With lockdowns in Melbourne and Sydney extended, gyms and other training facilities remain out of bounds for people. And a loss of social connection and restricted time outdoors means it’s not just one’s physical health but also mental well-being that may be taking a hit.
With prolonged COVID-19 lockdowns, most people are confined to their homes except when they need to go outside for essential reasons. This disruption in daily routine may cause adverse physical and psychological effects for many.
"We are hearing lots of issues around fear of the illness themselves, fear of the impact on families, concerns about the health system and its capacity to manage what's happening," says Tamara Cavenett, the president of the Australian Psychological Society.
She says almost every person in Australia has been impacted in some way or has some concerns around the pandemic.
Taking care of your mental health
Cecile Sy, a volunteer speaker for Beyond Blue, had depression in the past, which she overcame through psychotherapy. As a result, she’s very aware of her emotions.
She’s living in Parramatta, one of the Local Government Areas with a higher number of COVID-19 cases and, therefore, tighter restrictions.
She says she gets very anxious at times, and at one point stopped going outside for the fear of contracting COVID-19.
I stopped going outside. I didn't even want to go to the shops. I think it's because that fear of all these increases in COVID cases. I just started getting paranoid.
A counsellor encouraged her to go out and exercise more regularly. She also started painting in her free time.
Limiting the use of social media
Dr Cavenett says people use social media and news all the time for updates, but they should watch if these affect their mental health.
Look at whether it's making you more anxious or lowering your mood and how many hours that you are actually spending checking in on news.
"If it's getting too much, if it’s getting you down, then consider disconnecting from some of those devices for a little bit of time to give yourself some mental space," says Dr Cavenett.
Grant Blashki is the Lead Clinical Adviser for Beyond Blue.
He says it’s important for people to focus on what they can control.
What are the things in your life that you can actually control?
Having a routine
Dr Blashki says it's important to pay attention to how we look after our body, for example, getting enough sleep, eating good food and exercising.
"I think structure is really important. For example, you can say, 'at 11:00am I'm going to go for a walk’. ‘At 12 o'clock I'm going to ring my mother’. So it has a sort of a flow to it rather than just being open-ended," he says.
Dr Blashki says some people find it helpful if they treat this time as some sort of athletic achievement.
You wake up in the morning and you go, 'Okay, how good can I make today?
Regular physical exercise
Dr Cavenett says exercise is one of the most important things to keep up during the pandemic.
"We do know that exercise has huge implications for mental health. And it's one of those things you'd kind of want to keep going, or if you haven't done before, start now."
Exercise can be really helpful for maintaining endorphins and just improving overall mental health.
Doctor and Professor of Medicine at Melbourne University Cassandra Szoeke is the author of the newly released book Secrets of Women's Healthy Ageing.
The book published the findings from a unique study focusing on the health of more than 400 women in their mid to late lives over the past 30 years.
Professor Szoke says the study shows that daily exercise clearly improved people's biological health.
"In 30 years of our research whilst we were expecting the intense exercises, gyms and swimming, and these kinds of structured exercise could do better, interestingly, over 30 years we found that people that did the best were people who did activity seven days a week, and it did not have to necessarily be an intense activity," she says.
A person who walked every day for 45 minutes to an hour did just as well, as long as they were doing it seven days a week. So don't stress if you're not getting that intense exercise you're used to, but just keep active every day.
Ideally people would be able to combine stretching, practicing balance, strength and resistance training when they exercise, the research found, but the main thing is to stay active.
Another really important thing to pay attention to is diet.
Dr Blashki says with the COVID-19 restrictions, it's easy for people to overeat or start drinking a lot of alcohol.
"While we are all a bit stressed, make it easy for yourself to make good decisions. Don't leave unhealthy food sitting around, just try not to even have them in the house," he says.
"By the time you're hungry or feeling stressed, it's almost too late."
Keeping work and personal life separate
It's also important for people to have regular web chats with family and friends to maintain social connections.
Dr Cavenett says it's important to remember that we are all in this together and that there are still many ways to connect with one another.
Key to all this is to know that you may well have low days, that’s to be expected and it’s understandable, and you almost need to plan for them.
"So doing any activity that you can think of that would normally pick up your mood and, and that’s really individual. Do what you like doing," she says.
For those who work from home, it's important to have clear distinctions between when they are working and when they are off.
"Many people are working from home, and the risk is that it can become like you're living at work so that the work keeps creeping into your life with emails, and you never feel like you're off the hook," says Dr Blashki.
"I recommend that you create a very explicit boundary about when is work and when is your home life."
He says it's important not to forget about preventive health checks.
Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue.
Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service - 1800 512 348 or coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au
Beyond Blue Support Service - 1300 22 4636 or beyondblue.org.au/get-support
Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
Call 000 in an emergency.