Opinion article

Managing your mental health while working from home

Australian Catholic University Institute of Positive Psychology and Education Professor, Joseph Ciarrochi, shares his insights on how to manage your mental well-being during the COVID-19 crisis.

Change is a constant. We get older, seasons pass, our children grow up, our body changes. All this happens so gradually that we don’t see it happening. That is why we are in shock over the massive and rapid changes being brought on by the coronavirus.

Most of us have not experienced this rapid change in our lifetimes. How we respond to this change will define our generation. We are confronting practical problems such as how we work from home and keep our economy running, but we also need to confront psychological problems. How do we cope with this unwanted change? The coronavirus pandemic can bring us together with a common purpose or can cause us to become selfish and disconnected from each other: which will it be?

How are you reacting to the pandemic? Do you feel anxious, afraid, and angry about how people have responded, sad about all that we could lose? Do you perhaps feel lonely and cut off? If you're having any of these feelings, you're not alone. These are natural emotional reactions to the situation.

We need to acknowledge that we have entered an age of anxiety. The threat will be around for a little while. While we can’t escape this anxiety, we can learn to respond to it effectively – a half century of psychological research can show us how. Here are some evidence-based principles for managing stress and anxiety.

Don’t make things worse 

Don't do things that make your anxiety and your life worse. This may be an obvious principle, but it is not one we always follow. People respond poorly to their anxiety in two ways: they over-react to it, or they under-react and deny the real threats they face. Both over-reacting and under-reacting are defensive responses to anxiety that seek to make the anxiety go away, but research suggests these strategies often make things worse. Here are just some examples of how people can respond to anxiety:

•    excessive use of substances like alcohol, to escape feelings;
•    excessive worry and rumination, trying to think all danger away;
•    disengaging from life;
•    distracting oneself excessively with Netflix, online gambling, food, social media, etc;
•    engaging in ineffective social strategies such as bullying or complete psychological withdrawal from people.

There are thousands of strategies people use to make themselves feel better. Some strategies work, such as exercise and mediation. But most strategies that involve over-reacting or under-reacting only make matters worse. Whenever you react to anxiety and stress, ask yourself: “is this making my best life better or worse?”

Remember what you care about

Imagine you are on a small boat at sea during a great storm. How will you save yourself? The most important thing is to steer your boat in the right direction. You do not want to end up at sea forever or smash your boat against the rocks. To navigate to safety, you need a compass.

In life, you need to use your values as a compass. Ask yourself what kind of person you want to be during this crisis. What is important to you? Perhaps write your values down and keep them somewhere you will see them. Research suggests that reminding yourself of your values can give you psychological resources to face adversity.

In a crisis there is both opportunity and danger

The coronavirus is a terrible thing, but it could bring about some positive changes. Nobody wants coronavirus but now that it is here, what will we do? Look for ways that the crisis might improve your life. Can you find new ways to connect with your family and loved ones? Can you find new ways to do business? Does the current crisis require you to upskill in areas and can you use these skills moving forward to improve your career?

Live as much as you can in the moment

We can’t be alive at any time but now. Even though the future is uncertain, can you enjoy the day-to-day moments of your life? Can you still find meaning and purpose?

Stay connected

Before the coronavirus, much of our social contact was unplanned. We ran into people at work, on the train, or about town. Now very little social contact is unplanned. 

We need social connection as much as we need nutrients. Losing social connection and becoming chronically lonely increases your risk of death as much as smoking 10 cigarettes a day or having an unhealthy diet. During this crisis, you will need to foster social connections in whatever way you can. Just as you should eat your vegetables every day, you should connect with people you like and love every day. 

Be kind

Stress has a way of making humans act unusually. Some people become afraid and selfish and see the threat as a “me-versus-you” situation. Don’t believe it. This is a “we-versus-it” situation. If we pull together and support each other, we will get through this. The research is interesting on this topic. When we act selfishly, we are more likely to experience distrust, resentment, and anger. In contrast, when we act with kindness, we are more likely to experience well-being. Importantly, our kindness spreads, if we are kind, the people around us are more likely to behave with kindness and generosity.

Know that this too will pass

Research suggests we overestimate how long it will take us to recover from a bad event. For example, when people lose their jobs, they overestimate how bad they’ll be feeling in three months’ time and they often fail to take into account all the ways they will cope with and adjust to the loss. No matter how terrible things seem, remember that you have more coping resources than you think. Things will get better and this too will pass.

About the authors

Joseph Ciarrochi

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Joseph Ciarrochi is a Professor at Australian Catholic University's Institute of Positive Psychology and Education. His research interests include identifying character strengths that promote social, emotional, physical well-being and performance, and contextual behavioural science. Alongside his academic work, he is a public speaker and author of several books, including Get Out of your Mind and Into your Life for Teens, and Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology: The Seven Foundations of Well-Being.