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Ask the Expert: Coping With Mental Health Challenges During COVID-19

A girl peeping from behind a yellow door. There is a photo frame with a picture of a flower and a plant in the frame.
From insomnia to why people are baking, Dr. Afridi answers everything you want to know about mental health during this time. Illustrations by (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada

Ask the Experts

Ask the Expert: Coping With Mental Health Challenges During COVID-19

'You only have two priorities right now: your physical health and your psychological health.'

COVID-19 has taken its toll on the mental health of people the world over as we adjust to the new normal and the daily stressors the pandemic brings with it. How can we cope with the mental challenges we’re seeing during this time? Aakanksha Tangri, Re:Set’s founder and editor-in-chief, spoke to Dr. Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and managing director of The Lighthouse Arabia, about our mental well-being amidst a global pandemic. 

Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the common challenges and feelings you’ve been seeing from your patients since the COVID-19 outbreak?

Dr. Afridi: When it first started, we were asked to move indoors, we saw a lot of anxiety and panic. Now that people are adjusting, we are seeing people experience sadness, grief, and loss. 

A lot of marital and relationship issues are surfacing because when you’re in a closed space [it can get stressful]. Even when you’re married, you need your space, and have a routine that grounds you and [right now] those things are taken away from you. People are feeling overwhelmed and may be taking that out on each other causing relationship issues. 

We have a diagnosis called adjustment disorder according to which, when you experience a stressor, give it six weeks before you can adjust to that stressor. And right now, we are being handed stressor after stressor.


Also read: #COVID19: 5 Ways to Take Care of Your Mental Health While In Isolation


Can you speak a bit about how staying indoors and working from home for a prolonged period can impact our well-being? And what can we do to help alleviate that?

Now that the regulations [in the UAE] have relaxed a little bit, I would encourage people to step outside for a little while. Get a little bit of sunshine because being indoors can get a little claustrophobic. If that’s not something you feel comfortable doing, that’s OK. There are other things you can do while you stay at home that can ground you. Get flowers in your space, or walk barefoot on grass if you have a garden outside. Take a bath or soak your feet in Epsom salt. Nature doesn’t have to be something that you experience outside, it could be something you engage with [indoors] as well. 

An illustration of a man submerged in a bath with bubbles in it. The background is green.

Taking an Epsom salt soak or bath is one way you can destress to cope with mental health challenges.

This seems like our new normal for the foreseeable future — how can we make the transition to adjusting to it easier and what can we do when mental health challenges arise?

I think it is very important for people to know that this has never happened to us before. This is a pandemic. We haven’t seen death and destruction on a mass scale.

So, check in with yourself every day and see where you’re at. Imagine your energy is like a container. Sometimes you wake up with 80%, sometimes you wake up with 50%, sometimes 90%. And, it is normal for your energy to fluctuate, not every day is going to be a great day. But, start your day by filling your cup preemptively with self-care and self-love. You don’t want to wait till you have a breakdown. If you still feel that there are a lot of things pulling you and you don’t feel that you can cope then it would be important for you to contact a professional. 

One of the things we’ve seen is that social feeds are filled with people baking or working out and essentially having a “lockdown glow-up”. What do you think has triggered that? And for those who are struggling with productivity during this time, what advice do you have for them?

It is very important that people understand that you only have two priorities right now: your physical health and your psychological health, that’s it.

A lot of people are going about this wrong and they will burn out at some point.

Some people have a lot of time and that’s OK for them. I cannot compare myself to [another person] and say ‘how come she’s baking and I’m not’ when I may have a very different plate that’s full of things that I need to be dealing with. You do what you need to do to get yourself to a physically and psychologically safe place. Do not seek productivity right now because one of the reasons people could be productive is that they could be engaging in mind-numbing activities. 

A lot of people have told us they’re having trouble sleeping and that their sleep schedule is off routine — why is that and what can people do to bring it back on track?

A photo of a child sleeping with illustrations of sheep and stars around him.

Sleep can change your mood completely and is a strong tool for self-care. Photo courtesy: Unsplash

Sleep is the single most effective thing that you can do for your brain and body. There are a couple of things [to keep in mind]:

  • Any bright screen that you are engaging with, whether it is an iPad, or a computer, or an HDTV, has a blue light behind it which sends signals to the brain saying ‘do not release melatonin into this brain.’ [You can] wear blue light blocking glasses or you can get blue light shield protection [for your screens]. 
  • I would also recommend a nighttime routine. Do not fall asleep in the shirt that you wear to the gym or the grocery store. You have to have separate [clothing for separate activities]. 

Do you think we have learned our lesson with COVID-19 or are we going to fall back to the same patterns? 

As human beings, we habituate very quickly — we are very adaptive creatures. When we go back out there, we will try to be grateful, we will try not to make our schedules so hectic, but we’ll fall back into it because that’s what human beings do. So, it’s going to take a very disciplined human being to remember the lessons that COVID-19 came to teach us. 

What are your top three personal self-care tips?

Exercise, sleep and aromatherapy.

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