I don’t like to gamble. But if there’s one thing I’m willing to bet on, it’s myself. — Beyoncé
As an individual affected by illness—as an individual diagnosed with an illness, a caregiver or a health care professional—your mental health will be impacted differently by these changing times. Being in quarantine certainly comes with many mental challenges. But, so is the health situation we are facing.
At Soar Above Counselling, we focus on helping those affected by illness take their (mental) health into their own hands. We focus on the duality of the common reality of those affected by illness—the challenges associated with their health and their mental health. We would even say that both are intimately linked.
Over the past few weeks, life for everyone has changed dramatically. All human beings are now experiencing the intricacies of mental health. Conversations have shifted to social distancing, virtual connection and the reality of staying at home. We have turned towards technology to keep us safe, engaged and productive.
The idea of illness and safety have been propelled to the forefront of everyone’s minds. But what about those who already lived in this frame of mind? Maybe, these conversations feel a little too familiar?
Based on many conversations I have had with individuals affected by illness in the past few weeks, the new status quo of the world has raised the level of stress and anxiety of those closest to illness. This is the focus of this article—how can one strengthen their mental health as someone who has had to pile the challenges associated with the pandemic to an already existing deep understanding of illness.
We are not wanting to diminish the challenges experienced by all. But rather, we are looking to take on a perspective to connect individuals affected by illness.
How the Pandemic Affects the Mental Health of Those Closest to Illness
Illness isn’t a new concept for you. So, what is different about the pandemic?
(1) All humans are finding it difficult to manage their stress and emotions. You may have complained once upon a time that “no one gets what I am going through.” The idea that very few could understand your reality as someone closer to illness has most likely been frustrating. Possibly, you faced comments like: “it will be okay,” “don’t worry so much,” and “just be positive.”
The majority of your network could not understand the constant discomfort associated with your serious illness. And there is a good chance that their perception of illness is still very different from your own. However, there has been a shift in most individual’s own perspective. They may no longer believe themselves to be untouchable by illness as they know that contact with the virus has high probability of infection.
(2) If you are affected by illness, you hold a unique understanding of life (as discussed in literature). This, I believe, can lead individuals to be more aware of certain nuances to the situation we are facing. These nuances are experienced as emotions. Some of the heightened emotions you might be feeling include: confusion, anger, anxiety, worry, sadness, isolation, helplessness and doubt.
This can lead to burnout from a continued state of stress and emotional fatigue. Think about your emotions in the past few weeks. Maybe you feel helpless going to your life-sustaining treatment or medical test with a lower immune system? Maybe you feel angry about having to go to work as a first-line health worker risking your life and your family’s health? Maybe you are sad to be kept away from a loved one nearing end-of-life?
So, what exactly is different? The amount of work one has to fuel into their own mental health to protect themselves emotionally and psychologically.
Pile Up the Strategies, One at a Time
You may already have strategies to help yourself manage the mental health aspect associated with illness. If so, you may still find that due to the drastic changes over the past few weeks, these strategies don’t quite suffice in helping you manage your mental health challenges.
Here are strategies that you can adopt to help yourself manage these changes in your mental health. Keep it simple at first. Pile them up, but only one at a time.
- Utilize technology to its maximum to cultivate connection with others. Use video chats, messages, photo sharing, memes—whatever can strengthen your relationship with others. This can include your chats with your care team or your support groups.
- Reach out to your favourite organizations to find out what programs they are offering virtually during this pandemic. Join the programs that will add value to your life by connecting you to your peers and experts in health topics that interest you.
- Ask for help when you need it—from your family, friends or professionals. You are not alone. Reach out to your networks to help yourself manage the mental health piece.
- Earlier I discussed the difficult emotions that you might be experiencing. Still, you might also be feeling grateful, trusting, hopeful and courageous. Lean into those emotions and help yourself cultivate positivity in your day-to-day. Jot down one thing each day that added to your life – you had an honest chat with your partner about your fears, you took a long hot bath or you finally pooped for the first time in a few days.
- Sit with yourself. Meditation may or may not be a practice of yours. Due to the uncertainty and challenges we are facing, find a meditation practice that speaks to you and give it a chance. There are even many apps and videos of meditations that speak directly to individuals affected by illness.
- Set boundaries for yourself around your information intake. Clarify what information you are willing to take in, how much of it should be reaching you and how you can reinforce those boundaries. Keep in mind that difficult emotions can be fuelled by the energy of others. Balance the information you take in to allow room for you to breathe.
- Anyone can easily over-consume in this situation. This can include consuming larger amounts of food, TV and other substances than usual. Identify boundaries to limit these consumptions. Instead take the time to find alternative stress management tools for yourself that will serve you in this situation and beyond as you continue your experience with illness.
Focus on your well-being.
- There are things that have been proven time and time again to help support and strengthen one’s mental health—sleep, exercise, healthy foods, meditation, etc. If some of your habits have shifted over the past few weeks, realign them one at a time based on your needs. These changes will also support your self that is affected by illness longer term.
- Connect with professionals to help yourself optimize your well-being during quarantine. Maybe this is meeting an (online) mental health professional one-on-one or attending a webinar on the ergonomic considerations of your home office. Whatever the topic, this is a first step to helping strengthen your mental health overall.
The Impact of Supporting One’s Mental Health Past Quarantine
These strategies do no represent an extensive list of everything that could help support your mental health during (and past) these difficult times. You might already be aware of many strategies that have helped you or could help you manage your mental health.
At the end of the day, it is about choosing to put your mental health first. Choose strategies that you are drawn towards to help yourself implement them in your life.
By taking small incremental steps, you will find that you will come out of this situation ahead.
Through all of this, remember that:
- You are never alone.
- You are so important and you do matter.
- You are doing the best that you can, and that is enough.
- You are strong enough to get through this.