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How to protect your mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic

In an extract from his new e-book, Prof Brendan Kelly advises on ways to cope with the psychological strain of these extraordinary times

Coronavirus presents the world with two problems. The first problem is the illness caused by the new coronavirus itself, Covid-19. The second problem is the anxiety and panic that the virus triggers in the minds of virtually everyone who hears about it.

Both problems are very real and both can be solved.

The solution to the first problem — the illness itself — lies in the hands of health authorities, the governments that fund them, and everyone who follows public health advice about hand-washing, coughing etiquette, not touching our faces, physical distancing and staying at home if feeling unwell. These methods work.

My e-book, Coping with Coronavirus, concerns the second problem, which is far more widespread and which will likely persist long after this particular virus has passed. This problem is anxiety and panic. Addressing these involves changes to how we manage our intake of knowledge from the media, how we deal with our thoughts and emotions, how we change our behaviour, and how we see our place in a new and changed world.

This adapted extract from the book focuses on how to manage our intake of information about the outbreak, especially from the media.

Managing our media intake about coronavirus

The world is awash with information, advice, speculation, rumours and falsehoods about coronavirus. Some of the material is useful and reliable, such as the facts and advice provided on the websites of the WHO (www.who.int), the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (www.cdc.gov), the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) (www.nhs.uk) and Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) (www.hse.ie). Reputable medical journals such as The Lancet (www.thelancet.com) and BMJ (www.bmj.com) have made extensive information and breaking research freely available to health professionals and the public. There are a lot of reliable resources out there.

The problem is that much of this good information is being swept away by oceans of misleading, uninformed and false information, especially on social media. Therefore, while it is very important to stay informed about coronavirus, it is equally important to curate your sources of information with care and to prioritise reliable sources. To this end, the three suggestions here focus on knowing what we need to know about coronavirus and limiting the impact of false, misleading and exaggerated information.

Do stay informed about coronavirus (but do not obsess)

First, stay informed about coronavirus but do not obsess about it. While coronavirus is certainly very bad news (there is absolutely nothing good about it), we amplify its negative psychological effects if we obsess over the repetitive media coverage and if we consume every single update from every single country every single day. While it is good to stay informed, it is not necessary to read about each case as it is diagnosed in each country around the world. Enough is enough.

Social media is especially pernicious because so much of it is driven not by facts, but by emotion, bias, prejudice and lies. This is regrettable. Social media can do much good by providing rapid information and facilitating supportive networks. But in times of panic, the negatives most commonly outweigh the positives on social media, unless we take active steps to limit our consumption, think critically about what we read, and refrain from amplifying false or misleading information within our own information communities.

So, that is the first piece of advice in this psychological toolkit: Limit your media intake about coronavirus to certain periods of the day and only use sources you can trust. Restrict your media consumption about the pandemic to two 15-minute periods each day, one in the morning and one in the evening. Try to ignore everything else about coronavirus for the rest of the day, unless it directly concerns you, your family or your work. Tune-in to the global situation twice daily only. Set a media limit for each day and stick to it, no matter what.

Don’t fill in knowledge gaps with speculation or random musings on social media (there are some things we simply do not know)

Coronavirus is not fully understood. The gaps in our knowledge are being researched all the time, but results are slow to come in. As a result, we need to live with a certain level of uncertainty about the virus and the illness that it causes. There is, however, a tendency to fill these information gaps with speculation and guesses, many of which are presented as facts.

False information has two negative effects. First, some people might believe the falsehoods, share them with other people, and spread misinformation, possibly unwittingly. This problem can be addressed by focusing on information sources that you trust, asking yourself if what you read seems reasonable, exercising critical thought about all the information you come across, and thinking twice before repeating information to other people, especially if you are uncertain about it. This approach might be described as ‘information mindfulness’ — maintaining a keen awareness of what you are reading and what it really means. This should also protect against the tendency among some people to compulsively read negative information and therefore stoke their own anxiety.

The second problem with false information is a much more insidious one. It stems from the fact that, even if we don’t believe what we read, the information still has an effect on us emotionally or subconsciously. In other words, even if our logical brain dismisses some information as false, that information can still have an emotional effect of which we might be unaware. Over time, these small emotional effects can silently accumulate, even if our logical brain dismisses the anxiety-provoking information every time we read it. In the end, this anxiety emerges one way or another in our lives, in the form of anxiety attacks, panic disorder or even depression.

This problem can be addressed by not only limiting our media intake to certain times of the day and restricting ourselves to trusted sources, but also ‘reality-testing’ all information as soon as we read it and developing enhanced emotional awareness about how our media consumption affects our moods. For example, if you ever feel generally anxious without knowing precisely why, it is good to review both what you did and what media you consumed during the day. Perhaps your media consumption is silently affecting your mood in ways that you do not notice at the time. It all builds up.

Identifying these kinds of negative patterns is the first step towards changing them. And, as part of this, you should not add to the problem for yourself and others by filling knowledge gaps about coronavirus with speculation or random musings on social media: There are some things that we simply do not know. For now, we need to live with a certain amount of uncertainty about coronavirus.

Do try to know yourself better (this will help you navigate the challenges more mindfully and with greater self-awareness)

We spend an increasing proportion of our lives online and, for many, social media occupies a great deal of that time. Despite these trends, most of us have little conscious awareness, if any, of what our information habits are: Which pieces of information we believe, which sources we go to for amusement rather than knowledge, and the effect that all of this has on our inner lives. This is a real pity.

Gaining self-knowledge is one of the key steps towards achieving deeper happiness. As a result, most of us need to develop greater awareness of both the stresses in our lives and the simple steps that we can take to reduce them. On the other side of the equation, it is also useful to consciously list out the activities that we enjoy and that make us happy, and see can we find more space for these in our lives. These are two of the key habits for happiness: Consciously and deliberately identifying stresses and managing them as best as possible, and identifying things that make us happy and optimising these as much as is feasible.

Building these habits for happiness helps us to cope better when exceptional stresses enter our lives, such as serious illness, personal loss and the uncertainties associated with coronavirus. By reflecting on our lives with greater focus, and possibly discussing these issues with friends, we can identify patterns and habits that we may need to change. Such change can be dramatic or incremental. In relation to social media, for example, there is a compelling argument to delete all your social media accounts in one fell swoop. Alternatively, you could aim to limit your use in other ways or reduce your screen-time by 10 per cent each week for four or five weeks, and see how you get on. Small steps have big effects. Drama is rarely necessary and seldom sustainable.

There are also many other areas in our lives that we can change in order to strengthen our habits for happiness, in addition to reflecting on what truly stresses us and what makes us happy. In the current climate of anxiety and panic about coronavirus, it is especially important that we try to know ourselves better and understand how our emotional lives actually work. In ancient Greece, this advice was summarised in two words: ‘Know thyself.’ Heeding that suggestion will help us to navigate the challenges we face with greater mindfulness, self-awareness and resilience.

Prof Brendan Kelly is Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of Coping with Coronavirus. How to Stay Calm and Protect your Mental Health: A Psychological Toolkit (Merrion Press).

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