Anxiety and social isolation can wreak havoc on the sufferer’s quality of life. A collaboration by Dr. Georgiana Farrugia Bonnici, BSc (Hons), M.D. (Diagnostic Radiographer & Medical Doctor) & Dr. Dorothy Scicluna, Psy. D (Clinical Psychologist & Psychotherapist) provides professional and valuable insight on how to overcome these debilitating issues.
1) What does anxiety consist of?
Anxiety typically involves an emotional component such as nervousness or fear – a physiological component, which may include fast breathing, trembling, high heart rate, or stomach churning, as well as a cognitive component, such as an impending sense of doom or negative thoughts. These characteristics can ultimately affect our daily behaviour through, for example, putting off day-today tasks, avoiding people or dealing with difficult situations, insomnia, engaging in excessive smoking, drinking too much alcohol, or taking illicit substances to calm down.
It comes as no shock that every individual differs as to how vulnerable they feel in a variety of stressful situations. If you are reading this article, and feel that this topic somehow applies to you at this specific moment of the Covid-19 global pandemic, first of all, you need to be aware that anxiety is entirely normal at times of stress. It’s appropriate to mention that the right amount of stress can actually be helpful – in that it can serve as a motivation to reach higher goals and accomplish new challenges in life. However, it is also known that too much stress can seriously interfere with you living a normal life.
2) Are there any strategies that can ease out some of the ongoing stress associated with Covid19?
Addressing stressful situations through proper time management: The lack of appropriate time management is probably a sin of many. Sometimes you need to stand up for yourself, and say “no” to things you don’t need to do, in order to be able to deal with the most important projects first. Let’s not forget to mention that despite all the benefits that come with today’s technological advancements, they may also work against us. It is wise to remember that time spent off the mighty Facebook, and other social media networks, could actually be used to get some work done, and actually let our mind rest from all the negative vibes associated with the Coronavirus.
Learning to relax and distract yourself from troubles: The physical symptoms of anxiety occur because adrenaline is being released by the nervous system into the bloodstream and as a result, affects organs such as the heart, stomach, and muscles. It is not going to be any more fruitful to continuously worry about something. Make sure you find time to engage in activities you like to help keep your mind off things, such as watching a movie, or listening to some nice music. Relaxation and breathing exercises can help you control the physical symptoms of anxiety, especially if they occur regularly.
Looking after your health: It’s very important to find time to eat well, exercise regularly, and rest properly. It is wise to mention that sleep plays an important role in managing stress. It provides our body with the opportunity to regenerate, eliminate toxins, and wash-away all the negative thoughts. Sleep disruption creates havoc in the brain, thereby, impairing thinking and emotional regulation. Try to cut down on energy drinks or coffee, for caffeine intake furthers the issue, by potentially increasing anxiety.
Adopting a rational approach to challenging negative thoughts: Sometimes the key to problem-solving is all about mind power and motivation. Try to overcome the tendency to exaggerate how threatening a situation is, and to underplay how effectively you can cope with this situation. Stop judging yourself too harshly.
Seeking support whenever appropriate: No man is an island, therefore do seek support from family members or close friends, whenever you deem necessary. Never be hesitant to speak to your doctor or psychologist, if you think your anxiety problem is getting too overwhelming to cope with. Everyone manages to pull through the various transitions of life differently, but do allow yourself to recognize that even mild anxiety is a warning sign that reminds us to be aware of certain issues that may necessitate some attention. Moreover, when feelings like persistent sadness, social disinterest or low motivation, begin to affect your ability to carry out the necessary steps to be successful, then it’s time to reach out for professional help.
3) What are the best ways of ‘mastering’ social isolation, in the sense that it will not affect us so negatively?
This pandemic has thrown us into the deep waters without having had time to mentally plan or get accustomed to what was to come. In turn, this has brought about feelings of insecurity and fear, most especially because of the prolonged nature of the pandemic itself. Most of us are experiencing or have experienced a feeling of lack of safety. Social isolation gives rise to further inward thinking shifting the anxiety into panic. Therefore, it is very important that we give ourselves time to react to the situation until we reach a state of new normalcy, which is unique to each one of us.
We all adjust in different ways however what seems to help the most is creating structure in the day. Ideally we split our day in 3 major chunks, something like a morning, afternoon and late afternoon till evening. This way we are giving ourselves the opportunity to figure out that the day has a rhythm and is not one long stretch. This will help in creating a sense of being grounded.
It is important to include movement in the day which could include a few 5 minute workouts spread over the day, or a full-proper workout at home. It doesn’t have to be anything major or that requires the building a home gym. Any type of movement counts. For those sitting at a desk, including stretching exercises could work wonders. Once again keep it simple. This is temporary. It is also important that meals are ideally planned ahead for families and are kept simple. Kids tend to get hungry on the spot and want to eat now. Ideally we precede those hunger pangs for adults and kids alike. This prevents over eating and uncalled for tantrums.
People who are teleworking seem to be noticing that they are becoming more productive since there is less disturbance at home (when a household is toddler and kid free 🙂 This could help with catching up with some back log. Parents that are working from home seem to be facing a completely different reality. Here, we would recommend self-compassion and a reminder that the previous productivity might no longer be possible right now. Speak to employers where necessary and once again keep tasks simple, especially with the children.
Stick to a good bed time and waking up time. Make sure you and your children are getting enough sleep. Avoid unnecessary alcohol consumption. This gives a feeling of further fatigue and buries feelings that you might need to help you navigate your life right now. If you are feeling overwhelmed, do reach out to a friend or a professional that could help you manage your feelings.
Finally, stay socially connected and include humour in your life. It is also recommended to participate in telephone or video calls regularly, in order to create a sense of social connectedness. Moreover, stick to your pace and your lifestyle needs. We are all different. Comparing is despairing.
4) We realize that everyone is different. Can you suggest some ways to improve the psychological well-being via mastering social isolation, in relation to different stages in life?
– Mastering social isolation in children and students:
Children and students still need their parents to help them establish a sense of self-regulation. Children get very easily worked up because they do not as yet have the necessary coping skills to handle big emotions. Keeping their life simple and predictable creates a sense of stability. Novelty comes in with new ideas, like for instance creating a board game afternoon, when normally they would be at an activity. Make video calls fun!
Watch their food intake since just like adults, when bored, most children turn to food which could easily become a habit and induces further appetite. Keep them active but not overactive. Teach them how to skip the rope or play hopscotch. Most of all recognize their bio-rhythms and allow time for rest. Children are losing their stamina for writing and concentration skills suffer too, since they are not attending daily class. Respect them and try to include short breaks in between their tasks. Create home rules and stick to them even more right now that you might need time to work. This will induce a sense of self-agency in kids and teens alike. Once again use screen time as a form of a break and not as an activity per se, where possible.
Involve them in household tasks and let them know that they are doing a great job staying at home. This applies pretty much to students irrespective of the age really. Create structure, follow your lessons and minimize use of screen time since now it is also being used more for online classes. Parents should also teach the older teens how to prepare a simple meal and let them feel proud in their achievements. Most of all, give them space to vent out. Teens and older students feel the big feelings too, and they shouldn’t be keeping their feelings to themselves. Unspoken emotions travel to the body and they become a skin rash, a bad stomach, a panic attack, anxiety, self-harm or an eating problem. Speak right away and resort immediately to the helpline 1770 when you feel that an adult might not be able to listen to you. Never keep ugly thoughts to yourself. It is important that previous psychology sessions are not interrupted where possible. Keep active and create a routine. But most of all stay connected. If you need to talk ask your guardians for a few minutes of their time. They will thank you for it.
Validate children’s emotions. When you notice they are experiencing a big emotion and they are behaving in unusual ways, do not ask them to shut up or to get over it. Instead ask them to use their words. “I am panicking because I did not understand what the teacher just said,” or “I am sad and bored, I need to see my friends”. Then help them navigate that feeling. Remind them that this is not forever.
Mastering social isolation in adults & the elderly:
When it comes to older adults, many of the above points still apply. Most importantly try to stay active within the home, when this is possible.
Do not rely on precooked meals, instead try to prepare a simple soup or try that elaborate lasagna you’ve been wanting to try making and share with other family members who might be too busy to prepare fresh meals. Once again take breaks from listening to the news; instead try to discover ways of staying connected with your family or friends. Some families have actually made use of the roof to communicate with their neighbours.
It is important to take care of your body by eating well, stretching and if possible include breathing techniques. Many older people have presented with feelings of panic and anxiety given that they feel more vulnerable than others. Once again do remember that this is a temporary period and the solitude might be necessary to help you reconnect with yourself or to rediscover old hobbies such as knitting or gardening or baking. Stay connected with medical professionals that normally follow your well being. Do not neglect your health.
5) What tips do you recommend for all front-liners in the battle of Covid-19, to decrease their risks of burn-out and other mental health issues?
Front-liners are currently the people supporting the whole of society. Self-care is of paramount importance for you right now. Recruit help in terms of cooked meals from family members that might be able to offer such support. Proper rest on your rest days is essential and most of all acknowledge your feelings. Do not try and evoke feelings that are not there.
Feeling detached from the painful situatiom right now is normal. It is a coping mechanism. Others might be already reacting with feelings of grief and sadness. If these feelings persist and do not go away when engaging with your day-to-day life then it might be useful to speak to a professional about the way you feel.
Finally, one last important point, that is valid for everyone is to plan for what is to come. This means try to visualize a reintegration into society.
Some people seem to be fearing the post pandemic period; the traffic, the noise, the pollution and the fast paced life.
Possibly this is the time to redesign our life to make it suit our needs and the needs of our families. Moreover, do speak up and send suggestions to your local councils or organisations that you form part of. Suggest the changes that you believe could help improve the quality of our life. We should not always need a pandemic to set our priorities right.
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– Dr. Georgiana Farrugia Bonnici’s blog
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