This article appeared in the NZ Herald on Wednesday the 18th of March 2020.
You might lose your job, and you can’t stop looking at your plummeting KiwiSaver.
You worry the kids’ schools will eventually close and your usual back-up babysitters, your own parents, are those most at risk of a virus that is deadliest among older people.
There’s no sport, no arts and going to a restaurant or bar makes you feel like an unvaccinated person kissing a baby during a measles epidemic.
There’s no escape, either. You, effectively, can’t leave the country, and pretty much everywhere’s worse off anyway.
People you love might get sick. You might get sick.
This is life in a coronavirus pandemic.
It’s okay to feel afraid, psychotherapist and mental health advocate Kyle MacDonald said.
“This is a big deal, and it’s happened really quickly.
“But be gentle on yourself and others … it’s important to avoid either extremes [of reaction], sliding into panic mode and being overfocused on the threat, versus sliding into denial.”
You can’t hide from the situation, but you can make good choices about how you hear about it.
Consistent, reliable information from the Ministry of Health, yes. Uninformed reckons from strangers on social media, or your neighbour over the fence, no, MacDonald said.
Setting rules about accessing this information was also a good way to cope when it felt like everything was out of control.
Allowing yourself to check updates once or twice a day was a good idea, Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said.
“Don’t binge on the news about Covid-19, don’t binge on the social media about it. Give yourself breaks from worrying or thinking about this.”
There were lots of healthy ways to take these breaks, MacDonald said, such as going out and leaving your device at home, playing with your children or animals or watching comedies on TV.
Good food, helping others and getting plenty of exercise and sleep were other ways to help cope in good times and bad.
Social media overuse was best avoided, but the ever-growing contribution of funny memes, especially from the bored and self-isolated, should be enjoyed.
“It’s really important that we keep our sense of humour. We know that it’s a great stress relief and helps with [reducing stress hormone] cortisol.”
“CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19”#stewardmeme
Connect without touching
And while it’s never been appropriate to spit in others’ faces, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s advice to take a break from hongi, hugs and handshakes meant finding other – non-touching – ways to connect.
There’s Ardern’s suggestion – the brow-raising East Coast wave.
But eyebrow raise or elbow bump aside, even just having a chat – or eating out – at a safe distance from others will help you feel connected at a time when so many are being encouraged to stay at home, even by their workplaces.
“Working from home doesn’t mean being alone. The challenge is you have to be proactive.”
You don’t bump into friends and chat as you would at work, so you need to make that happen in other ways, MacDonald said.
And don’t forget to take breaks.
“In an office you have lots of micro-breaks. It’s ok to do it at home too.”
Getting outside helped, in work-time or not, and in this instance New Zealand was luckier than many. Social distancing in nature isn’t an issue – we have plenty of space.
“A great thing about New Zealand is there’s lots of places you can get into nature, and that’s very good for us.”
For those managing long-term mental distress, such as bipolar or anxiety, the situation is challenging, Robinson said.
Advice to wash hands thoroughly for 20 seconds was hard for those managing obsessive compulsive disorders, but there were strategies to help.
“Try to manage that by being strict about how you do it. Put a timer on. And then have something to distract you immediately, a book or something to watch. Friends and family can also help … let them remind you of the time limit.”
While scientists work to find a vaccine for coronavirus, there’s already an antidote for helping everyone get through the mental distress it was causing, and we have it, Robinson said.
“One of the big antidotes to this is kindness and connection to one another. Look for ways to help others. We can control that.”
We’re already doing it.
On a reply to a post by Facebook post by psychologist and television presenter Nigel Latta urging people to take heed of advice not to expose others to the virus, but also urging people to “most of all …. don’t lose your shit”, an expectant mum expressed her fears for the future as she planned to deliver her baby today.
Among the flood of supportive responses, a fellow mum shared another take on the future.
“For the rest of your life you will be able to tell your child, ‘Dude, you were born during a pandemic, and you survived it. You can get through this too’. Same for you: you gave birth during a pandemic, and coped with it physically and mentally.
“You can get through this too.”