A record number of people are working from home during this “circuit breaker” period. With schools closed, workplaces shaken up along with anxiety and uncertainty brought on by measures to curb the Covid-19 outbreak, it can seem like a daunting task to remain productive and strong during these tough times. So how can we overcome the challenging days ahead? 

SINGAPORE (May 15): Nothing about the past few months has been anywhere close to normal. From the changing of workplaces to the shuttering of our favourite restaurants, this is a ‘new normal’ that many are struggling with. Work hours from home feel longer and as we cope with the negative impact the outbreak has on businesses and livelihoods, many among us face depression and anxiety.

While social media abound with videos and posts about being productive and learning new skills during the lockdown, it is no easy task to push past the negative and turn it into positive. Many of us feel isolated and lonely but others are also facing the strain of being in the same space for an extended period of time with family. But if you’re kicking yourself for binge-watching Netflix instead of baking picture perfect sourdough bread, don’t — experts have said that the Covid-19 outbreak is unprecedented. It has also caught us all by surprise, which is why so many of us are still struggling.

Challenges abound

The Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH) tells Options that we are all learning to cope with the psychological, social, emotional and economic impact of the virus. Although individual experience differs, it is still a trying time for all. “Some are better able to respond to the fluid situation while most are still adjusting and adapting.

This is especially so for people with pre-existing mental health concerns, those who are socially isolated and those who are confronted with more individual and life challenges, such as sickness, low income and [other multiple stressors],” it says. Such periods usually trigger emotions such as anxiety, depression or frustration.

As a result, your mental and psychological health may be severely challenged, if not managed well. Indeed, the SAMH has seen an increase in phone calls to several of its services. In particular, the SAMH Insight Centre — which provides counselling services — saw an increase in its SAMH toll-free helpline calls by about 50% in February and March, compared to the average calls attended from April 2019 till January this year.

While not all the calls were about the Covid-19 situation, many of the callers were concerned about the outbreak. Some of the issues raised in the calls, says SAMH, were also about anxiety and stress due to the pandemic. Others also called to inquire about helping their loved ones who are in need.

“Some also asked how they could go about receiving financial support from the Resilience Budget, or about employment issues like asking for job opportunities as they either lost their jobs or [their livelihoods] were affected by the Covid-19 situation,” adds SAMH. “Some also may have mental health issues, and were not sure about how to go about seeking help.”

Professor Alvin Ng, department of psychology head at Malaysia’s Sunway University, says being confined is a significant stressor and the negative effects of that are hard on anyone. “Being confined is a stressor because we are used to having the freedom to go out whenever we want, to engage in the activities we enjoy, or to go to work to make a living, or to school to get an education,” he says. “When faced with restricted freedom, people get stressed up as it in a sense violates that personal sense of being in control. We just don’t like being not in control. It’s not a nice feeling.”

Additionally, being in the company of others for a prolonged time can also be unnerving. “While family and social presence can be a source of comfort, they can also be a source of annoyance depending on the circumstance,” Ng adds. “So being cooped up with people can be an aggravating situation for some. This happens especially when there is relational conflicts or simply the rise in activities at home such as online school work, parenting young children while attempting to attend to online work, while also caring for elderly parents.”

Being in crowded isolation and trying to cope with usual daily activities that are outside of home within the home itself can be a harrowing experience, he adds. It becomes worse as the lockdown lasts longer. Then, there is the possibility of getting infected given the sudden rise in Covid-19 cases in Singapore. “This leads to fear and worry, and increasing anxiety levels in general pertaining to personal health and the well-being of loved ones and friends. This kind of anxiety is there because the danger of being infected is real and the fear is also valid as there’s a chance of death, especially among the more vulnerable members of the community,” Ng says.

Many are also worrying about financial stability as many people would have their businesses closed down, reducing or totally losing income, and it affects family welfare. Financial hardship is thus a very significant source of stress. “There are drastic changes where there is a lot of uncertainty. For a country such as Singapore that is used to being well-organised, coordinated and orderly, this sense of uncertainty can be very stressful, leading to worries and even depression when negativity sets in,” Ng adds.

What it boils down to, basically, is that it is okay not to be okay, says Ng. Your coping mechanisms may even fail every now and then, and that’s okay.

“The stressors mentioned above are very significant and are within the home as well as beyond the control of many individuals,” he says. “So methods of tackling them are not simple or easy to carry out. This means efforts to manage stressors effectively are also likely to fail every now and then. The trick is to keep trying and to keep problem solving.”

Learn to cope

So what are some things we can do to push through these tough times? If you’re finding solace in constantly binge-watching TV series, it’s time to switch off.

Ng says we should avoid extreme and excessive behaviours, such as long hours on the internet or watching TV series. Other things to avoid are excessive video gaming, sleeping for too long or drinking alcohol and eating too much. Even working long hours without boundaries should be avoided. “This is because, mentally, these activities can tire your cognitive processes and be a barrier to healthy thinking and decision-making. When you’re mentally tired, it’s more difficult to focus, concentrate and problem solve, and there’s also a likelihood for depression when one is tired,” he says. “Physically, too, being sedentary for too long also affects mental processing and overall well-being in a negative way.”

It is also important to have a break from the computer or communication device to re-centre yourself, Ng adds. “Too much exposure to the screen and reading news that increases your anxiety is not beneficial. There needs to be dynamic balance on a daily basis, where you fill your day with a range of activities to keep yourself mentally stimulated, as well as to help you rest your mind.”

“Staying occupied helps to distract you from anxieties and they can contribute to bonding as well as new skills or knowledge — I find that being engrossed in learning helps me get a better perspective of things, which can also instill some sense of control.” Most of all, reach out for help when you need it. “When your worries feel like they’re too much to handle, please reach out for help. If family members or friends are unable to help, please seek professional help,” Ng says. “There’s no shame in seeking help even if you feel your problems are not serious enough. The reason for seeking help is so that your problem does not become ‘serious enough’.” 

 

When it all gets too much

• It is important to still maintain a routine during this period and continue with healthy living habits

• Take care of your body: Exercise, hydrate regularly and eat healthily

• Try to access information provided by relevant and credible sources, such as the Ministry of Health

• Tap on the many resources and ground initiatives available — be it activities for seniors, mindfulness sessions, and webinars to learn new things, and create some fun time together as a family

• Stay hopeful and connected with friends using technology • Be mindful of negative or non-constructive thoughts and manage them

• Keep a gratitude journal: It may help us remember our blessings more

• For those living near green spaces or have plants, take a walk and relax — being close to nature helps to calm the mind

• Take part in activities such as meditation, yoga and prayers as they are beneficial to mental well-being

• Need someone to talk to? Reach out and call the helplines of the various social services agencies available. For example, the Singapore Association for Mental Health’s toll-free helpline can be reached at 1800 283 7019 between 9am and 6pm from Mondays to Fridays (except public holidays)