Looking after your mental health – one year on

March 18, 2021 by Lisa Bywaters0

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When this pandemic began a year ago we were all hopeful that it’d be over quickly. We were in a surreal and unprecedented situation, but we did the best we could and hoped for the best.

Twelve months down the track we’re all a little battle-scarred and weary.

We’ve had virus outbreaks, lockdowns, home-schooling, border closures, panic buying, changes to how/when/if we work and we’ve had financial stress. We’ve missed big and small life events, scaled our worlds down and we’re now getting ready to roll up our sleeves for the vaccine.

Pardon my language, but it’s been a pretty shit year. It’s been exhausting and stressful, and we’re tired. It’s no wonder many of us are feeling the impact on our mental health.

When you add painful, musculoskeletal condition/s into the mix, the effect is intensified.

In our recent report: Making the invisible visible: Australians share the impact of musculoskeletal conditions on their lives people revealed that having a musculoskeletal condition affected all aspects of their lives.

In regards to mental health, one person wrote: “it’s a constant battle with my body and mind. It’s hard to stay positive when pain has been a constant in your life for twenty years. I…have had to relinquish shift work and reduce to three working days a week as a result of health issues, mental health and ongoing pain”.

And another: “COVID-19 has severely affected a very active life and contributed to my downturn in mobility and therefore weight gain…My lonely times and feeling a lack of adequate social interaction [combined] with physical pain had a depressive effect. Am picking up now with support, activity and hope”.

People also shared that their condition affected their ability to:

  • be emotionally and mentally well – 50%
  • enjoy life in general – 52%.

With such large numbers reporting negative effects on mental health – because of their condition, and the crazy times we’re currently living through – we thought it was timely to revisit some of the many things we can do to look after our mental health.

So what can we do?

Lots! We can look after our mental health in so many ways. And the sooner we start to take care of our mental health the better it’ll be.

Note: These are general tips only. If you’re being treated for a mental health condition, continue to take any medication as prescribed, and keep in contact with your mental health specialist so that you continue to receive the support you need.

Establish a routine. Do you have a regular routine or are you just winging it from day to day? We’re creatures of habit and thrive on our schedules. They give us some control over our lives – especially when the world feels topsy-turvy. But it can be hard to develop and stick to a new routine. You really need to work at it, or you’ll find yourself staring at your phone and socials for hours, or going to bed later and later, not sleeping well, snacking more often, and basically forming some bad habits.

So whether it’s just for you, or your household, create a routine. Or update your existing routine; what worked at the beginning of the pandemic may not work anymore. Things have changed so much, and will continue to change, so we need to adapt.

Create a weekday routine that takes into account work, school and other commitments, and a weekend routine that involves your chores, as well as the fun stuff like social, leisure, sporting and family activities.

Don’t compare yourself with others. We all know people who appear to have it all worked out and seem to glide through life effortlessly. So if you’re comparing yourself to that ‘perfection’ – as you sit in your grungy jeans and t-shirt, with dirty laundry taking over the house, kids/partner/housemate driving you crazy and your dog weeing on the floor…STOP! Stop right now.

First – no one’s perfect. We all have our challenges, but some people are just better at concealing them. Second – comparing ourselves with others isn’t helpful. Most of us only share online the things that make us look good. We choose our best photos, we use filters and we manipulate our pics so we look amazing. Comparing yourself with others and their ‘perfect’ pics just makes us feel ‘meh’, so don’t do it. And third – don’t compare yourself with others in a way that invalidates what you’re feeling. Don’t feel guilty for being upset, sad or anxious. Our feelings are valid, they’re real and we need to acknowledge them.

Stay in touch. When you’re feeling down, anxious or depressed, it’s really easy to become isolated. You just want to stay in your safe cocoon. Interacting and opening up to others can be difficult when you’re struggling – but it’s really worth it. Call someone. You can choose whether to open up about your worries and fears, or you can choose to talk about things that make you smile. Shared memories, your kids/pets/hobbies, or something that’s happened in your day that made you feel good. Or venture out of the house and catch up for a coffee or a walk in the park. Just be sure to keep the communication channels open. And check out our blog on staying connected.

Get back to BACE-ics. BACE is a way to divide your daily activities into areas that encourage self-care. BACE stands for Body care (e.g. exercise, showering), Achievement (e.g. chores, reading), Connecting with others (e.g. family, pets), and Enjoyment (e.g. dancing, movies). As this ABC Everyday article explains a “routine that has activities across all BACE categories is good for us because it releases good chemicals in our brain which are key to staying mentally healthy. That’s because: exercise releases endorphins, achievement releases dopamine, connecting with people releases oxytocin and physical activity releases serotonin.” So get back to BACE-ics and focus on self-care.

Schedule time to face your worries and fears. We can’t always escape our worries about things like our health, work, finances, the future or COVID. We’re bombarded with news, social media and that annoying voice in our head at night when we just can’t sleep. So acknowledge that you’re worried and schedule a time to process this. (Just don’t do it too close to bed time or you’ll be tossing and turning all night.) Now look at these thoughts and feelings closely – really shine a light on what’s bothering you. Try to come up with possible solutions for dealing with them. Or you may need to accept that some things are outside of your control. But once you’ve taken the time to acknowledge them – put them away. Constantly focusing on our worries is bad for our mental health.

Talk with a professional. Half of the people who completed our survey said that their condition affected their mental and emotional health, and yet only 11% said that they had used the services of a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, mental health coach or a counsellor. But help is available if you need it. The Australian Government is providing up to 20 Medicare subsidised psychological therapy sessions each calendar year. So if you’d like to talk with a professional about your mental health and how you’re feeling, talk with your doctor about how you can take advantage of the Better access to mental health care initiative.  And find out more about the different types of professionals that can help you.

You don’t have to be perfect. No one is. Just try for your best – and give yourself a break. Your best before all of this started is different to your best now. So do what you can in the circumstances you find yourself in and be kind.

Nurture your relationship. Whether you live with your partner/significant other, or they live elsewhere, it’s important to nurture your relationship with them. Everyday stresses have been compounded by the pandemic and its effect on our lives. This in turn can affect how we interact with the most important people in our lives. So schedule a regular date night or alone time with them. If you live apart use video chat, phone calls and good old-fashioned love letters (swoon). Just put in the time and effort your relationship deserves. Get dressed up. Don’t talk about any of the usual day-to-day worries. Talk about your favourite books/music/movies, your hopes and dreams, your fantasy holiday destination, reminisce about when you met, tell them things they don’t know about your childhood and growing up. Put some music on and dance in your lounge room. Have a moonlit picnic in the backyard. Or hold hands for a stroll around the local park. Whatever you do, make sure to take the time to cherish this relationship.

Watch the self-talk. We can be really horrible to ourselves, especially when we’re feeling down. “I’m fat”, “I’m hopeless”, “I’m a terrible dad/mum/partner”, “I’m a failure” – sound familiar? The critical things we say to ourselves really undermine our mood and our mental health. They can be so destructive. Some simple things you can do to negate these thoughts are:

  • Ask yourself if you’d talk to someone else the way you talk to yourself. The answer is likely no, so don’t talk to yourself this way. This is often easier said than done, and like any new habit it will require practise, but keep at it.
  • Ask yourself why you think you’re any of these things. And don’t be overly critical of yourself. Again ask yourself if you’d judge others with these labels, or so harshly.
  • Address these thoughts. If you think you’re overweight, and that makes you unhappy, what can you do to work on this? If you think you’re hopeless, why? It’s such a vague concept. What makes you think it? Is there something underlying it, or you’ve just had a bad day when a bunch of things haven’t worked out as you’d hoped.
  • Now give yourself a break. We’re all living, working and existing in a really trying and stressful time, so we need to be kind to ourselves and others.

Stay active. One of the best things you can do to boost your mood is regular exercise. When you exercise your body releases chemicals such as endorphins, serotonin and dopamine into your bloodstream. They’re often called ‘feel-good’ chemicals because they boost your mood and make you feel good. They also interact with receptors in your brain and ‘turn down the volume’ on your pain system. Exercise has so many other wonderful benefits. That’s why we go on and on about it.

Be careful with alcohol and other drugs. Research by The Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) has found that since the pandemic began more Australians are drinking, and people are drinking more. While you might think alcohol makes you feel better, and more able to cope with your anxiety and stress, alcohol is actually a depressant and will affect your mood, ability to sleep and can make existing mental health issues worse. Find out more in this article from Beyond Blue. The ADF also has an online tool to help you change your habits if you’re finding yourself drinking too much.

We often focus so much on our physical health, that caring for our mental health tends to be pushed to the side. There are just too many other commitments competing for our time and energy. But we need to take care of our mental health so that we feel strong and resilient enough to get through these constantly changing and crazy times. This article has just skimmed the surface of the many things you can do to look after your mental health.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, sad, stressed, afraid or angry, decide to do something about it. You can feel better, you can take control. One step at a time.

Crisis support

If this article has raised some issues with you or you feel like you need help during this stressful time, there’s help available. Contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 for 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention.

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about things like managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

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Musculoskeletal Australia (or MSK) is the consumer organisation working with, and advocating on behalf of, people with arthritis, osteoporosis, back pain, gout and over 150 other musculoskeletal conditions.

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