Looking after your health and wellbeing in a pandemic

June 30, 2022

Mental health nurse and life coach Helen Duyvestyn shares her insights into maintaining our chill in the midst of a global pandemic. 

The pandemic is probably one of the biggest challenges that health-care professionals have ever faced.

It’s been two years and there are many things at play that may be causing you to feel stressed and/or burnt out: The uncertainty around the pandemic itself, the staffing issues your area might be facing, concerns for your own health and well-being, juggling family duties, and guilt or other difficult emotions that you may have been experiencing.

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From my experience and years of exploration into mental well-being and building resilience, supporting yourself needs to come from more than one avenue. We need to look at self-care for our body, our mind and our soul.

Here are some recommendations on how to care for yourself during this time.

Physical (the body)

To create long-term wellness and have mental and physical well-being, we need to start with the basics — what I term the long-term fundamentals of self-care. We need sleep, rest, relaxation and down time. This is important for recovery (of both mind and body), it supports our immune system, it helps stabilise hormones such as ghrelin and leptin, involved in food satiet,y as well as cortisol and melatonin. It gives us space to regroup, refocus and renew ourselves mentally, allowing us to see things in a new light. It promotes creativity and solidifies learning which can be especially important when figuring out ways to solve problems.

Ensure you are getting adequate sleep for your needs — the recommended amount is seven to eight hours (some need more, others less). Utilise sleep hygiene techniques wherever possible to support this.

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Something often overlooked in mental health and resilience education, is what you put on your plate. For optimum mental wellness, we actually need good nutrition. Food has a lot to do with mood — so pulling back on the alcohol, sweets, processed carbohydrates (and processed food in general) and focusing on a whole-food mostly plant-based diet can have a huge impact on how we feel. There is research that supports the use of B vitamins in times of stress — and many people find extra nutrients in the form of high-quality supplements helpful.

Movement/physical activity, in whatever form it comes in — work, gardening, walking, gym, yoga, dancing — is associated with improved mental health, physical health and general overall wellbeing. However I often see issues with people who over-exercise. If you are already physically on your feet all day and feeling exhausted — doing a hard workout might be the last thing you need. Instead, look at something gentle and nurturing. Yoga, nature walks and tai chi are more calming, relaxing and less draining on the body.

Health-care professionals need to remember the old adage: Fill your own cup first, for it is doing so that enables us to help others.
Mental

Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to be very helpful in reducing the stress response and promoting relaxation.

A simple practice to help to calm the mind and body is simply noticing your breath, placing all your focus on your breathing. Ensure you are breathing through the nose, and try to slow the breath right down — make it long and slow. Focusing on the exhalation actually supports the parasympathetic (the rest and digest) system.

While focusing on your breath, you can also try practising being in the present moment. Let thoughts come and go, don’t buy into all the stories your thoughts tell you and allow them to pass.

A strange but simple technique is the half-smile. Research has shown that a simple half-relaxed smile actually improves mood and may help you feel a little less stressed.

Soul

During this time it is important to do things that nurture your soul. What can you do for yourself? What do you know you can do that makes you feel good? Go for a nature walk? Speak to a friend/family member? Prepare a nice meal or food treat? Go for a swim? Head to the bush? You may choose to turn off all media for 24 hours or so and give yourself a break from it all. Spend the time watching the grass grow, smelling the flowers and noticing the sky.

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Remember: We are truly all in this together. We are all struggling, trying to do our best. Practise self-compassion and kindness, not only to others but especially to yourself. Self-compassion can help reduce burnout and stress. You can find guided self-compassion meditations online from experts such as Kristen Neff.

Get checked out

If you are doing all the above and still struggling, don’t hesitate to get a full assessment from your general practitioner. There are medical factors that can cause changes in mood or mental state and it’s important to have these ruled out.

Some obvious issues to rule out include: Anaemia (which can affect mood, energy and sleep and present as mild depression), hypothyroidism (which can present as feeling low in energy, fatigue, wanting to sleep all the time as well as increased weight gain despite a reduced appetite) and low B12 and folate levels.

Remember you can also request EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) counselling, or counselling through your GP.

As health-care professionals, we need to remember the old adage: Fill your own cup first, for it is doing so that enables us to help others.

Helen Duyvestyn, RN, MHSc, PGDipHSc (MH nursing), has over 20 years experience in nursing including 15 in mental health. She now runs a wellbeing service for people with mild mental health needs, One Life.