Hand wash – 20 seconds. Social distancing – 6 feet. No handshake. Wipe surfaces with disinfectant. Sanitize your surroundings. We get precise advice on physical hygiene in these times of the coronavirus pandemic which we need to observe in the interests of our own safety and health. Prevention is better than cure. Similarly, mental health professionals need to disseminate correct information about how to follow mental hygiene. Just as there are certain methods to keep ourselves physically fit and healthy, there are methods to aid our psychological wellbeing.
Mental hygiene refers to measures to promote positive mental health and facilitate an individual’s social-emotional resilience and growth. People’s general neglect of emotional and psychological well- being of their own and utter disregard for the welfare of others or our surroundings is well known. Perhaps this time of crisis is the right time for all people to introspect, mend relationships, return to basics and curtail selfish materialism. Maybe this will bring people together to frame policies and undertake actions that have ecological validity and are humane, not based only on man’s greed and gain alone.
Here are some guidelines individuals can follow in today’s stressful times to lead a mentally healthy and emotionally-socially fulfilling life:
- Eating well, exercising daily, staying socially connected (not to be confused with ‘social distancing’) will go a long way in improving your psychological resilience. Body and mind are inextricably intertwined. Take care of your body; it’s the only place you have to live in!
- Up your emotional quotient. Pay attention to your emotions – how do you feel right now? Acknowledging your feelings is the first step. In any crisis, it is ok to feel anxious, sad, and worried. If these feelings are prolonged, acute, or cause severe disruption in your life, it is NOT OK to gloss over them or be in denial. As a society, we are overly concerned about appearances and how others will judge us and we will go at great pains to talk, dress, behave and appear in ways which we believe our social circle approves of. A lot of us do not openly acknowledge our anxieties and fears let alone reach out for help. Prolonged exposure to stressful situations result in a surge of mental disorders as a large number of post-war post-traumatic stress disorders [PSTD] cases in war-ravaged countries and natural and man-made disasters have time and again proven. In any situation, ‘acknowledge – accept – act’ and you can prevent yourself and others from suffering from mental illnesses.
- Physical distancing from others, a vital necessity in these dire times, is playing havoc with our relationships. Human beings are social creatures and we all need for some form of human contact. We feel strongly bound to our families and friends and when we are cut off from them we feel insecure and afraid. On the plus side, there is easy availability of technology to make it possible to connect with anyone in the world. Make full use of this to stay in touch with your loved ones, your life-lines. This is the time you can reach out to your others over the telephone, video calls and conference calls. Resist any tendency to isolate yourself totally or to turn to virtual strangers on the internet leading to superficial [and potentially dangerous] connections.
- Couples and family members can be ‘too much’ into each other as they are 24 X 7 at home. Already fragile relationships can become more strained. This is the time to be patient, mindful, be tolerant, and exercise restraint. Have some family ‘we’ time together and sharing chores is important. At the same time, see if each of you can pursue your individual activities and have some ‘me’ time to yourselves, in the interest of healthier relationships.
- Break up the monotony: A change of pace [if not place] can perk us up in these trying times. Maybe you can set the table, light candles and dress up for dinner for a romantic dinner with your partner or watch a movie and have a date night at home! Humour can not only liven up your surroundings but give you a new perspective on life as well.
- Children can drive you round the bend in these weeks of isolation! Ensure they have some fun and meaningful activities to keep them engaged and restrict gadget time or you will have a hard time getting them to accept their routine once the isolation is over. Have a gadget-free time for the whole family. Use this time to bond with your family - read books, study, play board games, organize a family quiz, try out a new recipe together – the list is open to your imagination.
- Take up a hobby or renew old ones. Read a book, write, paint, learn music - the possibilities are endless. There are a number of online courses - you could sign up for anything you fancy. You can learn a new skill/training which will help you in your work now that you have time on your hands.
- Limit social media. Yes! Let it not become an obsession just because it is readily and freely available. It can be addictive. The problem is to separate the chaff from the grain - there is an overload of information and wild and absurd theories and remedies abound. Hate-groups abound. Emotional contagion is subtle – avoid those who revel in doomsday predictions and negativity/hateful outlook. Do not believe everything you see and read, do a fact-check when in doubt. Stick to trustworthy sources and follow authentic advice. Stay away from frequently checking for epidemic statistics, doomsday predictions, and sharing them in virtual groups.
- Act upon what you have control over. Each of us can contribute in some way in controlling the spread of this epidemic. Let us do whatever we can. The more we feel we can take some responsibility in the control of the epidemic, the more we are likely to act proactively. This can give us a renewed sense of control over our lives, otherwise, we may succumb to doom and despair.
- Continue your routine in times of no- routine. Just because you are at home does not mean you need not keep up your schedule of waking up, bathing, eating, working – all at your usual time.
- Avoid alcohol and binging on food/movies/social media. In reality, their overuse only aggravates problems. There are so many other ways to forget your worries and keep you in good spirits.
- Practice yoga, mindfulness, and meditation. Express gratitude for at least 10 things in your life at present. If you are in the habit of daily prayers, this is the time to do it for all humanity. Belief in a higher power or a universal consciousness binding us, plus a belief that each one of us is here for a purpose and a ‘this- too- will- pass’ attitude have all proven to aid in persistence and discipline which are helpful in times of crises.
- Reach out to people less privileged than yourself. You can volunteer for numerous initiatives present. In many apartment complexes, people have formed groups to supply food to single or senior citizens and to help those in need. The psychological pay-offs for you of this exercise are immeasurable.
- Get help when you need it. Seeking help is a sign of strength — not a weakness and earlier the better. People who get appropriate care and recover from psychological setbacks can lead to full, rewarding lives.
In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ Viktor Frankl, founding father of existential psychology and logotherapy details his experiences of the Nazi camp at Auschwitz. He identified three psychological reactions experienced by people in severe deprivation and crisis:
1. shock during the initial phase
2. apathy after becoming accustomed to their adverse situation
3. depersonalization, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment.
Even after liberation, people were not able to come to terms with the new reality. Frankl concluded that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. He opined that a person's psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his life, but also from the freedom of choice one always has even in conditions of severe suffering. He found that in the most debilitating circumstances what differentiated the survivors was that they held on to some semblance of normalcy by having a routine, reaching out to and socializing with other inmates, and believing that someone or something good was waiting for them at the end of the ordeal. It is only in this way people can develop resilience to overcome adversity. The theory of existentialism propounded about a century ago, is still relevant in today’s stressful times.
Today, millions are isolated, afraid, anxious, sad, and worried. We are already living in an age where anxiety and depression are peaking, substance abuse is high, people are already stressed and relationship crises are common. Post endemic, we anticipate an economic crisis and loss of jobs and livelihood globally. In the years to come psychologists will need to be prepared for mental health issues of epic proportions. As the Covid-19 pandemic explodes around us morbidity and mortality rates climb, rumors abound, social media usage is at an all-time high and there is forced isolation – all of which will all take its toll on people. Mental health issues will burst out in the open in the case of sub-liminal psychopathologies or create new problems.
My submission is - along with Physical Hygiene, practice Mental Hygiene. May you stay safe and healthy!