Loneliness
Mental Health

How to Maintain Your Mental Health During Lockdown

4 Proven Tips To Stay Mentally Well During COVID-19

Do you feel like getting mad during this pandemic?

Is working from home a challenge for you?

Do you feel lonely, financially insecure or depressed? 

Do you feel down most of the time?

This pandemic and now this second lockdown hit us. Our routine turned upside down, and the world is no longer how we knew it.

Instead of focusing on things that you cannot control, create a routine beneficial for your mind. Maintain your mental health while staying at home during the second lockdown.

1. Exercise for your mental health

Want happy thoughts? Move!

The COVID-19 pandemic affected even our exercise routine. The gyms were closed and sport events like marathons were cancelled. These had a big impact over those who used to exercise frequently.

Still, the interest in physical activity rose during the last few months. People who work from home don’t have to commute and use that time to exercise. Others may begin their journey to physical fitness.

This study explored the interest in physical activity before and during COVID-19 outbreaks in Australia, the UK and the USA. It is based on Google Trends data. So it only reflects the desire of people to know more about health habits and physical exercise.

Data from Google Trends showing online searches during lockdown
Google Relative Search Rates during the 12-month-period of 26 May 2019–22 May 2020. The dashed vertical line represents the date when the lockdown policy started (the national lockdown started on 23 March 2020 in Australia and the UK; policies varied by state in the USA, with the earliest state-wise lockdown enforced in California on 19 March 2020).

‘These data suggest that despite challenges to an active lifestyle, the COVID-19 lockdown may have led to increases in population-level interest in and engagement with physical activity.’

BMJ Journals

Well, from interest to implementation it’s a long journey because creating a habit it takes time, patience and determination. I will show you how you can include exercise in your schedule, no matter how busy you are.

Find out why exercise is good for your mental health during lockdown (and any time).

It is exercise alone that supports the spirits and keeps the mind in vigour.

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Relieves stress and anxiety 

Exercise equips your body to handle the stress developed from continuous worry. 

The key is to be consistent. Exercise is a good stressor for your body, but chronic stress and anxiety are bad stressors. But your body doesn’t make the difference. So if you exercise frequently, your body will adapt and it will learn to handle anxiety and stress easier. Thus, anxiety symptoms will affect you less.

Exercise challenges depression and anxiety because implies action. Passivity increases your depression, while anxiety thrives on avoidance of uncomfortable situations. When you exercise you embrace action and movement. Thus, instead of staying in bed the whole day, you would dress up and go out running. This simple step gives you more control over your life, especially during lockdown.

Exercise for your mental health during lcokdown
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Improves your self-esteem

Exercise makes you do the uncomfortable thing. Some forms of physical activity are uncomfortable at the beginning, because requires effort. Then you learn that facing the source of anxiety helps you overcome the challenge. And you will feel good about yourself. The next time you will have more willpower to do hard tasks rather than avoiding them.

It’s a natural anti-depressant

Many studies argue for the antidepressant effects of exercise. (study)

For example, American researchers made a study on 30 people. They randomly assigned them to 1 of 3 interventions: experimenter-accompanied exercise in the form of walking (20 to 40 minutes 3 times per week for 6 weeks), a social contact control condition, and a wait-list control. 

Exercise had a broader effect compared with control conditions in reducing depressive symptoms.

Researchers provided 3 theories on how physical activity improves the mood:

  1. A rise in core body temperature following exercise may be responsible for the reduction in symptoms of depression. The rise in temperature of specific brain regions, such as the brain stem, can lead to an overall feeling of relaxation and reduction in muscular tension. (deVries, 2016)
  2. Exercise has a positive effect on depression because of an increased release of β-endorphins following exercise. Studies relate endorphins to a positive mood and an overall enhanced sense of well-being. (R A Markoff, P Ryan, T Young, 1982)
  3. According to the last theory, physical activity serves as a distraction from worries and depressing thoughts. Researchers argue that activities like exercise that distract the mind are more effective than self-focused or introspective activities such as journal keeping.
Any physical activity is beneficial for your mental health
Photo by Michael Zittel on Pexels.com

Exercise reduces brain fog

Physical activity makes you feel better and think better.

And you don’t have to become an athlete for this. 

This study (cited by Dow, 2015) found that walking one mile per day reduces the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. Brain scans of the participants showed that the volume in brain-areas like hippocampus (critical for learning) increased.

How to create an exercise routine during lockdown

woman wearing white sleeveless top
Photo by Valeria Ushakova on Pexels.com

For general advice on how to integrate physical activity to ease anxiety symptoms, check my article here.

The lockdown and COVID-19 came with changes that we can interpret in different ways. We can find excuses not to exercise: ‘Gym is closed and I am not motivated to exercise at home.’ or ‘I work from home. I have more time to plan my run or my workout.’


Now, each of us is in a unique situation.


You may still commute to work and now that the gym was closed your only chance to exercise faded away.


You may have used to run with your buddies. Now lockdown ruined your routine and running is not that fun anymore.


You are working from home and wish to include movement in your lifestyle but don’t know where to start.


When you create your fitness routine, think about 3 things: time, money and level of fitness.

Time

How much time can you allocate daily for physical activity? It can be an hour, 30 minutes or even 10 minutes. Some days you may have time in the morning and others in the evening.

Weekly calender for exercise
Put exercise in your calendar

If you work from home, you can work out for 25 minutes before your job and then do yoga for 10 minutes in the evening. 

If you have to go to work and don’t feel like sweating much before your job, do a quick work out: get your heart pumping, and get your muscles working. You will better and your brain will thank you.

10 minutes workout to use during lockdown and after
Super quick and intense workout

If you want more intense 10 minutes workouts, check this article here.

Make a plan that fits your schedule! Have two long workouts per week (e.g. Wednesday and Saturday), then super quick workouts of 10 minutes (e.g. Monday and Tuesday) a pleasant walk in the nature (e.g. Sunday) and a yoga session (e.g. Thursday).

LISTEN TO YOUR BODY!

If you feel fatigue and your muscles are sore, do something easier. You will know when is the right time to push and get over your limits and when you need rest. Still, in the rest days try to move: walk, clean the house, dance, etc.

Money

Think about your budget.

So you chose the exercises according to your schedule. Now think how much money you want to spend. Please don’t use the lack of ‘equipment’ as an excuse for not moving.

If you prefer lifting weights but the gym is closed now, buy some dumb bells and a kettle bell. Alternatively, you can do bodyweight exercises that are super efficient.

Maybe you want to buy a bike (indoors or outdoors). You could listen to a podcast or watch something educational during your aerobic workout. 

Another option is to subscribe to a platform like Beachbody. It is like Netflix for workouts. You can find hundreds of options to move: yoga, cardio, dance, strength workouts, etc.

Think about your equipment. If you want to run, you need a decent pair of shoes (not the fanciest ones, but good enough to prevent injuries). 

IMPORTANT – most of the times you don’t need a lot of money to exercise. You are unemployed, on furlough or you are anxious about your financial situation? Use your BODY and it’s enough: walk, do bodyweight exercises, take the stairs, jump the rope, dance.

Fitness level

If you are a beginner: listen to your body. Push when you feel strong enough and take it easy when it feels too hard.

Exercise tips for beginners
Tips for beginners

If you are getting back after a long break, being sick or an injury: have patience with yourself and don’t compare with others. You are not a beginner and you know already some things about yourself like your body’s reaction to effort, the time you need to rest, when to push and how to manage your expectations.

Tips to restart the exercise habit

2. Eat the rainbow

The second thing you should do to maintain your mental health during lockdown is eat well.

The food you eat affects the way you feel and how your brain works.

Not only certain nutrients are needed for proper brain functioning but also others can be harmful, promoting depression. 

flat lay photography of vegetable salad on plate
Photo by Ella Olsson on Pexels.com

For example, a research found that participants with high consumption of trans-fats (pastries and fast food) had up to a 48% increase in the risk of depression when compared to participants who did not consume these fats(2012). This is a large European study that followed and analyzed the diet and lifestyle of over 12,000 volunteers free of depression.

Another study investigated the association between diet quality and depression in over 7,000 young

Australian adolescents (10–14 years). Adolescents scoring higher on a measure of healthy diet were less likely to report symptomatic depression, while those with an increased consumption of processed and ‘junk’ foods were more likely to report depression (2010).

Every piece of food you put into your mouth affects your brain’s health!

Why dieting must stop

mother and daughter preparing avocado toast
Photo by August de Richelieu on Pexels.com

Low-fat, high-fat, high-protein, low-carb, vegetarian, vegan – these are terms meant to give you the hope that perfect diet exists.

Sorry, but not sorry.

A good diet does not imply elimination of fat, carbs, or sugar.

A proper diet focuses on introducing high-quality fats, carbs and sugar. If you eat enough quality food, you won’t have enough ‘space’ for the junk.

Eat 5 vegetables a day strategy

In his book, The Four Pillars, Dr Chatterjee, advises that getting five different vegetables (not fruits) into your diet every single day will optimize your microbiome. Variety is good for the bugs that live in our gut. These bugs form our microbiome. A healthy microbiome is super important for your mental health.

‘Think of your own gut bug community as like staff in your factory that are producing the products you need to stay alive. That staff comprise different specialists in different sections who are all experts in their own areas.’

Dr Rangan Chatterjee

So if you feed these bugs with good nutrients, they will have excellent quality ‘material’ to work with. And because our gut loves the fibre from plants, he recommends eating vegetables.

This does not mean you should become a vegan. Just focus on getting at least 5 vegetables with 5 different colours in your daily diet.

Vegetables chart

Start paying attention to how eating whole foods makes you feel — not just in the moment, but the next day. Try eating a “clean” diet for two to three weeks — that means cutting out all processed foods and sugar. See how you feel. Then slowly introduce foods back into your diet, one by one, and see how you feel.

3. Work on your goal

Those who have a “why” to live can bear with almost any “how”.

Viktor Frankl

Have something that you aim for! Build your career, improve your skills, run that marathon, start your business.

How this will benefit your mental health during lockdown?

Having a purpose will make you think more about your habits. To achieve your goals, you may need to eat better and exercise so you can have energy and focus. As seen above, a better diet and regular movement do wonders for your mental health too. 

In this article (P. E. McKnight., T. B. Kashdan., 2009), the authors say having a purpose is like having a buffer against life circumstances that often lead to mental health problems.

purpose fuels passion
Photo by Olya Kobruseva on Pexels.com

Aiming towards a purpose is powerful. This is because it increases your endurance during mentally and physically challenging activities. It makes you psychologically flexible (P. E. McKnight., T. B. Kashdan., 2009). This means that no matter what hardships you may face, you will not end up developing a mental disorder later.

Purpose also leads to lower stress levels and greater satisfaction with life (P. E. McKnight., T. B. Kashdan., 2009).

A plethora of studies show how important and beneficial is to have a purpose.

During this pandemic time, it may be a challenge to focus on your goals. You may find it hard to find motivation to work for your purpose. And then anxiety creeps in because you can’t seem to make any progress and you want to quit. Quitting saps your joy and affects your mental health.

Follow the tips below and continue working towards your purpose. Amidst so much uncertainty, let this thing be certain: your purpose matters!

photo of woman painting in brown wooden easel
Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

How to pursue your purpose and work on your goal

Put the time. Daily.

This is the most important tip you could follow. Even if you work 30 minutes, it’s still good enough. 30 minutes per day equals 3 hours and a half a week! 30 minutes of uninterrupted work can take you there. 

Schedule a specific daily time.

If you can do it daily at the same time (preferably in the morning when your mind is fresh) great! But it’s super important to write or mark this time in your schedule. If you include this time into your schedule your mind will know it’s important and won’t find excuses for not doing it.

Focus on small gains. As with the tip above, consistency is the key. Each little progress counts.

Zoom in (focus on the input) and zoom out (focus on the goal).

If you spend those 30 minutes working but in the same time thinking about results, you will doubt yourself. Results need time and consistent work. Schedule time to put the work and immerse yourself in the ‘doing’. And once a week spend 30 minutes to think about your big goals, smaller goals, actions and results.

Don’t fool yourself.

1 hour tomorrow won’t compensate the 30 minutes you lost today! If you didn’t do it today promise yourself, you will do it tomorrow but don’t double up.

Why?

Because you will feel intimidated. Your mind will tempt you to turn that one hour into 2 hours the next day. And then you realize you didn’t work 3 days in a row and feel guilty and worthless and…back to the negative loop of self-loathing.

Plan

Spend the last 5 minutes of each session to plan the next day. Clarity will boost your motivation. Know exactly what you will do tomorrow for your goal.

4. Keep a journal

‘Dear Diary’ is not reserved just for high-school teens or recluse writers. Journaling it’s an effective tool that helps your mind, especially during this pandemic situation.

In the first part of this article I was telling you about this study that argued exercise as a distracting activity is better than journaling, an activity based on self-reflexiveness.

To tell you the truth, exercise is bliss, but mostly AFTER the sweating session ended. For example, running is exhilarating and hours later I feel lighter and my mood is so much better. But during my run, anxiety rises. Running doesn’t help me distract my worries and panic, unless I got into the flow, which happens rarely. That is where journaling comes to help.

Now, returning to journaling, why it is so effective?

fashion woman notebook pen, journaling
Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

Journaling benefits

Writing exposes the ruminations, the negative thoughts. Once on the paper, these thoughts lose the power they had over you.

For example, it’s helpful with cognitive distortions. It’s when your thoughts twist the reality and give you a negative filter through which you see yourself and your environment. The most common are catastrophizing, ‘mind reading’ (when you think someone has negative thoughts about you but there is no evidence) or labeling (‘I am so stupid).

Journaling allows you to have these thoughts transferred on the paper. You can read these sentences out loud and may notice how exaggerated they are. Just by having them in front of you and not inside your mind, you free yourself from the burden.

crop young woman writing schedule in diary on sofa
Photo by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels.com

Journaling helps you explore your emotions. Unprocessed emotions lead to anxiety and depression. This is because inhibited emotions become a chronic stressor that will affect your mental and physical health. (study). By writing your emotions, you stop running away from them. Also, when you write you must give a name to those emotions. Once you can put into words what you are feeling you feel less confused or scared.

There is scientific evidence that putting language on an emotion changes the brain, decreasing its arousal.

Hillary Jacobs Hendel

Journaling reduces stress. This is a benefit that goes hand in hand with the previous one. As said before writing about anger, sadness and other painful emotions helps to release the intensity of these feelings. By doing so, you will feel calmer and better able to stay in the present. 

Journaling helps you track your experience with your therapist / counsellor and monitor your progress when undergoing treatment.

If you need more evidence, here is a list of 83 benefits of journaling!

Make journaling a part of your routine with these tips :

Don’t force yourself to write every day.

One thing for which I avoided journaling is that I can’t stay still and write when I have little to say. I only use journaling when my anxiety is extremely high and my thoughts are overwhelming.

You may like or need to write daily. Perfect. Just don’t think journaling must be like a homework. It’s just the way you can free yourself from thoughts, emotions or reflections.

Forget spelling and punctuation.

Let your thoughts flow with no judgement.

If you do it every day, choose a time and make it your ‘journaling’ time.

Conclusion

If you are struggling with your mental health during lockdown, try these simple tips. Continue to practice these habits after the lockdown eases. 

Do you already practice one of these four tips?

Which habit is the most difficult to practice for you, and why?

Hi! I'm Maria and I am a mental health advocate! I am determined to learn as much as I can about mental and emotional wellbeing.

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