How to stay sane when the world’s going mad

She’d never tried guided meditation or a mental health app before. Without it, she believes, her mental health would have deteriorated further. “I’ve shifted from a general sense of fear and panic to accepting that what’s happening is out of my control. I’ve adapted what I can to improve my own health, and I’m making longer-term changes that will make me better off,” she says.

For those who want more fine-grained, quantified detail, there’s more complex software such as NeuroFlow and Unmind. These apps monitor people’s mood, sleep, stress, and pain levels to help them discern patterns in what helps their mental health—and what hurts it. They then provide personalized lessons to help people better support themselves. Both apps are reporting an increase in demand. However, even NeuroFlow’s own CEO, Christopher Molaro, admits it won’t be right for everyone. “There is no silver bullet for people’s mental health. It’s such a complex and widespread issue,” he says.

Re-train your brain

Some apps have been specifically created for coronavirus-linked anxiety. Covid Coach includes meditation and breathing exercises, tools to track anxiety and moods, and pointers to resources for people who need help with domestic violence, substance abuse, and other issues. It was created by the National Center for PTSD, part of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, but is open and available to all, for free. Another app launched during the pandemic, called Clarity, nudges users to check in and set a score for their mood every day. Like Covid Coach, it includes tailored resources on how to stay well during the stressful times we find ourselves in, sourced from the UK’s National Health Service and mental health charity Mind.

Of all the interventions that have been studied for anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy is the gold standard. It has a more positive long-term impact than taking one of the commonly prescribed medications. Even better, it still delivers benefits when accessed online or through self-teaching. For example, a randomized control trial conducted in 2014 of 114 teenagers diagnosed with anxiety found internet-delivered and in-person CBT equally effective. This is especially good news when you consider the covid-induced shortage of psychotherapy slots.

Bringing CBT to the masses is the idea behind a free six-part online course called Helpers, created by a group of UK psychologists. Helpers aims to equip people with structured ways to discuss grief, loneliness, anxiety, and other difficult emotions with their friends, families, and neighbors. People can form groups with others if they wish, or go through the course on their own. It’s based on the principles of clinically proven therapy types like CBT and acceptance and commitment therapy (a form of therapy that helps you to embrace thoughts rather than fight them). It’s not the only course out there based on clinical methods—other online resources include The ACT Companion, eCBT, and Woebot.

“We need to let people know that these difficulties do not mean they’re crazy,” says web designer Simon Fox, who had the idea for Helpers.

Even Helpers won’t be able to catch everyone, though. It explicitly states that it is not for people who are in severe distress, or having thoughts of harming themselves or others. People who feel they cannot cope should refer themselves to their local mental health service. And, like all these apps and tools, it is not available to people without access to internet-connected devices.

But all these products tap into a tantalizing idea: getting more people to proactively look after their mental health. Fox hopes we might use the pandemic as an opportunity to further destigmatize mental health care and help build up people’s resilience. “This can be a chance to grow your own toolbox to deal with difficult things,” he says. “It’s not about not feeling things, but it’s about adapting and having more mental resources to deal with the demands you’re facing.”

Of course, mental illness isn’t new or unique to coronavirus. And some of our reactions to the pandemic may be nothing to worry about, says psychologist Kiana Azmoodeh. “Struggling through this—feeling stressed, anxious, and low—is not in and of itself a diagnosable mental health condition,” she says. “It’s a stressful time, and stress is an appropriate response.” 

A checklist of things to help with anxiety

  • Notice when you are worrying, and be kind and compassionate to yourself. This is a difficult time; it makes sense that you might be more anxious.
  • Focus on what’s in your control. Work out what is a hypothetical worry (you cannot do anything about it) and what is a real problem (needs a solution now).
  • Refocus on the present moment. Focus on your breath, or on using your five senses.
  • Engage in activities that you find meaningful and enjoyable. That could include music, walking, reading, baths, household tasks, or calls with friends and family.
  • Notice and limit your worry triggers. If the news is making you anxious, limit your consumption.
  • Practice gratitude. List the things you were grateful for that day: for example, “The sun was shining.” 
  • Keep a routine, and stay mentally and physically active. (compiled for us by psychologist Elizabeth Woodward using guidance from the UK’s NHS.)
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