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Maintaining your mental health in a pandemic: Shepparton psychologist shares top tips

By Charmayne Allison

As COVID-19 continues to pervade every space, thought and interaction, our mental health can be the greatest victim.

Jobs are being cut and businesses are closing down, while locals are asked to practice social distancing or, in many cases, self-isolation.

The associated struggles can be swift and acute, with loss of freedom, separation from loved ones and reduced income leading to feelings of boredom, anxiety, fear and frustration.

But Shepparton clinical psychologist Rachael Willis from Pure Empowerment said many useful strategies were available to locals of all ages during this time.

“People are having a normal response to an abnormal situation,” she said.

“Over time, the abnormal will become the new reality, but it can take time to adjust.

“Grief reactions are common: shock, anger, disbelief, anxiety and sadness are all normal until we reach acceptance of reality and what is in — or out — of our control.

“It's important to give people space, fewer words and psychological first aid at this early point in time. Once settled, people can put words and meaning to the situation.”

Ms Willis said Greater Shepparton's elderly people were especially vulnerable.

“Those on lower incomes and also those over 70 are particularly at risk as a lot live alone and enjoy the social connection of popping down the street,” she said.

“A lot do not know how to use video technology to connect, but can rely on telephone during this time.”

She urged people to focus on their "circle of control" and "circle of influence".

“Focus on what you can control versus what is out of your control — this applies to all people,” she said.

“Also limit your media exposure and only tune into reliable sources at the end of the day for an update.

“And focus on BACE — body care, activities of achievement each day, connections (via phone) and enjoyment and fun.”

Ms Willis said these uncertain times could also be tough on children as they struggled to comprehend a confusing and often overwhelming situation.

“When explaining coronavirus to your children, focus on the facts. Once again, emphasising that circle of control is very useful, as is staying in the here and now,” she said.

“Regulate and validate your children's emotions first (name it to tame it), prior to reasoning about it.

“When people are distressed they are ‘offline’ — you need to help regulate them first and offer them psychology support before talking. Words are not as useful, support is.

“Thankfully, this group is good at connecting via technology, which is helpful. Limit media exposure with doom and gloom and use mindfulness apps such as Smiling Mind.”

With students heading to school holidays early, Ms Willis said structure was vital in safeguarding children's mental health.

“Focusing on BACE is important once again. It's also helpful to implement breaks as scheduled at school or set up a daily timetable and hang it on the fridge,” she said.

“You could also ask the kids to help you set up a home classroom and make it inviting. Help with setting up technology and ensure privacy settings are on.”

Above all, Ms Willis encourages people to slow down and use their "wise mind" instead of their "emotional mind".

“Focus on the Maslow hierarchy of needs: food, water, shelter and comfort,” she said.

“Cultivate a mindset of abundance (we have enough of X, Y, Z) as opposed to scarcity (not enough of food, money, and so on).

“We are lucky to be living in a region with plenty of resources. We will be okay. Stop the panic buying and slow it down.

“And don't cancel what is good for you such as exercise, counselling and regular hobbies.”