Principal Lecturer Anne Cooke gives five tips to help look after our mental health and wellbeing during lockdown.

Coronavirus is a threat to our physical health, and the crisis is a threat to our mental health.  

We’re anxious, we’re frustrated, many of us are angry, bored, lonely. Some of us are about to burst juggling childcare with a madly busy job that just got busier and that we now have to do from the kitchen table, hoping our colleagues can’t see the mess in Zoom meetings.  These are difficult, unsettling, unprecedented times and we’re all feeling strong emotions. To make things worse, the lockdown is cutting off many of our usual ways of coping.  One of mine is swimming, but with pools closed I’m wishing I was one of those hardy ‘wild swimming’ types who won’t let a bit of ice put them off.  Sadly I’m not. 

Everywhere you look at the moment there’s advice about preserving our physical health.  But what about our mental health?  

There’s a lot we can’t control right now. But some things we still can, even if we have to get a bit creative.  The government has just published some wellbeing guidance.  

Personally I’m trying to plan my days to include each of the New Economics Foundation’s ‘five ways to wellbeing’ – the psychological equivalent of eating our ‘five a day’.  They are

1.Be active

Exercise is good for your mental as well as your physical health. If like me your usual form isn’t possible, you may need to get creative. I’ve replaced swimming with cycling and yoga (online classes seem to work ok, much to my surprise).  Exercise also helps us sleep better and hopefully experience fewer of those 3am scenarios lying awake and imagining the worst.  

2. Connect  

We’re social animals, and relationships are fundamental to our wellbeing.  Social support can even boost your immune system. Isolation is currently a huge issue for many of us.  On the other hand, being cooped up with families can lead to arguments: my teenagers resorted to throwing water over each other yesterday. Social media is a mixed blessing, and not just because of the scare stories. It does connect us but in a superficial way, and risks giving the impression that everyone else is coping better. We’ve also got so used to messaging rather than actually talking. Make a cup of tea or pour a glass of wine, pick up the phone or use Zoom or Facetime and have a proper chat with someone.  

Interestingly, in some ways the current crisis is connecting us more. There’s been so much division recently (Brexit, the rich vs the poor in our current dog-eat-dog economy) but the pandemic is something that unites us all, a common enemy. Inequality is a huge driver of mental ill-health.  The crisis has clearly shown the limitations of a competition-driven society, and the ways that people have found of connecting and looking after each other are so heartening, from social media groups like The Kindness Pandemic to singing together from balconies.  In my village someone from each road has volunteered to be a ‘street champion’, making sure everyone in the road is OK and shopping for people who can’t get out.  People are using the local shops and the sense of community, often tenuous in 2020 Britain, is palpable. 

3. Keep learning 

We’re learning organisms and learning promotes mental health.  There are certainly plenty of opportunities for that at the moment.  We’re all on a steep learning curve, whether it’s getting our heads round new videoconferencing software or creating palatable dinners from what we have in the cupboard. There are plenty of free online learning opportunities at the moment too. For example if you’re interested in mental health I recommend Psychology and Mental Health: Beyond Nature and Nurture from my colleagues Peter Kinderman and Kate Allsopp at the University of Liverpool.  The course has just started but you can still join. 

4. Give  

Human beings have evolved as part of communities. As Action for Happiness puts it: ‘…caring about others is fundamental to our happiness…’. Doing things for other people can be a powerful way to improve our own mental well-being.  This is one area where there is no lack of opportunities right now.  Ironically, the crisis is opening up new possibilities for change. Let’s work together to ensure that the lessons of the crisis stick, whether that’s the need for a fairer society, for a better funded NHS or for a healthier planet.  

5. Take notice 

The fifth ‘way to wellbeing’ – taking notice, being mindful – may not be as obvious as the others. Mindfulness is defined as ‘the state of being attentive to, and aware of, what is taking place in the present’. To be mindful is to be consciously and intentionally aware of what is happening around us, as well as what is going on in our minds (our thoughts and feelings). The ability to be mindful can be learned, and has been shown to benefit both mental well-being and physical health. Mindfulness can help with stress and also with our relationships by increasing empathy and compassion. We’re all experiencing strong emotions at the moment; this is a new and difficult situation. Let yourself feel your emotions, accept them in a spirit of what the mindfulness literature calls ‘kindly compassion’. Don’t judge them. Ask what they’re telling you, use them as a spur to action.   

The New Economics Foundation suggests: ‘Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.’ Personally I’ve found it really helpful to get out into nature for my daily exercise, and to make time to stop and be mindful of the sun on my skin; the bees; spring springing all around.  To ‘smell the roses’ and remember that this too will pass. 

Anne Cooke is Principal Lecturer in the Salomons Institute for Applied Psychology.