A psychologist's tips on protecting your mental health in the pandemic recession

Psychologist Suzy Reading tells Luke Rix-Standing about keeping your head up when times get tough

'Relentless ambition, relentless striving, is just not sustainable. Sometimes, the most productive thing we can do is rest'
'Relentless ambition, relentless striving, is just not sustainable. Sometimes, the most productive thing we can do is rest' 'Relentless ambition, relentless striving, is just not sustainable. Sometimes, the most productive thing we can do is rest'

AS THE economic fallout from coronavirus starts to crystallise, it is clear to everyone that difficult times lie ahead.

Job losses, budget cuts and record-setting recessions – the damage looks so deep that it raises, among other things, the prospect of a public mental health crisis.

“When it comes to mental health, I don’t think people are well-versed with practices,” says chartered psychologist and contributing editor for Psychologies Magazine Suzy Reading. “We all know what it takes to look after our physical health, but when it comes to mental health, people need fresh tools and new ideas.”

Here’s what to do if the stress begins to build, from the power of perspective to simply getting a good night’s sleep…

Back to basics

When the chips are down, it’s easy to let some of the simple stuff fall by the wayside, but Reading says the “energy bank of basics” are the building blocks on which mental health can thrive.

“These are the things we need to do in order to be able to function,” she says, “You’ve got to feed your brain – so that’s nutrition and hydration. We associate exercise with taking care of our heart, but it’s just as important for mental clarity. We need to pay attention to sleep, or at least in the absence of sleep, rest.”

It can be tempting to respond to uncertainty by doubling down professionally and working twice as hard, but all work and no play tends to exacerbate stress, more than alleviate it.

“We live in a society that really values productivity and business,” says Reading, “so for some of us, healing and replenishing is a bit of a foreign concept. Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and we need to pace ourselves.”

Supportive surroundings

Many of us draw our strength from people, and those around us have a huge role in protecting us from stress, panic, and ourselves. “I think they can provide perspective,” says Reading. “This situation is so far-reaching and affects so many people, but when you’re in it, it’s easy to feel like it’s just you.”

It’s also easy to feel like a personal failure, she notes: “But it’s just shifting sands at the moment, and we’re all trying to work out how best to move forward. Friends and family can help reframe unhelpful thoughts, and remind us of our strengths and of other opportunities.”

Coronavirus is currently the elephant in an awful lot of rooms, and the pandemic doesn’t just create stress – it hampers our ability to cope with it.

Reading says it’s important that social distancing does not become social isolation: “Disconnection plays a huge role right now, and it’s hard to nurture relationships in this chapter. We need to be creative in checking in with others, because it often involves technology, which has depleting factors of its own.”

Reframing success

Support and lifestyle can go a long way, but for some people, their own attitudes and ambitions could be their greatest foes.

“Looking culturally at the dialogue around performance,” says Reading, “people often think you’ve got to be hard on yourself to thrive, when in fact, being kind to yourself is what really helps us cope and step up.”

Reading says it’s dangerous for your worth to be too tied to your pay cheque, and that some of us use our employment to judge ourselves unfairly.

“Being out of work doesn’t mean you don’t have things to offer, and success shouldn’t just revolve around career. Relentless ambition, relentless striving, is just not sustainable. Sometimes, the most productive thing we can do is rest.”

Constructive thinking

Different people deal with problems in different ways – some dwell on seeking solutions, others distract with lighter things – and Reading advocates a little bit of both.

“There’s a time for entertaining worst-case scenarios, but equally we should let ourselves think about the best case, and most likely ones. It’s not about eradicating negative thoughts – I think that’s unattainable – but creating a balance, and giving ourselves time and space to feel.”

Most of all, Reading emphasises care, compassion and attention. “It’s about understanding that self-care is healthcare, and that no human being is infallible from energy bankruptcy, loss and change. If we can move through our day with compassion – I think that’s key.”