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Stay well: Our expert guide to wellbeing during lockdown

Social distancing measures isolating us from those we care about can leave some feeling lonely, anxious or depressed.  Dr Karen Winter from Queen’s School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work has these stay-well tips to help you look after your mental health during lockdown.

Whether you are isolating alone or juggling work and childcare, the lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is a challenging time for everyone with a surge in demand for services provided by anxiety charities. Dr Karen Winter, a Senior Lecturer in Social Work and Director of Undergraduate Education at Queen’s School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work has over 16 years’ experience as a social worker and team manager working on the frontline in child protection services in Northern Ireland. She says the most important coping mechanism we can utilise is hope.

“Hope is important as it counteracts feelings of hopelessness which are fed by the fear that this will go on forever, that there is no end in sight and that the goalposts will forever keep changing,” says Dr Winter. “Hope that this situation will pass can make the current circumstances bearable and motivate you because having hope acknowledges that you have a future that you are working towards.”

To help you keep that hope on track, Dr Winter has drawn up this S.T.A.Y W.E.L.L guide to mental health with top tips on how to cope during lockdown.

Stay virtually connected

In the age of fake news, staying in touch online with those we know and trust is vital, says Dr Winter.

“These interactions keep us grounded,” she says. “This is especially important in a context where it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the information (and the misinformation) available on social media.”

Rather than being click-baited down a Facebook rabbit hole of unreliable information, turn to trusted sources for support.

Person using a mobile phone

“Stay connected with the people, communities and groups whose comments and contributions you find helpful, interesting, inspiring and uplifting,” says Dr Winter. “This can provide hope and helps to maintain a rounded perspective of our situation and our circumstances.”

Take advantage of exercise

Under the current government guidelines, we are permitted to go out once a day for daily exercise, so use that time, urges Dr Winter. “If you can get outside, get outside,” she says. “Daily exercise lowers anxiety, improves mood and has a number of proven physical health benefits. It is vital to our wellbeing.”

Carla, current student

Carla Kingsman, undergraduate BA Theology and Philosophy student

Ask for help if you need it

“We have a tendency, when asked if we are OK, to say ‘Yes, fine’, as a coping mechanism because we don’t want to talk about our feelings and expose our anger or upset,” says Dr Winter.

However, when you bottle up your feelings, you are not just doing yourself a disservice but you are closing down an opportunity for others who may be suffering to confide in you.

Suffering in silence individualises pain causing shame when in fact we are all suffering in some way because of the impacts of the coronavirus”.

“My personal experience of the lockdown has been accompanied by a range of feelings from shock, numbness, disturbed sleep/appetite, anger and sadness. All this has been interspersed with moments of humour and joy – mainly from interactions with my children whose approach to life never ceases to amaze me. We are all having good and bad days. A good starting point is just to acknowledge that when it’s a bad day, it’s a bad day,” she says, acknowledging that exposing such complicated emotions is not easy.

“Sharing feelings requires honesty and bravery,” she adds.

Man holding his face in his hands

As a social worker, Dr Winter is only too aware that the pandemic is having a far-reaching socio-economic impact on families and communities. “I have an overwhelming concern for the hundreds of thousands of adults and children who, without access to social, financial, educational, emotional, practical, material capital, are suffering further disadavantage in the lockdown (and many in silence). And I have an immense concern for (as well as an immense pride of) our social workers who continue to deliver a service in the most challenging of circumstances.

“For me, the experience of the pandemic has been accompanied with feelings of profound sadness for those ill, those who have died and their families. I have been deeply shocked and disturbed at the new funeral arrangements knowing how important funeral practices and rituals are in terms of honouring the dignity, inherent worth and value of the deceased person as well as enabling people to grieve in a way that enables healing.”

Don’t suffer in silence. “If you need help, ask loudly and persistently,” urges Dr Winter.    

Yield to the current challenging circumstances

Complaining about lockdown and itching and fretting to get back to your former life can exacerbate stress and anxiety. Instead, slow down, accept it and stay safe. “The lockdown is here. It is not going away. Lean into it,” says Dr Winter.

She explains: “When faced with a situation that is not of our making and that is beyond our control, we can perceive this as a threat and we can have a tendency to develop a ‘fight or flight’ response. In this pandemic and in the lockdown, over which we have little control, it is more helpful to accept the parameters within which we are currently living. There is a lot about the pandemic that we can’t fight and there is a lot we can’t run away from. Better to accept the realities. This will free up energy to develop appropriate adaptive responses.”

To-do list on a small blackboard

Work on your to do list

While social media might be awash with people becoming accomplished bakers, musicians, athletes and gardeners, you don’t have to overachieve during lockdown in order to feel a sense of accomplishment, says Dr Winter. It’s better to set achievable goals and tick something off each day.

“Some people think that to do lists are made up of incredible personal challenges that stretch your body, mind and that involve setting amazing goals for yourself,” she says. “Better to think of them as lists of achievable, realistic and achievable tasks bespoke to you and that reflect your own personal circumstances.”

As well as relieving boredom, the sense of accomplishment that comes with ticking off your list can also help boost your mental health.  “Nurturing feelings of achievement is important because it creates feelings of satisfaction, control, and the sense that you are taking a positive step forward,” she adds.

Express your feelings

“If it’s a bad day, it’s a bad day, let your feelings out. Don’t hold back,” says Dr Winter. “We are humans not robots.”

In order to process your feelings, you need to figure out what you are feeling and why, she adds.

“We can express our feelings in a range of ways: begin by identifying and labelling your feelings. Speak out the feeling to yourself ‘I feel sad’, ‘I feel angry’, ‘I feel lonely’ etc. Identify what specifically is making you sad, angry. Acknowledge where you can and where you can’t change things that contribute to your feelings. Act on any actions that can help change things.”

Try not to internalise stress, uncomfortable and negative feelings and avoid relying on behaviours that internalise your feelings. “These may end in you feeling guilty, developing self-loathing and a self-destructive cycle may develop,” says Dr Winter.

Mug with slogan 'create'

Learn something new

“Learning new things can help keep you active, occupied, energised and may give you a new outlook, experience, a sense of accomplishment and pride. It can also help distract you,” says Dr Winter.

Again, don’t compare yourself to others on social media: just because someone else has found the time to develop a multitude of new skills, doesn’t mean it’s right for you.

“Don’t compare yourself with others,” says Dr Winter. “This may lead to feelings of failure. Your list should be bespoke and reflect your personal circumstances,” she adds.

Look around you

As well as looking inward at how you are feeling, remember to check in on those around you. “Lift up someone else by sending them some form of encouragement, be it food, money, clothes, other essentials, offers of help or kind words,” says Dr Winter.

She adds, “We all need encouragement. If you know that you benefit from the encouragement of others, then please be assured that others will benefit from your encouragement too. It is important, as part of our connectivity with others, that we give of ourselves to others no matter how small that giving might appear. It could comprise an email, an offer of help or other forms of assistance. Lifting up others creates new conversations, new types of connection and enables us to see others in new ways.”

School Of Social Sciences, Education And Social Work