Wellbeing amid lockdown

Experts in wellbeing from 11 countries were asked about people's experience of lockdowns. Professor Arthur Grimes, Chair of Wellbeing and Public Policy, summarises the key responses.

We live in a time of Covid. Not only is our physical health at risk but so too is our broader sense of wellbeing.

Some people have been dealing well with the coronavirus and lockdown; others have struggled. In this resumption of my Wellblogging column, I look at what we can learn from others’ experiences about wellbeing in lockdown.

The World Wellbeing Panel, of which I am a member, promotes wellbeing as the ultimate purpose of major decision makers, particularly governments. In mid-April, the panel experts were asked: “How to maintain wellbeing during isolation while facing huge emotional stress from the threat of the Covid-19 virus.” The responses give us views of experts from 11 countries on how to cope in these difficult times. Panel members include psychologists, sociologists and economists.

One colleague on the panel reports that studies of astronauts and polar scientists show isolation may provoke “psychological hibernation”. People find it difficult to remember things or perform certain tasks. Other effects include depression, concentration difficulty, sleep disorders and irritability. Some scientific polar adventures of the 19th century ended in riots, madness, suicide and cannibalism!

Social isolation that extends for many months can have serious mental and physical health implications. So what do panel members say we can do while New Zealand’s lockdown continues until at least some time this week and possibly beyond? Even when we move into Level 2, many physical distancing restrictions will remain, especially for the elderly and others vulnerable to Covid-19.

Maintain social interactions

Panel members emphasise the importance of maintaining social contact with family, friends and workmates, and using this opportunity to reconnect with far-flung acquaintances around the world. We can also reconnect with neighbours (suitably distanced) on our daily walks or across the fence. These interactions may include neighbours we already know and others we don’t. Giving is better than receiving, so think how you can help those in worse circumstances, and look for volunteering opportunities. Develop communication rituals, like a story-telling session every night at dinner or sharing the best and the worst of each person's day. Ritualising time for sharing information helps keep people close and gives them something to look forward to.

Deal with negative thinking

Negative thinking can creep in with isolation, especially if we listen to too much news or – worse –social media. Instead of dwelling on a litany of negatives, tell ourselves we are given the gift of quality time with family and loved ones. In case we do find ourselves slipping into negative emotions, develop an exit strategy that involves thinking about positive events (past or forthcoming). Look for gratifications. As well as the obvious ones, try learning something new and try to have fun: humour and laughing are great medicine – so too are gardening and the arts.

Organise your day

Forming routines is one of the ingredients of cognitive behavioural therapy used to combat many mental health problems. Routines give one a sense of control. We can maintain a daily structure for work, sport, leisure and when to get up and go to bed. Another routine is to maintain a diary that emphasises the positive: each day write down five nice things you have seen others do.

Face the fear

Anxiety can be reduced by facing fears and putting them in perspective and seeing them as normal. Find out what the actual threat (and risk) of Covid-19 is to your personal health and to that of your family members. Understanding the true risks rather than dwelling on the worst case helps to detach from the fear. One can also train oneself to be comfortable with the idea of death. To those who do not believe in an afterlife, viewing death as a normal part of life helps. Importantly, given almost all of us in New Zealand will survive this event, optimism and positive thinking can help in dealing with the crisis.

Work on the future and on oneself

Use this time to prepare for life after the epidemic. Reflect on key contributors to our personal wellbeing and on those closest to us. Think about what was wrong with life before the pandemic, and plan what to do from now on to remedy it. Focus on how you want to live, what kind of society you want to live in, what you want for future generations and how you can help to make that happen.

Healthy habits

Maintaining healthy habits is important: exercise each day (particularly in green spaces), eat healthily and try to sleep regularly. Low intensity exercise (walking, jogging, biking) gives the brain small injections of dopamine that improves your mood. Healthy citizens help others, they restart economies and pay taxes to fund needed public services. Keep healthy so you can assist society as we come out of lockdown.

The full report (including attributions for each aspect of the advice) is available now from the World Wellbeing Panel.

Professor Arthur Grimes is Chair of Wellbeing and Public Policy in Wellington School of Business and Government at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. He is also Senior Fellow at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research and was formerly Chief Economist and Chairman of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.

This article was originally published on Newsroom.