COLUMN: Coping with mental health matters during Covid-19 pandemic in Tipperary

Annette Hickey, counsellor and psychotherapist at Clonmel High School

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I wouldn’t be a fan of roller coasters! (at any time… not even at the best of times!)

Nonetheless, I do know that the safety belt/bar that locks you into your seat is a vital part of the whole experience.,
Since the dawn of covid 19, the impact on life as we know it has been quite the roller coaster ride!
My aim is to challenge you to buckle up, and even when you feel like closing your eyes and screaming, do so knowing you have done your best to make the ride as safe (and maybe even rewarding) as possible, for yourself and those who love you.

We are living through a time of global trauma and we are transitioning through various stages of a new normal. Every one of us is reacting to this on some level or other.
For each one of us, our reactions may fluctuate between varying degrees of anger, fear, catastrophic “what if” thinking, to wondering why we still feel exhausted despite lots of sleep or less demands or scrutiny on how we spend our time.
Recent neurological research gives us very valuable insights into how our brains are activated, what helps to motivate us, what happens in our brains when we are stressed, or what lights up the parts of our brain which support a sense of calm and wellbeing.
What follows is a general guideline (rooted in the revelations of neurological research and brain development) for parents/guardians and students alike, on how to structure your time (without the routine of work or school, and also the freedom that characterises school holiday time) in such a way that you are caring for your mental health. When social distancing can finally be suspended, you want to find yourself balanced, motivated, energised, eager and optimistic about taking up where you left off… and possibly in better shape than before lockdown started! The key is in consciously incorporating essential aspects of life into your every day.

Focus/Concentration time:
Perhaps during lockdown the demands of online learning/homeschooling or work facilitated your capacity to focus, now as the restrictions are being gradually lifted… so too, the long, leisurely school holidays are on the horizon. Though it's not very “cool” for any school goer (including the teachers!) to verbalise it; at the best of times school holidays can be quite challenging!
Before ever we knew what social distancing/cocooning or self isolation were, holidays could carry the weight of isolation and staving off boredom.
As for the Mams and Dads who annually, perhaps secretly, countdown the days to school reopening; well this year it is quite the countdown.
The length of absence from the structure of a school day, paradoxically, makes ensuring focus is part of your day even more important.
If you can't identify a significant chunk of your day which is characterised by concentration, or if you are anticipating the long awaited school holidays and relief from online learning/homeschooling you could start to rebuild/tone down your concentration time by reading a book for an hour, doing a jigsaw, making a model...etc.
When you maintain your ability to concentrate you keep yourself out of the lower section of your brain; the limbic system.
This is where stress, anxiety, depression, addiction and lack of motivation reside. This part of your brain is bypassed when you are either concentrating or consumed by a creative activity.
Creative time:
When you are baking/drawing/learning a musical instrument/making a junk sculpture/upcycling furniture or clothes, your brain shuts down the stress and trauma pathways.
That part of your brain cannot be activated, once you have settled into the activity. Hence an hour of creative time is wise to aim for every day. You don't have to be good at the activity you choose… you just need to ‘give it a lash’ to nurture your wellbeing! Research has proven that screens do not facilitate the destressing factor in the creative neurological pathway, hence an hour of Call of Duty or time spent on Snapchat or Instagram won’t do the trick. In fact if screens are used at all they should only be to, say, follow a guitar lesson, read a recipe or watch T.V.
Meal Time:
At least two meals a day (breakfast may be a challenge for some teenagers) should be eaten at the table together with family members, with no screens allowed.
This not only frames the day, but again research has proven its power as a protective mechanism for children’s mental health (notably in the area of preventing eating disorders) through connectivity and real ‘face time’.
If you avoid the temptation to snack while consumed by gaming/study/work/boredom, hunger will draw you to the table for lunch and dinner.
Productivity:
At least one or two tasks a day should be completed to generate/sustain a feeling of productivity.
In a lockdown your options may have been limited to look to personal hygiene, house work or gardening for those tasks. Now as the restrictions lift, there are reports of an increase in admissions to GPs or A&E for DIY related accidents.
This is a cautionary tale: concentrate while you engage in productivity!! Conversely for those of you enjoying less active days, it is recommended to switch shower time to the mornings; it helps to give a good start to the day. (If you are determined to lounge in PJ’s, at the very least change into a clean pair each morning).
Bedtime:
Age appropriate parameters are a must for each member of the family, not least the adults.
These should be clear (and negotiated with adolescents). Latest recommended time for getting up is ideally 8:30/9am (absolutely no later than 10am). People struggling with depression struggle with sleep patterns. In this time of global trauma, a key self care strategy is to balance our every day sleep routine. Experts recommend that we treat this as a 7 day a week commitment to ourselves, not even falling off the applecart at the weekends, and not being seduced to do so because it is officially holiday time.
You may need to begin by breaking bad habits that have already kicked in, but for the sake of mental health in September, everybody in the house must rise in the morning, (even if right now reversing a trend means the earliest you can manage over the next few days is 11:55am!)
Exercise:
At the barest minimum, if you are confined to the house and you are talking, catching up on social media or texting, do it while walking up and down a hallway/room: this is an easy way (and almost unnoticeable) of raising your step count for the day.
Research (so far) has proven that the two optimal forms of exercise for de-stressing are running a marathon (not feasible at the moment, unless you deploy your mathematical skills to work out how many circuits of your garden are required!) and yoga.
Any of you with an interest in sport can research how yoga is used with elite athletes and through sports psychology, for optimum health and performance. Happily it can be done from home and there are a myriad of free online yoga classes that you can follow.
A starting point would be to google search ‘Yoga for concentration’ and find a free 10 minute class.
Oxygen:
We all know what it’s like to walk into a stuffy office/classroom/bedroom: generally you are unaware of it while you are steeped in it, but breathing in an atmosphere top heavy with carbon dioxide does nothing to support your lung health, or your mental health. Ideally your exercise time is a great time to get out, but on rainy days or days when it’s hard to get out try sitting at an open window or door for at least half an hour, when you are reading or scrolling through your phone.
While fresh air is vital for all of us I am thinking in particular of the exam students: the group that have been agonised over, debated about and, at times, even politicised.
And now with exams and assessments taking forms we have never known before the best thing you can do for yourselves is: Get Out! Every day! Breathe in fresh, free, pure oxygen... consciously! Tis surely the luck of the Irish that the weather has supported our well being thus far in our Covid journey… step outside barefooted, feel the grass and the earth (even the tarmac or the path) between your toes, listen to the birds, take a long, consciously deep breath, and follow its path from your nostrils to the pit of your stomach. Stay in the present moment: this is mindfulness and groundedness at its simplest and its best!
Perception:
We all need to be aware of the narrative in our heads, the messages we give ourselves and the perspectives we embrace. For example… to all the final year students I would say to you “Stop!” Stop referring to yourselves as Leaving Certs. You are the Class of 2020.
In a time of so much uncertainty, what is certain is that you are graduates this year. When you go outside for your fresh, free, oxygen, look to the horizon.
When the world opens up again, new horizons will, with absolute certainty, be yours. Regardless of how you are assessed this year. They say the vision of hindsight is 2020… Well, Class of 2020 your hindsight can bring perspective to this game of two halves that you have been dragged through… 2020 vision will chalk it down to experience! You still have the most vital ingredient -youth- which presents you with true possession of the adage; The world is your Oyster!

In terms of you supporting your own mental health, and making the most of your day, the key things to order are sleep, focus time and screen time. There is fascinating neurological research on the parts of the brain that light up when we are on screens or gaming, all in the limbic system. As such, this does not support our mental health. Parents/guardians fund wifi access and technology, therefore it is a privilege to be enjoyed after you have completed your tasks/productivity/
concentration time for the day. If you follow the advice, and structure your day (whether it is term time or holiday time) and do some work or get creative early in the morning (before you activate your limbic system by using a screen) you will be more productive and efficient in your use of time… and you will get it all done faster!.(Win, win!) You will, by happy consequence, be engaged in the long game of self care: whatever new normal is down the tracks for you, you are best placed to rise to the challenge.

So folks, wash your hands! Look out for those you love and take care of yourselves. Buckle up and enjoy the ride. Above all, Stay safe and stay sane!