How to Preserve Your Mental Health During the Pandemic

A lesson from history and ten memorable rules

During the Blitz of World War II, Londoners faced the terror of nightly bombardment that left 43,000 dead and millions homeless. The Nazis expected to destroy morale and force surrender, yet the British chose to fight on and among the people there was a surprising absence of crime and suicide. Not only did the expected panic and despair never materialise, but the people appeared to rise to a new level of unity and resilience. Very little of which has graced this pandemic.

We have heard that a collective crisis inevitably leads to plummeting mental health, but the Blitz and countless other dark days from the past counsel otherwise. With their armies wiped out and a rampaging Hannibal at the gates, not only did the Romans fail to dissolve into fear and warring factions, but an auction for the very land Hannibal camped upon went ahead and got full price. And don’t even get me started on the Russians.

Pandemics or invasions should cause widespread depression and anxiety because they carry with them the lethal psychological trio of helplessness, entrapment, and loss. Perhaps the Blitz did not because there was also a clear common enemy, and a sense of all being in it together. A crucial boon for morale also came from the Royal Family – strange as it may seem today – who refused to evacuate even when Buckingham Palace was bombed. As the Queen Mother said afterwards, “Now we can look the East End in the eye”.

A sense of unity may have flourished in the early days of the pandemic, but it soon vanished as deep political differences resurged. Suspicion of vaccines and government control provided a wedge, and the silo effect of social media [1] soon pushed opposing sides further and further apart. The pandemic offered China as a handy common enemy, but that too became a political flashpoint. Lab Leak was branded a conspiracy theory, which pushed any chance of rational discussion into the shadows. And in the online world, anyone could feel like an expert.

And so, the genie is now well out of the bottle, and our pandemic experience will have none of the unity that shielded London’s mental health during the Blitz. People must now find ways to preserve their mental health on their own. Someone seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist will receive advice or treatment that reflects their individual situation, such as a medication or therapy program, while other measures apply to everyone.

These universal steps are often what a specialist advises first. They are powerful, practical, and come without side effects, so applying them may mean nothing else is needed. They are even valuable in more serious cases where they may reduce the required dose of medication, or length of therapy.

I plan to give you a head start by outlining those universal steps here. The formula is REPLASTERS which will help you remember all ten.

1. Relax

Set aside time and space to relax and reflect. This may be unfocused like going for a walk, or more directed with meditation or a journal. Many free apps have meditation or relaxation exercises. The key element is giving your mind space to wander. Dialling down your body’s stress response always helps, while sometimes anxiety and depression come from a specific problem lurking below your surface thoughts. Some mental space can let it reveal itself, then it can be addressed.

2. Eat well

Stress can make us eat too much, or too little. A stressed brain needs reliable fuel to solve its problems. Eating poorly will make things seem worse but eating too much brings its own problems. Try to strike the right balance by having regular healthy meals.

3. Plan

Even simple problems can seem overwhelming if left to balloon and multiply. Worry, indecision and feeling out of control rush into the void where a well-planned routine should be.

There is a reason why a person in the throes of utter collapse starts rocking back and forth: as a last defence against chaos, they have developed a simple routine. A mind under stress works much better when it has some certainty and direction to grasp. You can start by listing everything you need to do.

Doing this each night can be the central strut of your routine. The following day, move through each in turn, crossing them off as you go. Usually, it’s best to tackle the hardest first so you can breeze through what remains. But sometimes you need to build confidence first. Here you start with something simple and build momentum. Either way, you need a list and a plan. As once said in a famous movie, “The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.”

4. Laugh

The best antidepressant and stress-reliever ever known is laughter. Make sure you grant yourself lots of chances to laugh. The most effective trigger is other people: we laugh ten times more in company than alone. That’s difficult during a pandemic, but we still have phone and virtual calls, as well as whoever we’re stuck inside with. Failing all that, there is the wondrous expanse of the internet.

5. Avoid

Avoid the vices that may feel good in the moment but ultimately drag you down. Drinking alone is a particular hazard during lockdowns. Drugs and alcohol are one of the key things a psychiatrist will ask about, and no treatment will work until they are under control. Whatever your chosen vice, try to avoid not just the thing itself but the slippery slope that leads you there.

A lesser-known problem is watching too much news. The news is everything going wrong in the world wrapped into one hysterical bundle. Consume too much and you’ll make yourself sick, or at the very least skew your view of reality into unneeded shadows.

6. Sleep

Having a good night’s sleep is easier said than done. Decent sleep is often the first casualty of stress, so stress has a nasty habit of worsening the problems that caused it while sapping your strength to respond. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”, as Yeats put it. But there is much you can do to prevent a vicious circle. The key steps are called sleep hygiene.

7. Transcend

Some people can withstand almost anything; others are laid low by a trifle. Since we are all made of the same human stuff, the difference is largely how much meaning we see in our struggles. As Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

The trick is getting the why, especially at short notice during a pandemic. In lieu of creating an all-purpose and indestructible life philosophy, what you can do right now is find activities of transcendence. These are whatever allows you to step outside yourself for a moment, and feel part of something bigger.

Some possibilities available even during lockdown are following a football team, devotion to a worthy cause, or your chosen form of meditation. The best course may be elusive, but even setting out to find it means you’re part way there.

8. Exercise

Everyone knows this one but doing it is another matter. Being stressed or depressed is when you most need nature’s sweet gust of endorphins, but also when you most want to crawl into bed or slump on the couch beside a bag of doughnuts. If all else fails, set aside a block of time for exercise the following day and do nothing else during that time. Sit and stare into space if you must. Perhaps boredom will drive you out the next day. After even the smallest step, build on that each day, aiming only to beat the bone-idle sluggard you were the day before.

9. Reach out

Lives wither without friends and family. Some people are missing human contact so much that they clamour for a return to the office. Try your best to stay in contact with your loved ones. They probably haven’t read this article, so the onus is on you. And the people most struggling are often those least likely to reach out, so even a short phone call may be a great blessing. Appreciate small moments of interacting with strangers too. As George Costanza said, “We are living in a society!”

10. Strive

Along with meaning, the other invisible bulwark of life is purpose. Our reward circuits fire when they register motion towards a valued goal. Without goals, our brains get the hint and start to power down until doing almost anything seems too much. No purpose, no dopamine. No dopamine, and we are sitting ducks for depression.

While it may be difficult to pursue any major undertakings over the pandemic, short-range goals are everywhere available, and luckily our rewards circuit can’t tell the difference. Try to find useful projects that will leave your life a little better off than it was before. If you just sit and let your mind roam, no doubt problems will soon be assailing you, and from those you will have as many ideas as you need.

Depression and despair are when your troubles curl into a vicious circle and take on a life of their own. But your problems and your thinking can also be flipped into the opposite – a positive circle – where every small win leads to another.

Seeing even a little progress each day is wonderful boon for confidence. Before long, life is surging into a glorious new momentum. That’s why within every crisis lies opportunity, and when people recover from their despair, they often say that they are not just better, but better than ever before.

And so there we have the REPLASTERS guide to mental health:

  • Relax
  • Eat
  • Plan
  • Laugh
  • Avoid
  • Sleep
  • Transcend
  • Exercise
  • Reach
  • Strive

[1] The silo effect refers to the way that social media gathers people into groups which share the same opinion, who then only see material that reinforces that opinion. Traditional media outlets have also become more polarised which further entrenches the divide.