Last updated on Jul 7th, 2020 at 01:50 pm

If you are struggling to manage stress, anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. Here is some helpful expert advice…

By Dana Labe

It is becoming clear that we still have a long way to go in the COVID-19 crisis in South Africa. The economic impact of the lockdown has revealed the fragility of South Africa’s economy as well as the depth of social desperation, hunger and inequality.

While the mental health implications of this pandemic and the lockdown are more subtle, they are no less real. Left unchecked, they too will drain the economy, burden the health system, shatter and threaten lives.

Feeling out of control

The cocktail of health anxieties, financial insecurities and the multiple and varied challenges of lockdown and social isolation, come together to produce a sense of powerlessness and loss of control.

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The world feels unpredictable and unsafe and individuals and communities are teetering on the brink of collective trauma, feeling alone in their suffering. For many, there is the sense that reality as we know it has been broken or irrevocably changed and their resources and coping strategies have been pushed to the limit.

The flip side

While trauma can and does devastate the human psyche, it also mobilises us. Examples include the wonderful initiatives to raise funds to feed people and the ways in which communities have banded together to make music and to support each other.

The essence of combating a trauma response is to retain a sense of power and agency and to moderate what that means in these particular circumstances. It may be that our power resides in choosing how we will perceive and react to the situation.

How to manage stress

Common sense strategies are vital. Here are a few useful things you can do to help keep the stress and anxiety at bay:

  • Maintain routines which delineate time for work and time for relaxation.
  • Eat as nutritiously as possible as good nutrition will not only keep your immune system healthier, it will help regulate blood sugar levels and the emotions associated with it.
  • Keep moving and exercising – the power of exercise as a destress mechanism is well documented.
  • Avoid overconsuming distressing news and social media.

Take time out

Additional strategies are to acknowledge sadness and grief.

You should also put whatever boundaries are possible into place with family and friends and to find ways to signal that you need a time out. You need to return the favour when others ask the same of you.

Gardening could boost your happiness

Stay connected

Staying connected to family and friends is key. Social support and connection are the single most important protective factor against trauma.

Laugh

And last, but definitely not least, to make time for fun and laughterThis will keep you feeling vital and hopeful.

When stress becomes too much

The human psyche is evolutionarily programmed to manage danger and stress. Our nervous systems go on high alert to protect us.

Our brains respond to threats such as financial insecurity the same way that our caveman ancestors responded to potential attacks by predators. Adrenaline floods our system. We are poised to fight or flee. We need to have our wits about us so we actively seek information that will give us an advantage.

This response is designed to work in the short term. Once the threat has passed, our bodies are programmed to return to a state of quietude. We may experience a mild drop in energy as our bodies and minds take the opportunity to rest and restore. Physical and mental health problems occur when this normal stress response is activated for too long.

When stress becomes anxiety

Unmodulated stress causes anxiety, and it becomes difficult to shake off persistent feelings of tension, stress and dread.

We become fixated on negative thoughts and feelings. We may ruminate and obsess about difficulties instead of being able to shut off these thoughts when it is functional to do so. Worrying thoughts and images may pop into our mind unbidden when we are doing our best to ignore them or wish them away. The more we try to ignore anxiety, the more persistent it becomes. It needs to be attended to.

There are many excellent ways to manage anxiety. Yoga, meditation, exercise, artistic expression all help.

Anxiety is fuelled by isolation and is soothed by connection and support. It may help to speak to a mental health professional that can help you to make sense of your anxious feelings and can guide you to find workable personalised solutions to your problem.

Feeling hopeless

Depression presents with feelings of hopelessness. It causes people to lose interest in what life offers and makes it hard for them to motivate themselves to work, to be with others or to pursue hobbies. Sleep problems, either sleeping too much or struggling to sleep are a hallmark of depression. Depression causes fatigue. It may also cause changes in appetite and in eating patterns with significant weight loss or gains. Most importantly, depression makes it hard to moderate emotions. People feel weepy, sad and distressed. But heightened irritability and anger are also symptoms of depression which are more commonly seen in men.

Left unchecked, depression can lead to suicide. Whether depression is mild, moderate or severe it must be attended to, so that it doesn’t worsen. A combination of anti-depressant medication and therapy is the most effective way of treating depression. Contact a mental health professional, either a psychologist or a social worker to get help.

If you are looking for support from a social worker you can go to www.saaswipp.co.za to find a practitioner in your area who can help you or who can direct you to where you can find the help you need.

How to prevent depression during the COVID-19 lockdown

About the author: Dana Labe is a social worker and member of the South African Association for Social Workers in Private Practice. She has a BA (hons) in Social Work, BA (hons) in Social Theory, cum laude and MA in Social Work cum laude.

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.