How are you? It’s a question you’re hearing a lot lately.
There are many things to celebrate these days: pandemic is slowing down in most European countries, (although some places are still struggling), the summer is here and we’re finally meeting our friends and some of us, also our colleagues.
But let’s review why these past few months have been so challenging and what we’ve learned from these extraordinary times.
Going through the first pandemic of our lifetime was challenging and still is for many, since this health crisis is touching all the aspects of our lives, without exception: our physical health, our mental health, our social relationships, our work and the global economy.
This unprecedented uncertainty has generated a stress crisis that everyone has tried to manage in their own way. If we go back to the basic definition of stress as a reaction of ‘fight, flight or freeze when encountering a danger’, we understand even better why the ‘Covid stress’ was particularly hard to manage. We couldn’t really ‘flee’ from the danger nor did we have the ability and knowledge to fight it, at least at the very beginning. ‘Freezing’ wasn’t much of an option, at least during lockdown (and ‘doing nothing’ was overall a bad solution).
So, while facing an unknown and life threatening danger, most of us mixed these 3 reactions and alternated between them for better or for the worst, depending on our personality, life experiences, resilience and environment.
Now that the pandemic is giving us a bit of a break, let’s take a step back and think about the lessons we have learned from this extraordinary experience, which has forced us to question pretty much everything in our lives.
Many experts are warning that the second wave of the pandemic will be a mental health one.
Let’s see how we can prevent this at best.
1/ Vulnerable people
Firstly, we need to check on and support the most vulnerable people at risk of having mental health problems during the pandemic stress crisis:
people with existing mental health conditions
people with addictions
older people, especially those dealing with loneliness
people with pre-existing conditions at high risk of severe forms of Covid-19
people at risk of domestic violence, especially during the lockdown
frontline healthcare workers and other key workers
Regarding the latter category, the Childhood Trust charity had published a report about ‘children in lockdown’ and the consequences of the coronavirus crisis for children living in poverty. They would be ‘at high risk for mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress’.
2/ Access to mental health care
There is a considerable number of inequalities regarding the Covid stress and health in general and that also includes access to care. Moreover, during a pandemic this becomes more difficult and remains problematic for many, either because of an over stretched healthcare system or a difficulty in asking for help because of stigma and other barriers.
The booming of digital health solutions that we’ve so much struggled to implement in the past ten years is one of the most positive side effects of this pandemic that will help many people, including with their mental health. However, there are still challenges to overcome: to have products with an exceptional user experience to make access easier, to combine human interaction with technology and last but not least, to improve doctors’ workflow and save their time.
3/ Health monitoring
When it comes to prevention, understanding our symptoms in our real life context can make a huge difference. What do we need to prevent?And what are the strengths and weaknesses we can leverage?
Mental wellbeing and health involves so many subtle aspects. Imagine that twice a year you’d tell your doctor about your stress and anxiety problems or your poor sleep. To really understand the triggers, your behaviour patterns and your life context, the doctor would need a little bit more than that in order to help you at best and strengthen your mental health. On the same topic, digital health, in the recent episode of a16z podcast, The Future of Primary Care, the guests were doing awesome analogies that explain so well the importance of monitoring health: imagine your doctor only be able to listen to few bits of your ‘Data Health’ song and give you advice, as opposed to having access to the full song and being able to have a sort of ‘Shazam of health’.
Using digital technologies to improve mental wellbeing is not only something useful to healthy individuals/patients, doctors and healthcare organisations but it’s also important for companies and their employees. Akesio has adapted its offers during the Covid pandemic and allowed companies to strategically take care of their employees.
Although the movement of health consciousness has become more and more popular during the past years, a sanitary crisis plus a lockdown naturally made health a high priority during the past months. Asking someone recently ‘how are you these days’, the answer was: ‘I’m in good health, so I’m fine! For the better or for the worst, health has become the main metric lately to evaluate our lives’.
During lockdown, taking care of ourselves was a necessity, although we’ve suddenly better understood the value of health, beyond the idea of feeling safe. With this unprecedented stress crisis, we also needed more than ever to ‘feel good’, which is a good way to cope with stress. For some, this translated into family activities, healthy cooking, experimenting with home exercise, mindfulness techniques and many other pleasant activities.
Others have had a sweet tooth or have struggled to do much self-care, especially if they were alone in self-isolation or if they were a key worker. Overall, the attitude ‘do what you can’ was probably the best way to go during the pandemic, but mental wellbeing became a priority and it is here to stay.
Self-care needs support and education from professionals and is ideally backed by digital technologies, because the hardest part is to build a healthy routine and stay consistent.
5/ Lessons learned
The lessons we’ve learned from the Covid-19 lockdown can be useful from now on:
―Acknowledgment & acceptance ✅
If it’s not yet done, we need to acknowledge and recognise sincerely to ourselves: we went through emotionally challenging times during the past 3 months and it wasn’t easy. Of course, it was way harder for frontline staff and other key workers or people who lost their loved ones. But still, the vast majority of us, no matter how well equipped and resilient we were, have had an emotional roller coaster that is maybe still present for many to some extent. We needed to face the biggest uncertainty of our lifetime and completely change our way of living and working. And in general, facing and recognising a problem is halfway on the path to solving it.
Although ideally we would have kept up a healthy diet, regular exercise and meditation, in other words a ‘good self-care’ routine, we’ve also learned that in times of crisis, we’re striving to survive, literally and we ‘do what we can’. I’ve heard some people confess that they’re feeling guilty about not doing enough during this “unique free time that they will never have again”. They’re guilty of missing opportunities like learning a foreign language or reading the many books on your bedside table. Then, with a gentle reminder that ‘you do what you can’ and ‘be kind to yourself’, it became more obvious that this guilt feeling wasn’t appropriate for these exceptional circumstances.
So, we’ve learned that we need to be kinder to ourselves and to the others. Not just during a crisis. All the time.
And we’ve also learned to be more grateful for what we have and more broadly that leads to a greater awareness about ourselves but also about humanity and our planet.
―Mental flexibility and adaptability 🤸🏾♀️
We’ve also learned that a lot of our anxiety comes from uncertainty and the best way to face it is to maintain mental flexibility and to be able to rapidly adapt to changes. We’ve learned to accept that change is the only constant in our lives.
―(Re)discover more things about ourselves 🔔
This pandemic reminds us of our vulnerabilities but also helps us reveal our deepest strengths and human qualities. Facing this unprecedented challenge, inevitably we have recalled and even discovered what we value the most in our lives. This exercise that we were forced into, is actually one of the greatest opportunities we’ve ever had to learn more about ourselves. It beats any self-discovery work (with or without a therapist).
―Creativity boost 💡
Living with a constraint (and we did have an extreme one) is generally not pleasant and can be harmful in many ways. But being in ‘survival mode’ also forces us to find solutions to our problems and feel free to get creative. Applying the ‘problem solving’ technique is something we should remember in all stressful situations, no matter how big or difficult they seem to be. We need to trust our ability to always find or create a solution to any problem.
―Less is more ❌
Stopping our tumultuous busy lives came with another realisation: less really is more. Although we were missing many things from our before-Covid life, we’ve also realised that there are so many things we don’t really need or not as much as we thought.
And the breadth of this revelation is wide: it involves the amount of unnecessary items we used to buy, our unhealthy relationships, activities we used to do for the wrong reasons. We don’t need to become a ‘Marie Kondo’ expert, but decluttering our life of unnecessary things and toxic people can be a true relief and boost our capacities to cope with stress.
―We love & need people 🤗
Most of us know very well that we’re social creatures and we enjoy spending time with our friends, family and our colleagues. But we never had the chance to experience ‘social distancing’ before and we’ve realised that we don’t only miss the people we love but we also need their physical presence, we need their hugs. People were talking about ‘hugs cravings’, ‘skin hunger’ and some reported going to the grocery store only to have ‘eye contact’ with a fellow human being. Scientists have many explanations for this: skin contact increases our levels of oxytocin important in social bounding, and the pressure of hugs is said to decrease the stress hormone cortisol and activate the vagus and parasympathetic nervous system, producing a calming effect.
Interestingly, we’ve also realised maybe more than ever that as much as we love the people we live with, we also need ‘our space’ and moments of solitude.
It’s true that we would have preferred to learn these lessons in an easier and less dramatic way.
Since the mental health crisis is on the rise and that pandemic is still here, we need to invest more in our health, including mental health and embrace a preventive approach rather than waiting until we have a health problem to solve it. Covid-19 came with a lot of struggle but let's embrace the opportunities to be better, to feel better and to change things for the better in this world.
Stay safe and enjoy your summertime!
Dr Lavinia Ionita
CEO & founder | Akesio
To read more:
Skin hunger helps explain your desperate longing for human touch. Wired, April 2020
Children in lockdown. The Childhood Trust, June 2020
The coronavirus pandemic is pushing America into a mental health crisis. The Washington Post, May 2020
Coping with stress. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)