• Martin Williams

Ongoing COVID-Related Anxiety - A Singapore Perspective

When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the nation in October, he delivered a message of reassurance that reflected a growing concern about the high number of COVID-19 cases in Singapore.



This concern is understandable. Not so long ago, COVID was a deadly disease that must be avoided at all costs, but this has changed in a remarkably short space of time since the vaccine rollout started. Singapore’s high vaccination rate means the virus is no longer dangerous for most people, meaning we can start to live with COVID, but this requires a significant shift in mindset which does not happen overnight.


Many people are also justifiably concerned about things like infecting elderly relatives, or the financial consequences of having to isolate.


To varying degrees, many are still anchored into the fears we have developed about COVID since early 2020. Worrying about the virus for so long has taken a significant toll on people’s mental health, and an analysis by Duke-NUS Medical School found that COVID-19 has led to psychological distress in a third of adults.


If you are experiencing anxiety about COVID, you are not alone. Anxiety is a defence mechanism that keeps us safe and it’s completely natural to feel this way. There are plenty of things to be anxious about in daily life, but as humans we have also learned to manage these anxieties. Here are some simple tips to take care of your mental health and help you to help reduce your worries about COVID.


Tips to manage COVID-related anxiety


Practice mindfulness


Mindfulness is sometimes described as meditation, but really what it describes is having moment-to-moment awareness of your present, including thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment – without judgement. Meditation is one of the main tools to promote mindfulness but there are others, and there are now many resources and apps to help find a technique that works for you.


Don’t bottle things up


It can be easy to ignore or suppress negative feelings, but it’s important to recognise and accept these thoughts and emotions in order to move forward and take action.


Stay connected with others


We are social animals and isolation can affect our mental health, amplifying our negative feelings. Try to stay connected to friends and family to avoid that feeling of isolation, even if you would prefer not to meet people in person. Phone calls, video chats or even social media.


Exercise


Exercise releases endorphins, which has the effect of reducing pain and increasing pleasure, resulting in an all-round feeling of wellbeing. Exercise can also help to distract you from negative thoughts, which is an effect that can be increased if you introduce an element of mindfulness to your workout. For instance, try to bring your awareness to the present by focusing on your breathing, or paying attention to the feeling of your feet hitting the treadmill.


Regular exercise can also make you feel better about yourself. Even small goals can help us feel a sense of accomplishment, and over time you will start to feel better about yourself in general, not to mention improving your overall health and boosting your immune system.


Sleep


There is a close connection between health and sleep, so getting a good night’s rest (quantity as well as quality) is really important. If you are struggling with sleep, here are a few tips to help:


· Keep to a sleep schedule that gives you enough rest. This means going to bed and waking up at a set time and avoiding sleeping in at weekends.

· Create a good sleep environment by ensuring your mattress, pillows and bedding give you the comfort and support you need, and try to block out excess sound and light if it affects your sleep.

· Get into a pre-bedtime routine and try to stick to it. This includes avoiding screens in the hour or two before bedtime and doing something that helps you wind down, such as reading or mindfulness. If you must use a screen, try to avoid sources of COVID-related news, such as social media and news outlets.

· Think twice about that afternoon kopi. Research has found that caffeine stays in the body for several hours, even after you might think its stimulant effects have worn off, which affects both our ability to get to sleep the quality of our sleep.

· Avoid alcohol. Even though it can help us to fall asleep faster, research has found that alcohol greatly disrupts the quality of our sleep and prevents much of the restoration that happens in our brains.

Journaling


Journaling can help reduce anxiety, lessen feelings of distress and increase well-being. Putting your worries or negative thoughts down on paper can help to break the cycle of rumination, enabling you to challenge those thoughts and work out ways to address them.


A benefit of journaling is that it’s a flexible technique. There are many different methods, so you can probably find one that suits you, and you can do it daily, weekly, or whenever you feel that you need to.


Do something fun


As adults we are often rushing around and focusing on ‘important’ things, so much so that we often forget to have fun. But enjoyment is one of our core human requirements, so it’s important we don’t ignore it. Just like exercise, doing something we enjoy helps to release endorphins and helps us to forget our worries for a while.


Maintain a nutritious and balanced diet


The benefits to our physical health of maintaining a healthy diet are well known. However, it also plays a significant role in supporting our mental health. Whilst the relationship between diet and mental health is complex, research shows a link between what we eat and how we feel. Eating well – which means having a balanced diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables and nutrients – can improve your sense of wellbeing and your mood.


Speak to a professional


For many people, persistent COVID-related anxiety is actually a symptom of a deeper issue. If the above tips aren’t working, it may be helpful to speak to a counsellor. A trained professional will be able to help identify what is really troubling you, then work with you to address those issues.


Interestingly, a recent survey by Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health (IMH) found that 81% of people would consider seeking professional help for mental health issues related to COVID. This is an encouragingly high number, which the assistant chairman of IMH’s Medical Board, Dr Mythily Subramaniam, suggested could be because COVID is a factor outside of people’s control, meaning they can seek help without feeling it is a personal reflection on them.


Whatever the reasons, the openness of Singaporeans to seek professional help is very positive. Whilst COVID has acted as a trigger for some people which has brought underlying issues to the fore, a silver lining is that meaning many people will seek treatment for these issues which they otherwise might not have been aware of. As a result, those people will emerge from the pandemic even better than before.



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