The journey through lockdown brought fear and uncertainty to us all.  Nurene Jassiem shared her own story of how she has coped and managed to control her depression and anxiety by using a variety of techniques that many may find helpful.

Remaining Sane During the Pandemic

For me, living with depression, anxiety and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during a pandemic, is like watching the same horror movie as everyone else, but what I see, feel and hear is all in 4D. 

I was thrust into lockdown very suddenly on 19th March after learning that a colleague had possibly come into contact with someone who tested positive. Those were the early days of this pandemic in South Africa, so no positive success stories had been shared yet. Within a few short hours, dozens of security documents were signed. The contents of my entire desk were bundled into the boot of my car, and I drove home.

“I remember being overcome with emotions.”

I probably smoked about five cigarettes on the drive home. My hands were trembling. I felt like crying as the fear of what was to come seemed overwhelming. I remember being overcome with emotions. I hovered between crying and emotional numbness during my two weeks of isolation. I sat alone in my room, and then President Ramaphosa announced the lockdown. I felt paralysed with the fear of what was to come.

Nurene Jassiem

Nurene had suffered “a severe mental breakdown at the end of last year”.

I had returned to work about a month before lockdown after suffering a severe mental breakdown at the end of last year. So, it was really hard for me to differentiate between working from home now, and all those times when I was too mentally ill to leave the house. 

I struggled to get myself to shower or even get dressed. And I had to force myself to eat, as I tend to starve myself when I am anxious. 

Now, more than 4 months later, both my depression and anxiety are well under control, and these are the things that worked for me: 

  • Tune out. While I enjoy being clued up about the latest news and information, I have realised that NOT listening to the news or knowing the numbers really helps me feel less anxious and stressed. I still listen to presidential addresses or read the latest gazettes, as they may affect me directly. But knowing the exact number of deaths or people infected does nothing for my mental health other than cause anxiety as in: “Am I next?”
  • Physical not social isolation. I learned to chat to friends online more frequently, and even participated in some “cyber coffee dates”. I was not always good at initiating contact, but was fortunate enough to have people who messaged me first.
  • Ask for help. When I felt myself sinking back into a depressive episode, I reached out to friends, therapists and people in the support groups I attend. They became my voice of sanity and helped me feel less alone.
  • Healthier eating habits. I have never been a health nut or a fitness freak, but eating enough fruit, vegetables and healthy food has really done wonders for my anxiety. This is not only because of the health benefits of nutritious food but also for the psychological impact of not developing frightening flu-like symptoms as a result of a poor diet. 
  • Follow the rules. Many of the lockdown regulations frustrate those of us who want to spend time with family and friends. Following the rules rids me of the anxiety of “getting caught” while breaking curfew, or doing something I should not.

Asking for help makes you feel much less alone.

It is okay to not be okay

The biggest lesson I have learned during this period is that there is no blueprint for how to stay mentally healthy during an international pandemic. I have had to “give myself permission” to not be okay on some days. I allow myself down days but make a mental note not to allow the bad days to turn into bad weeks or months. I remind myself that it is okay to not be okay.

More ways to fight the scourge

Everyone is different and faces different challenges. Some things will only help certain people, but several methods that have been found to work are detailed below. 

Someone once asked me if one should take medication for depression, or just try to follow self-help guidelines. The answer is “Both”. “Belt and Braces” is the way with this condition. But, having said that, there are simple things you can do in order to feel happier while the prescribed medicine starts to do its work.

1. Take Responsibility. You are the only one who can make this work. It is very hard at times and there is no question that you are unlucky to have this condition. But there is nothing to be ashamed of. Many people have it. Winston Churchill was known to be a victim of what he called “The Black Dog”. 

These are the cards you have been dealt and you must find a way to play them in order to handle the threat before it has a chance to get really bad. 

2. Acknowledge that you have a chemical imbalance. Diabetics have a chemical imbalance. There is no shame in being a diabetic, is there? A diabetic produces too little insulin and will die without medication. A diabetic has to be responsible and give themselves an injection every day. Every. Single. Day.

3. Take your medication. If you do not take the pills, then like a diabetic, you could be in danger. The people who love you need you to be responsible about this. Never stop for any reason whatsoever, unless the doctor tells you to. Never.

A run or a walk is therapeutic in more ways than one.

4. Learn what your “Tells” are. Take note of the signs that you are starting to sink, and tell those closest to you what they are.

Someone with epilepsy says he knows that when an attack is coming, he rolls his eyes. But he is not always aware of this. His family now watches for it and can tell him in time to stave off a fit.

Some may procrastinate when on a downward spiral. Others veer from feeling super happy to being easily enraged. If someone stops contacting friends it can be a sign that things are not good with them. Their voices can change when depression is setting in; this is a common sign that family members can recognise when it starts.

As one person who has experienced depression said, “It took me a while to learn that my body just does not store Vitamin B properly. I take a strong Vitamin B pill every day now. But after many late nights working, or high stress, I can still find the blackness descending.”

“I know now that it is my responsibility to keep my levels even. If the pills are not enough, I can get a prescription for a course of Vitamin B injections. This usually sorts me out if I get going with it before the depression really sets in.”

Do one small kindness for someone else every day.

5. Make a List. While you are getting your chemicals balanced with medication, it is a good idea to make a detailed list of everything that needs to be done. Even just making the list helps one feel a lot better. Prioritise the things on your list into A – very important, B – not quite as important, and C – things that can wait a bit.

Do at least one A and one B thing a day. Use that odd 15 – 20 minutes you have waiting between times to do the Cs. It is amazing how much can be achieved like this. Cross them off with a flourish when you have done them.

The first thing on your list could be an email or a phone call to someone waiting for a response from you. Even if you just say that you will get to it soon. Or that you are not going to manage it. You do not have to give an excuse beyond that you have been ill, because it is the honest truth.

6. Get up on time, dress neatly, and make your bed. There can be comfort in the routine of the simple everyday chores.

7. Exercise. It is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for some people, a run or a walk is therapeutic in more ways than one. 

8. Do one small kindness for someone else every day. This may sound trivial, but it will give you back your self-esteem, which is so important. It could be just smiling and greeting a stranger in the shops. It may be just what they need to cheer them up that day. 

To sum it all up, we are indebted to Wild Goose Counselling for this list of “Happiness Chemicals and How to Hack Them”. Our bodies have these chemicals on tap, but we need to know how to access them in order to promote our mental and physical well-being. 

And, as they so often say today, “You are worth it!”

So, occasionally give yourself a pat on the back and tell yourself so.

Feature image:BodyAndSoul

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