by Caryl Teh

During this COVID-19 pandemic, remember that your state of mind can affect your mental well-being, for better or worse. So while it is important to take care of the physical health of ourselves and those around us, it is perhaps even more important to keep your mind strong. So here are seven mental habits we recommend to help you stay resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Check the news, less often

It might be your natural instinct to check coronavirus trackers several times a day to get the latest numbers on COVID-19 new cases and deaths. But in truth, research has found that such behaviour is a predictor that you will respond badly in crisis. This is because an excess of bad news can trigger our fight-or-flight response. Research found that after 9/11, those who watched the news for several hours a day were more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and physical problems two to three years later. 

This is why experts suggest picking two trusted sources for updated information (eg. the Centre for Disease Control or the World Health Organisation, and an official Malaysian news source), and check it only once a day.

2. Limit social media time

During MCO while we’re stuck at home, many of us naturally turn to social media to feel more connected and fill our “extra” time.  But the danger in social media is that platforms’ algorithms are often programmed to spread news that gets the most attention, no matter how inaccurate. So chances are, the more upsetting the story, the more likely it is to spread. Research on 3,890 college students who were in a lockdown because of an active shooter found that social media quickly became a source for upsetting and untrue rumours.

3. Focus on self-care

Sleep, food, cleanliness: these are the everyday things that seem little, but subconsciously hugely affect your mental resilience. It will be difficult to make the most of each day if you’re running on a lack of sleep, not fuelling properly or maintaining your personal hygiene.

We recommend planning your meals ahead of time so you don’t just reach for the nearest snack whenever you feel peckish. If you’re having trouble sleeping, try one of these:

(a) Breathe: shut your eyes, take a deep breath for 4 second, hold it for 7, then breathe out for 8 second while trying to feel every muscle of your body relax, one by one from your head to your toes. Repeat this 4 times.

(b) Visualise yourself in a peaceful place, or doing something well or something that makes you happy: this will help you relax. For example cooking your favourite dish, jogging through a scenic park with rejuvenating, fresh air or throwing.

(c) Tap the rhythm of your favourite song lightly on your legs, and gradually slow down: your brain has a tendency to be drawn in by a rhythmic pattern (this is the same reason why you tap your feet or bob your head while listening to music). 

4. Diversify your schedule 

MCO means you save some time because you don’t have to commute. So you can try things that you’ve always wanted to, but never had time to before.

(a) Relax your mind – slow things down:
Doing gentle stretches and light exercises like meditation and yoga get you to slow down, focus on your breathing, reduce stress, and thus improve and enrich your mental and physical health.

(b) Refresh your mind – tap into your creative side:
Creative things have proven to be the most refreshing and rejuvenating for your brain. For example, cooking, arts and crafts, or playing musical instruments.

(c) Challenge your mind – stimulate your intellect:
Read a book, magazine, or article. Physical libraries may be closed now, but there are plenty of resources online like ebooks or audiobooks. Listen to a podcast, watch a film or do a puzzle. Maybe take an online course at EdX, FutureLearn or OpenLearn.

5. Stay connected with community

Research suggests that people who engage in supportive, positive relationships produce more oxytocin, which can boost our immune system, allow us to physically heal quicker, and mean we are less likely to experience stress, anxiety, and depression. So every morning when you wake up, think of two people you want to stay connected with over the day.

With so many technological options, you can stay connected with friends that you’d normally see in person by arranging to catch up over a phone call, or types or voice messages. Share a meal, watch a movie or play online games together over video call on apps like Zoom or Houseparty. Maybe read a book separately so that you can discuss it when you contact each other. 

If you’re starting to feel anxious about COVID-19 or staying at home more than usual, you may find it helpful to talk about these worries with someone you trust to help you find a more positive perspective when struggling, especially since we’re all in the same MCO. Try to be that support and encouragement for someone else too, because helping others is known to help boost our own mental well-being.

If your friends are unavailable to catch up and home is starting to feel too quiet, it might help to look through or put up pictures of the people you care about – it’s a loving reminder of the people in your life. Or maybe listen to a chatty radio station or podcast.

6. Practice gratitude

Practicing gratitude for the things we do have has been shown again and again to be hugely beneficial to mental health. We recommend that you start a gratefulness notebook. Start every new day on a positive note by writing down at least three things that you are grateful for.

7. Decide on your routine

It’s a good idea to keep track of the habits you want to keep and things you want to do on different days on a paper schedule or list and put it on the wall where you can see it. This will help you keep your motivation levels up and your mind focused on things that help you find meaning and purpose. It’ll be easier for you to stay productive and feel fulfilled by how well you are using your time.