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Looking after our mental health during self-isolation: an uphill, yet important, battle

Written by Culture, Science

We have entered total lockdown. For all intents and purposes, this means complete social isolation. This is scary but ultimately good, and it needs to be done in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and help the NHS cope with this epidemic. Despite this however, concerns regarding the links between social isolation and mental health problems are now emerging.

It is widely known and acknowledged that human beings are social creatures. Because of this, we’ve evolved to value social relationships often as much as we do our next meal. This reliance on one another is great, but it’s causing alarm in the world of science. Psychologists and mental health experts are now expressing their concerns about the long-lasting damage social isolation may have on our health. It is therefore so important to not only check up on how loved ones are feeling, but dedicate time to looking after our own mental health.

So how do we “stay happy” during the world’s apocalyptic meltdown? There’s no one “fix-for-all”, but here are a few things that I plan on implementing in my life in the next three weeks (or more!):

Keeping in contact with your friends:

I know what you’re thinking:

“Duh!”

But this is probably the most important piece of advice I can give. If personal experience just isn’t emphasising how important social relationships are to your mental health, perhaps the science will convince you:

In a study conducted by Newcastle University epidemiologist Nicole Valtorta, it was found that loneliness not only contributed to a 30% higher risk of having a stroke of developing coronary heart disease, but that it also had major effects on our mental health:

“Lacking encouragement from family or friends, those who are lonely may slide into unhealthy habits […] In addition, loneliness has been found to raise levels of stress, impede sleep and, in turn, harm the body. Loneliness can also augment depression or anxiety.”

Additionally, a study conducted by Holt-Lunstad in 2010 shared the alarming statistic that patients who had good social relationships stood a 50% higher chance of survival of illness than those who had little to no social relationships.

Both studies point to the importance of keeping good, developed social relationships as a way of maintaining physical and mental health.

We are incredibly fortunate to live in the age of social media. As much as we all like to criticise it (and there has often been good reason to!), we are now coming to truly appreciate our ability to stay in contact with loved ones over it. For myself, I’ve found a lot of comfort in staying in contact with friends over a group chat – we update each other about our lives, share adorable pet photos, and help each other with our various Animal Crossing queries! It’s nice because we don’t feel apart, even though we’re scattered across the country.

Exercise

In the words of the great Elle Woods:

“Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t just shoot their husbands.”

It’s a widely acknowledged fact that exercise can and does help us improve and maintain good mental health. Richardson et al (2005) found dramatic increases in the overall wellbeing of mentally ill patients when exercise was incorporated into their recovery programs, and found that exercise also helped socially isolated patients make meaningful connections and relationships.

Exercises like yoga for example, that focus on self-improvement and mindfullness, have been found to alleviate symptoms of depression and regulate gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which in turn helps people manage anxiety. A great thing about yoga is that it’s also very easy to do indoors which given the current circumstances, is an added plus!

You don’t need to take up yoga of course; any kind of sport or activity that gets you up and moving is going to make you feel good.

Start setting goals!

This is purposely vague because we all have different ambitions and aims for spending our time during the next three weeks. Maybe you want to put in the graft and get all of your university work done? Or perhaps you want to learn a new skill? Hey, maybe you’ve been staring at a stack of unread books or long to-watch list, and you want to take a crack at that! What is important is that you set yourself daily goals that are achievable because science shows, that achieving goals is really important for our mental health:

Cairns et al (2019) found in their study of young peoples engagement in mental health services, that setting goals helped people stay more engaged and improved clinical outcomes of patients. Clarke et al (2009) similarly found that achieving goals helped patients of varying mental illnesses improve their self-worth and self-esteem.

For me, I’ve made it a personal mission to learn how to properly use Adobe InDesign and Photoshop and have spent hours designing and creating magazine and newspaper spreads. It doesn’t feel like a chore because I enjoy it, and it’s helping me achieve career-related goals that I was working on during university; it’s a win-win!

Though it is vitally important to rest (productivity isn’t the be-all end-all!), finding a new hobby can bring a lot of joy and can make spending extensive periods of  time with yourself less daunting.

Last modified: 29th March 2020

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