4 hidden signs COVID-19 is impacting your mental health

4 hidden signs COVID-19 is impacting your mental health

There’s a good chance your mental health is suffering during the current coronavirus outbreak. Here’s how to tell if you’re affected – and ways to overcome it – according to psychologist. 

The coronavirus pandemic has caused chaos for our mental health.

Online mental health service Beyond Blue, has reported an increase of nearly 60 per cent in calls since the outbreak, with more people ever before engaging with their online forums.

ReachOut has reported a website visitation increase of 50 per cent since releasing coronavirus-specific support in mid-March, while Lifeline is currently receiving a call every 30 seconds.

The stress of living in a world with a life-threatening health risk combined with isolation, unemployment and the global economic crisis as we head into the unpredictable future is the cause for this growing crisis.

But the key to protecting your mental health from taking a toll is to recognise the signs, which is extremely difficult to do.

Here, psychologist Briony Leo has pinpointed the four most common signs your mental health may be taking a downward spiral – and ways to manage each.

1. Irritation

It sounds strange, but often feeling irritable or like you have a short fuse can be a sign that all is not well.

Irritability is a sign of stress and also depression, and often relates to us feeling depleted in our emotional resources. Things that might not necessarily bother us on a good day can start to get on our nerves (loud chewing, anyone?). If you’re noticing your fuse is somewhat short right now, see if you can track back and consider if this is to do with your mood, sleep or stress levels, and how long it has been going on for. Short periods of irritability are normal and to be expected, but feeling this way for longer than a week or so might be a sign that things are not going well.

How to overcome irritability

Exercise and social support are highly recommended for irritability. Blowing off steam and sweating, or distracting ourselves with friends and conversation, can be a great shift and a good opportunity to top-up emotional resources.

2. Fatigue

Similar to irritation, fatigue can be a sign that our mental health is starting to deteriorate.

Again, it’s important that we track back to when this started, and the other factors that might be responsible. For example, if you’ve just eaten an enormous pasta lunch and feeling tired, you probably don’t need to worry too much. A good rule of thumb is that if the fatigue is impacting your ability to function in your daily life (e.g. work, care for yourself, do household chores), it’s a source of concern.

If it persists for more than a few days, it will be useful to visit a GP to discuss this further.

How to overcome fatigue

A short term fix that might help is to ensure you’re getting eight hours of sleep per night, that you’re exercising and getting outdoors for at least 30 minutes a day (since Vitamin D deficiency can cause fatigue), and that your water and food intake is regular and adequate for your weight.

Fatigue can be a normal response to not doing much, or it can be the sign of a health issue, food intolerance, or mental health condition such as depression.

3. Withdrawal

We all exist somewhere on the spectrum of introversion to extraversion, but if you’re finding that you’re withdrawing from those around you, even close friends, this might be a cause for concern.

Often when we are experiencing the onset of a depressive episode, or serious mental illness, withdrawal and isolation can be early signs that things are deteriorating. Along with the withdrawal are often feelings of shame or sadness, fear that people might see the person not coping, and be frightened off, and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.

How to cope with withdrawal

It’s good to remember that these are all part of the condition of depression, and with proper treatment things can return to normal. If you’re starting to feel yourself withdrawing, a good strategy is to ensure that you have at least a few opportunities to be social or connect with friends and colleagues each day – whether this is by phone, text message or video chat. Although we know that it’s hard to be around people when we are feeling down, the evidence shows that isolation is one of the worst things for our mental health – even if we prefer our own company.

4. Impulsive behaviours

We all deal with stress differently, and for some people this can be exercising more, sleeping more, watching more Netflix or playing more video games. For some people there can be the desire to ‘self soothe’ by doing rewarding behaviours that distract us from our emotional state (in isolation, that state is likely to be bored, anxious, lonely and so on). These self-soothing behaviours are things like online shopping, drinking, social media use, online gambling – really anything that triggers a rush of dopamine to our brains.

There is nothing wrong with these behaviours in moderation. Many people do enjoy connecting via social media or having a glass of wine in the evening, but there can be an issue when they are used to excess. There is only so much online shopping, Instagramming and drinking we can do before we start to experience the consequences, whether that is financial stress, mood and health issues, poor sleep and agitation.

How to overcome impulsive behaviours

If you’re noticing that you’re engaging in a few of these behaviours more than is good for you, it might be useful to try and substitute them for other, less costly stress management strategies. For example, choosing one day per week where you stay away from social media, and give yourself a task such as cooking a meal or finishing a book. Or, take a week of alcohol and focus on caring for yourself physically, through exercise and diet.

A final word on managing your mental health…

It‘s also good to remember that mental health exists on a spectrum, and having a bad mental health day is not necessarily the end of the world. It could just be a sign that you need to make some changes, or do things a bit differently.

If you are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, are not being able to perform your daily activities such as work, study, household tasks or caring for family, or have been feeling anxious or depressed for more than a week, it’s important that you seek medical attention immediately. Those are all signs that there is a serious issue that needs to be addressed and that you need medical attention.

In general, some of the best things you can do for your mental health during this time are to keep to a routine, limit your use of alcohol and social media, make sure you have social connections and are taking time to relax and do things you enjoy. Most importantly, accept that it’s a strange time, and we are all doing the best that we can.

Briony Leo is a psychologist.

If you or someone you know is struggling with your mental health or needs help, call Lifeline on 131 114, Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. In an emergency, call 000. For a correct treatment plan, book an appointment with your GP.

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