can make us feel stressed in the present, that then manifests in our body, which then signals to our brain that there is a threat.

Stress itself is a normal emotion and sometimes in can come and go easily. However, sometimes we can get stuck in a pattern of stress which is hard to get out of. We may then start wondering why we feel so stressed, and our brain will bring up other worries increasing tension. This can then send us into a spiral that can happen in an instant, before we are even aware of it.

We can’t stop random thoughts appearing that may trigger unhappy memories or stress, but we can use mindfulness to help stop what happens next.

To notice these negative thoughts or feelings, accept them without judgement. Then, shift your attention away from them. This will stop the spiralling of negative thoughts preventing a vicious cycle.

Benefits of Mindfulness

There has been a lot of research into mindfulness and evidence has shown multiple benefits. A few of the main proven benefits of regular mindfulness practice include:

  • Reduced anxiety, stress, depression, exhaustion and irritability.
  • Improved memory and reaction times (great for students preparing for exams!)
  • A reduction in pain and quality of life for suffers of conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic pain and IBS.
  • Reduction in self- destructive or addictive behaviour – including excessive alcohol intake.

For more information on the benefits of mindfulness see www.franticworld.com

References:

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever you go, there you are. New York: Hyperion

Siegel, D., (2007) The mindful brain: reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York: Norton

Williams, M., Penman, D., (2011) Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. London: Piatkus

Hanson R. (2009) Buddha’s Brain –The practical Neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.

 

 

New Year’s resolutions

Making change happen

Most people use the start of a new year to review how things have gone in the past year. Then, they look ahead to decide what they want to change. Why is this time so significant for change?

Starting a new calendar year can feel like starting on a fresh new page. A new beginning invites us to reflect on how things are going and to consider how we would like things to be. 
Continue reading “New Year’s resolutions”

SETTLING IN: after the first few weeks

Looking after your health:
So now you have been at University for a few weeks: the weather is starting to change, it is getting colder, and the days are becoming shorter.

During this change of season, when the temperature fluctuates so much, it is very common to catch a cold. Some of the symptoms are uncomfortable, such as having a general sense of not feeling well, perhaps having a headache, and having trouble breathing due to congestion.
Continue reading “SETTLING IN: after the first few weeks”

Settling in: adjusting to a new environment

Settling in

Welcome to all new students, and welcome back to all of you who are returning to continue with your studies. Well done for your efforts and achievements to get to this point.

For some of you this may be the first time that you are away from your familiar environment. And for others, this may have meant a long journey from your home country to come to study in the UK. And some of you, although being a home student, will also be exploring your new space.
Continue reading “Settling in: adjusting to a new environment”