How to Help Your Mental Health: Our Tips During Isolation
Social isolation is something that affects many people from time to time. Some of us, for instance, experience periods of isolation during bad weather or when we can’t get out and about because of health problems.
Then came the coronavirus crisis, which imposed the need for social isolation on a massive scale. The pandemic introduced the concept of lockdown and shielding not just here in the UK but to billions of people across the world. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the effect on many people’s mental health hasn’t been a positive one.
An international study, led by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Spain, suggests 57 per cent of people in the UK felt down or depressed during the lockdown (i). Meanwhile King’s College London experts analysed the results of an Ipsos MORI survey (ii),and found 44 per cent of people were experiencing negative mental health as a result of the pandemic and the social isolation caused by the lockdown. Of that 44 per cent, 93 per cent said they felt more anxious and depressed than before, 64 per cent had more sleeping difficulties, and 34 per cent said they thought about coronavirus all the time.
It is, of course, perfectly normal to feel worried and vulnerable during periods of isolation and crisis. But if you’re constantly fretting about the situation, it could get you down so much that you may find life a struggle. Thankfully there are things you can do to help ease your worries and boost your mood.
Looking after your mental health
Eating and Exercise
It’s generally accepted that what you eat can have a direct effect not just on your physical but also your mental wellbeing. Eating lots of sugary, fatty or processed foods may seem like a comforting idea, but keeping to a nutritious, well-balanced diet will better help support your mind and body, especially when you’re experiencing challenging times.
Try to have five portions of fruit and vegetables every day, as these foods contain nutrients that can help you feel calmer and in a more positive mood. Eating plenty of fruit and veg will also help support your immune system and keep it working effectively. And remember, even when you can’t get out to the shops to buy fresh foods as often as usual, you can still rely on frozen and tinned fruit and veg since these also count towards your 5 A Day.
Also try to drink plenty of fluids to keep your hydration levels up. Aim for at least six to eight glasses a day – water is a great choice, but you could also have lower-fat milk, sugar-free drinks and even tea and coffee (opt for caffeine-free versions when possible).
Keep moving for a better mood
Exercise may be the last thing on your mind if you’re feeling anxious. But if you’re spending a lot of time home alone it can help in two ways. First it helps improve your mood, as physical activity releases compounds into your system called endorphins. Often called ‘happy’ hormones, these can help you feel calm and more content. Setting regular time aside for exercise can also help you create a routine, which can help you stay motivated.
Try following an exercise DVD if you have one. You could also search YouTube for free online workouts – there are countless to choose from, whatever your exercise preference. Even dancing to your favourite music can help to release those ‘happy’ hormones. Sing along while you dance, and you could give your mental wellbeing a further boost, as according to the NHS music has the power to reduce stress and anxiety while at the same time improving immune function (iii).
You could also try to stay more active in general. For example, try marching on the spot when you’re brushing your teeth, do some calf or toe raises while doing the washing up and a few star jumps when you’re waiting for the kettle to boil. If it’s safe to do so you could also use your stairs to get in some cardio activity – though only attempt running up and down them if you’re already reasonably fit and healthy (always check with your GP if you have a medical condition or if you’re not very active before starting any exercise that’s new to you).
If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, tending to your plants can help keep you active, plus it will make sure you get a daily dose of sunshine. If you don’t have any access to an outdoor space, try to get as much natural light as you can – even sitting near a window can be beneficial.
More mental wellbeing tips
Eating healthily and staying as physically active as the situation will allow can go a long way to support your wellbeing, both physical and mental. But there are other things you can do too:
Stick to a routine
Trying to get on with life as normally as possible may not sound easy when you’re isolated from others, but it can help relieve stress and worry. Consider getting up at the same time every morning and going to bed at your usual time, and stick to all those other things you tend to do every day, such as having meals at set times. Even doing seemingly mundane tasks like cleaning and other household chores can help, not just because they reinforce your routine but because they also help keep you active.
Meanwhile if you’re in isolation because of a situation such as the coronavirus outbreak, it’s a good idea to schedule when you read or watch the news. Only use trusted news channels and websites as your source of information, such as government and NHS websites. And try not to read or watch the news more than once or twice a day – exposing yourself to constant news in this type of situation could easily make your anxiety levels even higher.
Whenever you’re unable to socialise in person for a while, it’s important to stay in touch with your friends and family as often as possible. It’s a great idea to use social media websites to stay connected, but try to pick up the phone as often as possible too, as it can be very reassuring to hear another person’s voice in real time. If you can make video calls using services such as Facetime, Skype or WhatsApp that may be even better, as you may feel more connected to the person you’re speaking to if you can see their face.
Keep your mind busy
Distracting yourself can help take your mind off your worries, so think about what you could do to keep your mind stimulated. Perhaps you could start a new hobby that you can do indoors, or start doing something creative such as painting, drawing, writing or making music.
Another way of distracting yourself is to use games and puzzles. According to the mental health charity Mind, some people say playing games and doing puzzles helps when they are in a crisis, because it gives them something else to think about (iv). Try searching online for websites and apps that provide jigsaws (try jigsawplanet.com), crosswords, Sudoku, chess and other games and puzzles.
However, if you’re not in the mood to take up a new hobby or create an artistic masterpiece just yet, remember you don’t have to do anything at all if you don’t want to. Take some pressure off yourself and remember, whatever you’re doing that helps you to cope is fine.
Make time to destress
Adding time for relaxation to your daily routine routine will help lower your stress levels. Think about doing something at the same time every day that makes you feel calm. There are things you can do to bring down your stress levels quickly, such as a few minutes of deep breathing exercises. When you have more time, you could have a go at a visualisation exercise, which involves you picturing yourself somewhere you feel completely relaxed.
Mind has some relaxation exercises you could try, including how-to steps on doing a simple visualisation. If visualisation isn’t for you, try anything that usually makes you feel less stressed or worried. For more way to reduce stress, read our guide.
If you’re not getting a good night’s sleep it can affect both your physical and mental wellbeing. The problem is that it’s hard to sleep when you’re worried about something, because as soon as your head hits the pillow your mind starts racing.
Having a wind-down routine before going to bed may help you relax and get both your mind and body ready for sleep. Set aside some time to do something that makes you feel relaxed and sleepy every evening before bedtime. At the same time try not to drink anything that contains caffeine at night – such as tea, coffee, caffeinated soft drinks or hot chocolate – as caffeine can keep you awake. Instead have a cup of calming herbal tea, or some plain warm milk.
It’s also a good idea to avoid eating a big meal before going to bed, especially foods that may give you indigestion or heartburn such as spicy or acidic foods. On the other hand, having a light snack – a small bowl of cereal, for instance – could help you sleep better, as it could help stop you waking up feeling hungry.
There are lots more tips to help you sleep in our insomnia guide.
Steer clear of unhealthy habits
For some people, drinking alcohol, smoking and using recreational drugs may seem like a way of tackling anxiety, boredom and social isolation. But all of these things can be harmful to your health, so in the long run they will create even more problems.
Whenever anxiety gets the better of you and you feel the urge to indulge in an unhealthy habit, try stopping whatever you’re doing for just a few minutes until the feeling passes. Sit somewhere comfortably and breathe in and out slowly and deeply. Imagine there’s a balloon in your stomach that fills up when you inhale and slowly deflates when you exhale.
Keep a journal
Writing down your thoughts and feelings may be helpful, as it can help offload your emotions. For instance, make a note of things that make you smile or feel happy during your day, as well as all the things you’re grateful for. If you’re feeling worried or anxious, write these thoughts down too as you experience them. Seeing your words in black and white could help you gain some perspective.
Get further help
If you’re currently being treated for a health problem, it’s important to keep taking your medication and to make sure you don’t run out. Call the pharmacy you usually use to get your prescription medicines, and ask if they offer repeat prescription and delivery.
Your GP may also be offering telephone consultations if you can’t get out to see them but need to speak to them about a health problem or an ongoing treatment – call your surgery to find out what’s available.
Meanwhile the following organisations offer useful advice that may help if you’re experiencing mental health difficulties while in isolation:
Natural ways to support your mental wellbeing
If you’re socially isolating, it’s still a good idea to keep your immune system as healthy as possible. Taking a good-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement – particularly one that offers good levels of zinc and B vitamins – can help make sure your body is getting the nutrients it needs, especially if you’re not eating as healthily as usual. There’s even some evidence that taking a multivitamin may help you cope with stressful situations more effectively (v). Taking certain nutritional supplements may also help you to cope with isolation-related difficulties, such as anxiety, stress, low mood, depression and poor sleep.
With a history of traditional use for the temporary relief of sleep problems and mild anxiety, valerian may be a good choice you’re not sleeping well. Indeed, studies suggest it may help improve sleep quality (vi).
St John’s wort
St John’s wort is a popular herbal remedy used for the relief of slightly low mood and mild anxiety, based on traditional use only. There’s evidence it may be more effective than a placebo at treating mild to moderate depression (vi), with studies suggesting it’s as effective as some popular prescription antidepressants (viii). If you’re taking any other medicines be aware that St John’s wort may interact with some other medicines. One of the medicines St John’s Wort is thought to affect is the contraceptive pill, so always consult your GP before taking it.
This traditional Ayurvedic herb is often used to help with tiredness, fatigue and stress. Indeed, a small-scale study suggests ashwagandha may reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol (ix), while another found 88 per cent of trial participants felt less anxious after taking it (x).
5-HTP – or 5-Hydroxytryptophan – is an amino acid that’s often used as a remedy for depression and low mood. Some studies suggest it may be as effective as conventional antidepressants (xi). There’s also some evidence that 5-HTP may help with anxiety disorders (xii).
Rhodiola is a herb used traditionally throughout Europe for stress relief. Its roots contain many active ingredients, including rosavin and salidroside. There is some evidence it may help reduce anxiety and stress more effectively than a placebo (xiii), with one study finding it effective in people with burnout symptoms (xiv). Elsewhere experts have found it may improve mental alertness in people with sleep difficulties (xv).
Found almost exclusively in green, black, oolong and pekoe tea, theanine is a non-protein amino acid that’s thought to help your brain produce calming alpha waves. Studies suggest taking a theanine supplement may help you feel more relaxed without making you drowsy (xvi).
Lavender aromatherapy oil
Lavender essential oil has a long-established tradition of helping you feel more relaxed and to sleep better. One study even suggests lavender oil may be an effective natural way of treating the signs of anxiety (xvii). Try having a warm bath with a drop or two of lavender oil before bedtime to help you sleep more peacefully.
Dealing with isolation can be very challenging, especially if you’re stuck at home on your own. And if you share your home with friends or family, being isolated for a long time can make you feel overwhelmed and even trapped. This guide may offer some ways to help you feel better until life gets back to normal.
For more advice on managing your emotions, visit the mental health section of our health library.
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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.