• Francis Merson

Staying Mentally Healthy in Confinement: the 5 Simplest Strategies

The general consensus about confinement in 2020 is that staying at home for months on end isn’t a whole lot of fun. And you probably didn’t need me to tell you that – because you experienced it first-hand. Early research from international health organisations suggests that while some people do flourish in lockdown, it makes most of us significantly less happy.

Some of the most common confinement woes are increased worry (often about finances or health), difficulty sleeping, struggles with concentration and motivation, eating or drinking too much – or just feeling plain down in the dumps. For people with existing mental illnesses, these can often deteriorate as the endless expanse of days becomes a playground for rumination and negative thinking.

Of course, everyone’s quarantine situation is different. You might be confining in a studio in Belleville while continuing to kick ass in your coding career. Or you could find yourself suddenly jobless in a house in the Yvelines with your spouse, five kids and seven cats. Regardless of where you’re at, there are some basic, research-backed strategies for staying sane in confinement that are applicable to pretty much everyone:

1. Establish a routine

Confinement got you eating Cheerios on the bathroom floor at 4am? Unless this is part of your regular routine, it’s probably not optimal for your mental health. Stuck at home, it’s very easy to find yourself adrift from the usual structure of life. The most important routine to maintain is that of regular sleep and wake times. Getting decent sleep is a huge factor in mental health – that people don’t talk about enough, even if they talk about it a lot. Also, try to maintain a fixed schedule that divides work (if you’re working from home) and leisure. This will mean that you’re able to focus fully on each in turn, and not let your fun distract you from work, or let work sap the joy out of your leisure.

2. Get physical

Regular exercise is one of the simplest things you can do to boost your mental health. But how much is needed? The research suggests that the optimal form of exercise is one that gets your heart rate going (e.g., interval training, jogging, intense yoga) for at least 20 mins. And how often? Around 4 times per week seems to be the sweet spot. But anything is better than nothing! If you’re not currently in an exercise regime, you probably now have plenty of time to get started. Some of my patients have enjoyed using the Freeletics app – but go with whatever works for you. You could end up looking back on confinement as the time you got totally ripped. Or at least got fit.

3. Keep your social life zinging

Humans are social primates, and we struggle to be happy without the company and comfort of others. It’s that simple. It’s useful to think of socialising not as an optional extra to your day, but as an essential part – like brushing your teeth. This can mean scheduling group chats, zoom drinks, discussing COVID conspiracy theories with your 420-friendly roommate – whatever gets you happily chatting to someone else.

4. Keep calm and breathe

Anxiety levels have been shown spike during confinement. As have levels of anger. Both these emotions rely on arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, involving increases in heart rate, muscle tension, racing thoughts, etc. One easy way to chill these processes out is to slow down your breathing. Think of your breath as like a remote control for your whole nervous system. The simplest breathing exercise out there is the 3-3-3 method. All you do is count slowly to 3 on the in-breath, count slowly to 3 on the out-breath, and do it for 3 minutes. It's also helpful to count out loud in your head while you're doing the exercise, which blocks off the verbal activity in your head that can keep negative emotions going. Try this twice per day. If that seems like too often, keep in mind that it’s only 6 minutes you’ll be spending all up, or just 0.42% of your day. There are also loads of guided meditations apps (such as Headspace) which can help you learn to slow your breathing down. Any method is fine, really – as long as it gets your breathing back to a slow, relaxed pace.

5. Crochet your way to mental health

Inactivity has a sneaky tendency to suck your motivation. If you become demotivated, you tend to get even more inactive, which in turn makes you even less motivated. This is the ‘inactivity cycle’, a negative feedback loop commonly seen in depression. To avoid getting stuck in the loop, make sure you’re engaging in something fun and active every day. Here’s a whole list of ideas for pleasant confinement activities. Engaging in a hobby can be particularly rewarding (regardless of whether you’re in lockdown). The research suggests that the most rewarding hobbies are something you can progressively improve at, while enjoying whatever the actual activity is.

And if it’s all getting a bit too intense…

BONUS TIP: Don’t underestimate the support you have at your fingertips

Reaching out can be scary. It’s common to worry that you might be a burden on people, or feel ashamed of not being OK. One of the wonderful, warm, fuzzy things about humans is that we generally enjoy the opportunity to help someone in need. You may be surprised how responsive and helpful the people around you can be.

And if you think you might need to see a professional, don’t wait until the end of confinement to get in touch. Online psychological treatment has been shown in multiple studies to be just as effective as face-to-face therapy. A good psychologist will listen to your story without judgement, and be able to give you personalized, research-based strategies to get you back on track.