Even though lockdown restrictions may be lifting a little, life looks set to stay different for a good while yet. And while this continues, we're all more susceptible to little mental health niggles: feeling left out, feeling uncertain, feeling trapped. Or even feeling guilty about not feeling any of that!
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. So we asked our friends at mental health startup Spill to share some practical tips on how we can keep anxiety symptoms at bay, while life stays a bit strange.
Spill lets employees access video sessions with qualified therapists through Slack. No waiting lists, no hurdles, no application process.
1. Think twice about how — and how often — you get your news
It's tempting to think that avoiding the news altogether will help anxiety. But it can actually be counterproductive: without any information at all, anxiety can become worse, as our brains love to ruminate and speculate on what could be happening when we aren't informed. Think of how stressful it is waiting on a platform when you don't know what time the next train will come. Our brains prefer to know than to not know.
So information and communication is important. What we need to think about more closely, however, is the quantity and quality of the news that we take in.
Firstly, quantity. We suggest time-boxing your news intake to once or twice a day, and trying to keep it after any emotionally important events — like a big work call or playing with your kids — rather than beforehand.
Secondly, quality. Consuming news stories that focus on speculating about the future or sensationalising events can trigger anxiety and make it worse. We recommend finding a dispassionate and quantitative news source that updates a few metrics daily, like the number of COVID cases, such as the ECDC or BBC charts.
2. Focus on micro-level decisions, to give your brain the illusion of control
Right now, so much of the conversation online and in real life focuses on things we can't control. So your mind naturally ends up ruminating about these things: everything in the lighter blue circle above, including whether our planned holidays later this year will be cancelled, when and how the government restrictions will be lifted, and more. Dwelling on these things just gives more oxygen to the feeling of being out of control, which itself fuels anxiety symptoms.
It's tempting to feel like not much is in our control at the moment, and that we're trapped inside with less agency than ever. But if we bring our attention down to the micro level, it's possible to see there's a lot we can control.
If you're working from home at the moment, you might have more control over your daily schedules: you can get up a bit later as you don't have a commute, and you might have more flexibility with your work hours.
If you're not working from home, you can still decide what meals you cook, when you go for a walk, what exercise you do.
The closer you look, the more you see things we have decision-making power over. And the more we focus closely on these micro-level things, the more it helps to put up armour that keeps us mentally strong when the conversations around all the things we can't control crop up again.
3. Find activities that put you into the psychological state of flow
Anxiety loves an empty mind. Anything you can do to stay busy in your free time while social distancing is great. But anything you can do that gets you into the psychological state of flow is even better!
Flow is when you lose all sense of time because you're totally engrossed in an activity that's just the right balance of difficult enough to be interesting, but achievable enough to not be demotivating. Video game designers spend their whole lives trying to make sure players stay in flow throughout all the levels of a game: there's a real art to it.
Lots of activities can get us into flow: hobbies, exercise, work, childcare, volunteering. It's impossible to say some activities are objectively better than others. It depends completely on you! The best approach is to try a few things, each for at least five hours before giving up, and see which activity you get lost in most easily.
There are so many courses, tutorials and opportunities available on the internet right now for free. You can learn the piano, learn to code, or even take a negotiation course. Or, if you're more of a real-life-activity person, there are a bunch of volunteering opportunities around London organised by location.
The most important thing is that it's about the means, not the ends. The internet loves to tell us that lockdown is a chance to be extremely productive and achieve lots of stuff. But focusing on outcomes can actually make us feel more anxious.
Instead, remember that the winner in this situation isn't the person who can be the best at an activity: it's the person who can love an activity the most.