5 mental health lessons we've learned in lockdown

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Jul 6, 2020

5 mental health lessons we've learned in lockdown

Five people share what lockdown has taught them about their mental health, and what they hope to keep up as we ease back to normal

Lockdown has presented us with many challenges, but it has also brought opportunities to assess what’s really important to our lives and our wellbeing. As we break free from our routines and move at a slower pace, there are mental health lessons to be learned from lockdown living.

Here, we explore the tips we want to take with us as things gradually return to normal, and speak to five people about their experiences.

1. Sitting with your feelings can be healthy and productive

It’s not always easy, but when we take the time to slow down and tune it, we are able to fully explore the root of our emotions, which can allow us to get to the core of our wellbeing needs.

Tori Porter’s story:

The earliest I can remember experiencing mental health issues was at the age of six. Anxiety has presented itself differently over the years, from attachment to fear of being sick at school, to insomnia and depression. Staying busy is a wonderful distraction and, to be honest, being productive and having a sense of purpose really does help me manage because when I’m driven and excited, I’m positive and not so anxious. But there’s a fine line between purpose and distraction. In my experience, keeping busy to distract yourself often results in burnout, so it’s striking the balance between keeping yourself busy enough to feel motivated but also taking time for you, accepting that just ‘being’ is OK too.

Tuning in is something I’m still getting to grips with, and have been trying to for years. It’s like training a muscle and takes time and discipline. I find it near impossible to sit down for long periods on my own, however, even just five minutes of meditation and writing down how I’m feeling, how I’d like to feel, and what I’m grateful for is enough to encourage a positive mindset.

Sometimes, I might notice a feeling of loneliness. Rather than thinking, ‘Oh my god what is this sad feeling, what is wrong with me?’ I’m now thinking, ‘OK I need to call a friend.’ Accepting that all humans experience fluctuating emotions, and reminding yourself that you’re OK and normal is really important.

2. Prioritising self-care is a vital part of good mental health

Self-care comes in many forms. But whatever works for you, ensuring that you make time for self-care means that you’re prioritising good mental health.

Jennifer McKenzie’s story:

I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, severe anxiety, and fibromyalgia. Although my conditions are under control, the shock of lockdown and the global pandemic did rattle me at first.

Being a holistic therapist, I would urge all my clients to put their self-care at the top of their lists. But I found myself so busy helping others, I didn't leave much time for myself or my family. I was carrying out treatments and working all hours, I was people-pleasing and not implementing my boundaries, I was manic! I really wasn't leaving much time for my own self-care, or prioritising quality time with my children. This became obvious when we were forced to stay home.

I now spend so much more time allowing myself to rest and relax without feeling guilty. I schedule relaxation time, home facials, salt baths, reading, quiet time. I meditate and carry out reiki self-treatments daily. I go for a walk outside everyday, have limited time spent on social media or screens, and have been enjoying writing.

I plan to keep this up by getting up earlier so I can meditate, practise mindfulness, and eat a healthy breakfast before school and work. I think it's really important to actually schedule in relaxation time in our diary's otherwise it can be pushed down the list of priorities. It would be all too easy to go back to 'normal', but lockdown has really made me realise how important family and self-care are.

Woman sat on the sofa

3. Exercise is what you make of it, and it comes in many different forms

It can be easy to get in a trap of thinking that exercise and fitness has a specific look. But, as gyms shut down across the country, we’ve found new ways to exercise and discoverd what feels right for us.

Natalie Trice’s story:

Before lockdown, I had a very expensive gym and spa membership that was hardly used, and I would just grab a walk with the dog when I could. Exercise really wasn't a priority for me, it was more of a job on the list than anything else.

We live by the sea and are surrounded by stunning nature. While I loved it before, lockdown has made me really see things in a new light.

When the lockdown was enforced I lost about 80% of my work in week one and things were feeling totally out of control. I had to look at what I could control and some of that was time-out for my health and wellbeing, and walking was a perfect idea. I made sure that I spent an hour each day, usually from 7–8 PM, walking Dotty and being outside. We would either walk down to the beach near the house, or I created a hill walk and that has helped to really improve my fitness and clear my head on a day-to-day basis. Even if it rains, we go out. It gives me time and space and also the sense to give up the gym!

As well as doing online barre classes, my daily hour walk is with me for the long haul. I love knowing that, whatever the day throws at me, I have that time at 7 PM to put the dog on the lead, get my trainers on, listen to a podcast, and walk away my worries.

4. There’s solace to be found in getting back to nature

As access to the outdoor world was taken away, many of us have a new-found appreciation for time spent in nature, whether than be in our daily walks or in our gardens. Getting out can be incredibly soothing, and spending time outdoors is at the top of our post-lockdown bucket list.

Kendall Platt’s story:

I started having anxiety and panic attacks eight years ago, when a friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer. When I’m feeling anxious I wake in the middle of the night and my mind starts whirring, making it nearly impossible to go back to sleep. I randomly burst into tears for no particular reason and find it hard to pinpoint what has upset me. I get physical symptoms in the form of stomach problems and headaches. And then there's the panic attacks – an overwhelming rising panic that feels like it’s crushing my chest to the point where I struggle to breathe and end up collapsing to the floor.

But while I’m gardening, my mind is quiet and focused. It allows me to find calm when I’m feeling panicked and overwhelmed, and helps me to maintain a healthy mindset. So when life throws things at me, which it always will, I’m in a better place to be able to deal with them. It has helped me rebuild my self-confidence after redundancy and been my constant through the unsteady period of new motherhood. I used to feel like a failure for struggling with my mental health but my garden has enabled me to feel proud of myself again.

Moving forward, my motto is ‘little and often’. I plan to do small gardening activities every day after my little girl is in bed. I'm going to set myself small achievable goals, like weed the front border or sow a tray of seeds, and then celebrate my achievement when I’ve done it.

woman in nature

5. Healthy boundaries mean that we’re able to priorities the things that make us happy

It can be a challenge, but when we take the time to set boundaries between our work and home lives, as well the things we’re able to do for others, we can start the process of prioritising the things that make us happy and which are fulfilling for us.

Abbey Robb’s story:

As a mental health practitioner, I went into lockdown feeling quietly confident. I felt like I was well placed with tools and techniques to help me manage the stresses and strains.

For the most part I was right, but I’ve learned a really valuable lesson about work habits and boundaries between my personal life and my role as a business owner.

Like most other people, my social life changed radically. So to fill all those spaces I worked, I took on roles within voluntary organisations focused on supporting the mental health and well-being of frontline healthcare workers, I created free and low-cost initiatives for the local community, and I worked very hard helping support the therapy training school I work with. I’m pretty sure I had COVID-19, but I pushed myself and worked the whole way through that as well.

For a while all of that was great, but it got a point after about two months where I hit a wall and my mind and body rebelled. I blocked out the absolute luxury of two days off in a row in my diary... And then got up and opened my laptop and did some work.

Clearly I needed a bit of an intervention! So I took a bit of time and focused my attention into myself and discovered that keeping busy and reaching out was my coping mechanism for dealing with the far and unknown. I added in extra meditation practises and picked up qigong yet again to help me better manage those emotions with constantly filling my life with work. I also bought a selection of great books and took days off to laze around in the sun and read, I’ve got space in my diary now specifically for gardening and tending to my plants.

The practical methods I’ve found for keeping the balance between work and the rest of my life are:

  • Making lists and prioritising what actually needs to get done and what would be nice but isn’t essential.
  • At the end of the day I close down all my work-related documents and webpages and spend a little time tidying up loose ends.
  • On days off, I do not open my work email.
  • I’ve switched where I sit on the couch so that when I’m working I sit in a different space than when I’m not working – small but strangely effective!

I’ve noticed a big difference in my stress levels, I’m sleeping better and actually really enjoying my workdays now I’ve successfully corralled it into being a part of my life rather than being the entirety of my life. My friends say that I’m much more cheerful and I think they’re appreciating that when they get in touch and ask me what I’ve been up to I’ve actually got something to talk about that isn’t work!

What lessons have you learned in lockdown? Continue the conversation by joining the Happiful Readers’ Panel on Facebook.

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