How can we continue to protect our mental health at this time?

A study carried out by Aware looked at our mental state as we navigate the pandemic, says Colette Sheridan
How can we continue to protect our mental health at this time?

Small, simple acts like buying yourself flowers to brighten up a room, are good for your mental health. Picture: Stock

FEELING A bit out of sorts? Aren’t we all, living with a pandemic that refuses to go away. I wake up every morning and try to gauge my mood. Some days, I can feel upbeat. Other days, I have the blues. But thankfully, not the full and debilitating black dog that has blighted me at times.

We are all conscious of our mental health these days as Covid wears us down. While I have a desire to go away somewhere, the thought of negotiating an airport and doing tests to ensure I’m Covid-negative, is off-putting. And besides, even if I rocked up somewhere in the sun, I wouldn’t be able to escape the pandemic. That’s what is so awful about it. There’s no escape.

It’s not surprising that new research carried out by mental health charity, Aware, reveals a widespread negative view of ourselves, the world and other people during the peak of the 2021 lockdown. The study shows that, in a time of global threat, negative feelings and beliefs may be “realistic, appropriate and normal”.

The aim of the study is to identify appropriate psycholoGical interventions to protect the mental health of the population during this difficult time. Those who self-medicate may treat their low feelings by crawling under the duvet or by taking refuge in alcohol. But that’s not going to solve anything.

The research findings highlight the importance of developing positive mental wellbeing during the pandemic. Positive psychology can help. It emphasises positive emotions such as empathy and gratitude. It may be helpful for those experiencing depressive symptoms.

Positive psychology teaches us the power of shifting our perspective. Just deciding to inject a bit more optimism and gratitude into our lives is a simple exercise that can give us a much more positive outlook on life. 

Mind you, if you’re seriously unwell, out of work, trying to get by on social welfare and living in a small space with others, positive psychology must seem totally unattainable.

However, there are ways of improving our quality of life if there are not too many obstacles in the way. For example, gratitude really does contribute to happiness in life. When I get down, I remind myself that I’m lucky to have work. And not contracting Covid (so far - as Beckett might have said) is something to be thankful for. (That I go around the house talking to myself might indicate that I’ve gone a bit barmy, but so what?)

Happiness, they say, is contagious. Those with happy friends and significant others are more likely to be happy in the future. Small, simple actions can have a significant impact on our happiness. Buy some flowers to brighten up the kitchen. Volunteer or spend money on other people. However, before you think there’s a quick fix to feeling down, take heed. Positive psychology research shows that forcing people who are not naturally optimists to ‘just think positively’ can do more harm than good. Unrealistic optimism can be detrimental, along with intense pessimism.

The main author of the Aware study, Dr Keith Gaynor, has said that the research found “that negative thoughts were pretty universal. Having negative thoughts during a pandemic is a pretty normal, natural reaction. This is a really negative event and there’s something really important about normalising feeling negative about a lockdown or other negative events that we’re experiencing.

“However, when we looked to see what the core differences were between those who are depressed and those who are not depressed, you could see that people who are not depressed have had negative thoughts, but were able to balance them with positive thoughts.”

The study looked at what makes up positive components.

“It was things like empathy for people who were suffering, gratitude for the positive aspects of people’s own situations, and compassion for neighbours, friends and family who were in difficult situations.”

The message is that we don’t necessarily need to challenge negative thoughts but people need to be helped to build positive responses of empathy, compassion and gratitude to help protect our mental health.

If you think people are taking refuge in drink, according to the Healthy Ireland Survey 2021, 42% of drinkers state they’re actually drinking less and binge drinking is down significantly. It has reduced to 15% of the population as compared to 28% before the pandemic.

If your ‘Covid stone’ is getting you down, you’re not alone. Almost three out of ten people report that their weight has increased with weight increases reported most often by women over thirty and mothers. And let’s not think what Christmas is going to do to our waistlines.

The best advice to be grateful for what’s positive in our lives. Covid is a bummer but don’t let it spoil everything.

If you are concerned about any of the issues raised in this piece, contact, support is at hand:

Samaritans 116 123 Aware Helpline: 1890 303 302 GROW 1890 474 474 Pieta House 1800 247 247

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