In years to come, we’ll all remember how we felt as we watched the coronavirus take hold in Italy – the video footage of people singing on balconies, the rush for the last train out of Milan – and knew that it was coming for the UK, too. For everyone, it was frightening. For people with existing mental health problems, it posed a double threat.
I’ve lived with anxiety and panic attacks on and off for years. As lockdown started to look inevitable, and I moved back to Ireland to be near family, I became so terrified of having a complete relapse that – in the same way you might frantically clean your house before visitors arrive – I took the opportunity to do an overhaul of my lifestyle and figure out how I could change it in order to weather this storm as best I could.
I gave up coffee. I allowed myself to drink alcohol three nights a week, no more. I scheduled in my calendar time to talk to friends and family who I couldn’t see face-to-face, organising Zoom quizzes with military rigour. I checked in with friends, answering honestly when they asked how I was instead of firing out the usual “fine, you?”. I ran every day, out to the sea, taking big, gulping breaths of salty air.
In an attempt to find a hobby that didn’t involve staring at a screen, I took up baking – starting with basic, two-layer carrot and coffee cakes that I was stupidly proud of, then moving onto clumsily piped buttercream on cupcakes and strawberry tarts that fell apart in a heatwave, gloopy and glistening.
It’s worked. Like everyone, I’ve had days throughout lockdown that have been wobblier than others, but I’ve never felt completely despairing. The pandemic, it turns out, has finally forced me to be proactive about my mental health.
I’m clearly not alone in having discovered the importance of basic self-care and connection during this time. All over the world, people have been using the lockdown to get back to basics when it comes to mental health, doing things we wouldn’t normally make a priority – whether that’s exercising, taking up a creative hobby, cooking for ourselves or checking in with the people who need it most.
We’ve seen people doing the 5km running challenge on Instagram, mutual aid groups have encouraged communities to come together and help each other, there’s been a surge in demand on Etsy for embroidery kits, and pictures of homemade banana bread and sourdough starters have flooded social media feeds.
If there’s any upside to this pandemic, it’s the realisation that making time to actively manage our mental health by doing things we enjoy and connecting with others is vital. Of course, I wish I’d started doing these things sooner – I now wonder if my anxiety would ever have got so bad if I had – but in the always-on world we inhabited just four months ago, it was too easy to forget about looking after ourselves.
We’re all looking forward to life returning to something resembling normality – to a pint in the pub, to hugging a friend, to catching up with colleagues in the office. But it’s important that we don’t view our old existence through rose-tinted glasses. A report published last year by Health and Safety Executive showed that over half a million people in the UK suffered with work-related stress. Burnout was an epidemic in itself – and this period of quarantine, for many people, was a chance to escape it.
As restrictions begin to ease, there’s a lot of conversation about how after lockdown we can’t go back to the old “normal” that was detrimental to so many areas of our lives – from the culture of presenteeism in the office to the way we undervalued essential workers and how we treated the environment. It’s just as important to take these lessons about mental health into our new normal, too. We need to slow down, to take stock, to figure out what really makes us happy and cling to it. If this crisis has taught us one thing, it’s that life’s too short to do anything but.
Written by Rebecca Hastings