Tumultuous, stressful and challenging are some words that come to mind when describing the year many have had, for various reasons related to the coronavirus pandemic.
And just as the world was slowly settling back into some semblance of normality, a mutated strain of the virus forced several countries to introduce new safety measures and restrictions, putting a dampener on December and the start of 2021.
Facing ups and downs for prolonged periods of time – from celebrating victories such as vaccine approval to learning about an even more contagious new strain – can take a toll on mental health, say experts.
Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director at The LightHouse Arabia Centre for Wellbeing, says constant changes, particularly with some countries closing borders, may trigger "second lockdown anxiety", even if the person does not live in those countries.
“Any time we experience uncertainty, we can feel anxious. The holiday season is typically a time when people are looking forward to being with their families and travelling again, but a lockdown in their home country, or a country they were planning to visit, means relinquishing plans – this reinforces their lack of personal freedom and personal agency,” she explains.
Dr Ioannis Delipalas, psychiatrist at Thrive Wellbeing Centre, believes this anxiety isn't too different from that many may have experienced earlier in the year, rather, more of an "add-on".
“Back in March, everything was new to us. For many individuals that meant a struggle to adjust – and for many it is still a struggle. A second lockdown, even if it is in another country, may exacerbate feelings of loneliness and fear of what is next to come,” he says.
It affects everyone differently
These constant changes can affect people irrespective of whether they dealt with the first round of stay-at-home orders well or not, say experts.
“There are people who bounced back after the first lockdown who may find it difficult to build up resilience the second time,” says Delipalas.
People who have been feeling tired and burnt out over the course of the year could end up feeling all the more depleted, especially if they were looking for some relief and hope towards the end of the year, says Afridi.
There is a silver lining, though. “It is important to note that some people are more prepared and ready this time around,” she says. “Also, with talk of vaccines in the news, people are starting to feel like the ‘end is near’ so it might not be as difficult to endure the second lockdown.”
Irrespective of how one is coping, both experts warn against pandemic fatigue – people getting tired of having to be constantly vigilant – in 2021.
"No matter how many months it has been, we need to continue to comply with local authorities and only seek information regarding Covid-19 from reliable sources," says Delipalas. "That means continuing to practise social distancing and taking all other precautionary measures necessary."
Accept what you are feeling
If you’re feeling stressed, lonely, burnt out or unhappy, acknowledge those emotions and accept they are perfectly normal.
“People struggle with difficult feelings the most when they think they should not be having them,” explains Afridi. “But when we fight the difficult feelings, we actually make them worse. We all have bad days and struggles – do not catastrophise when they come, and instead remind yourself that all experiences and feelings are temporary.”
Meanwhile, when sadness, anxiety or stress do make themselves known, Delipalas recommends seeking contact with friends and family, even if it has to be done online.
Setting goals as part of a daily routine can also be very rewarding, while seeking accurate information about the pandemic can counteract being overwhelmed by information on social media, much of which lacks validity.
7 tips to help you stay calm through the uncertainty
1. Work out: Research has shown that exercise releases negative and anxious emotions, and increases feelings of positivity. Some research suggests that exercise is as effective in eliminating anxiety and depression as medication; even 30 minutes a day of exercise at 75 per cent of your maximum heart rate will help you feel more in control and release happy chemicals in your brain.
2. Get enough sleep: Anything fewer than seven hours is considered sleep deprivation and you are 40 per cent less able to regulate your emotions when you are sleep deprived. So stop drinking caffeine beyond 10pm, wear blue-light-blocking glasses or affix shields to your screens, drink chamomile tea before sleeping, or find a hack that works best for a more restful you.
3. Watch your diet: About 90 per cent of your happy chemical, serotonin, is produced in the gut and up to 80 per cent of your immunity is in the gut lining. So when they say you are what you eat, it practically means you will feel what you eat.
4. Turn off negative news: Human beings weren't meant to consume content or news the way we have for the past decade. News media play on our fight or flight response, because that is what gets consumer attention. Instead, look at the headlines once a day for an hour, and limit it to authentic sources channel. If you are feeling particularly out of control, tune out completely.
5. Create a routine: anxiety is uncertainty plus powerlessness, and routine is the antidote to both. Set a realistic schedule and follow it whether you feel like it or not. You will feel more in control and more empowered.
6. Look back: You have endured all the stages and phases of Covid-19 so far and you will endure this one as well.
7. Highlight the positives: When there is so much bad news everywhere, we can get locked in a negative mindset. While allowing for difficult emotions to surface, feel and release them, making sure to highlight the positive aspects of your life, and I guarantee there are many.
Tips by Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director at The LightHouse Arabia Centre for Well-being, Dubai