The Mind Matters Initiative recognises that the Covid-19 outbreak poses a great challenge to our mental health and wellbeing. Factors such as the risk to our physical health, government guidance around self-isolation and shielding, and the sudden and marked impact on our work, home and social lives, can leave us all particularly susceptible to feelings of stress, worry and anxiety. This guide explores some of the issues that you – or somebody close to you – may be facing, as well as providing strategies, tips and resources to help protect and enhance mental health and wellbeing at this difficult time.
If you are struggling, help and support is still available.
VetLife Helpline is there for you 24/7 on 0303 040 2551 or you can send a confidential email through their secure website www.vetlife.org.uk
Samaritans is available round the clock on 116 123 for whatever you are going through. You can also email on firstname.lastname@example.org for a response within 24 hours.
In addition, the VDS and BVNA have held a series of webinars to help veterinary professionals during this time. View the VDS webinars and BVNA webinars.
Below is an A-Z of subjects and information related to maintaining mental health and wellbeing during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Addiction and dependency
If you suffer from an addiction or dependency, you may be finding this an especially tough time, particularly if you are no longer able to access the in-person support networks and services that have been helpful in the past. If you are in recovery, you may find that things are becoming difficult again and that cravings and impulses that had previously been under control – perhaps for many years – are being triggered. The restrictions on daily life can mean that you are no longer able to use the strategies, routines or activities that have helped you in the past. Intense cravings can be very distressing; you may be feeling high levels of anxiety, fear or guilt, or as if you may lose control. It is very important to remember that you are not alone in this. This is a time of unprecedented stress, uncertainty and upheaval and many others with a history of addiction will be experiencing similar difficulties. If you do slip, don’t think of it as a failure; instead, strive to understand what led to the slip and – most importantly – forgive yourself.
While many individuals are able to enjoy a healthy relationship with alcohol and drink in moderation, it is important to be especially mindful of your alcohol intake at this time. Factors such as high levels of stress, anxiety, boredom and feelings of isolation can lead to us drinking more than we otherwise would. You may also be influenced by social media memes and images which suggest others are drinking a lot at the moment, and that it’s a good strategy for coping with the stresses of Covid-19. While you may feel that drinking helps you to feel better, alcohol’s negative impact on sleep, mood and our immune systems is well documented. In the short term, alcohol can actually increase anxiety, with many people experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety or agitation during a hangover. These can be even more pronounced if you already have difficulties with your mental health. You may believe that drinking helps you to feel less anxious and more relaxed, but this is a short-lived effect and wears off quickly. Relying on alcohol to mask feelings of anxiety and stress can lead to a greater reliance on it, as you develop a higher tolerance to alcohol and need to drink ever-increasing amounts, for the same effect. Over the medium to long term, this pattern can lead to alcohol dependence.
Anxiety is a hardwired emotion. It’s designed to keep us safe and prompts us to prepare for, and respond to, threat. To a certain extent, it is natural to feel anxious during this pandemic – it is an incredibly worrying time. However, sometimes anxiety can take hold. You may find yourself constantly ruminating or thinking about worst-case scenarios a lot of the time. It is not uncommon for anxiety to affect our sleep, eating or to impact on our physical health. If you find you are feeling anxious, it can help to focus your thoughts on the present, the here and now. Concentrate on the things you have control over, and try to let go of the things you don’t. Practising a mindfulness exercise can help with letting worry go. Many of us are uncomfortable with uncertainty, and a pandemic is a time where uncertainty is everywhere. You may be trying to cope with this feeling by compulsively checking news outlets. However, this can actually result in increased anxiety when the media offers little in the way of reassurance. Practice sitting with the uncomfortable emotion of uncertainty. The more you practice sitting with this emotion, over time uncertainty will feel much more bearable.
Many people find that using the creative part of their brain helps them to relax and unwind. During lockdown, when outdoor activities are more difficult and you may have more time on your hands, this could be a good opportunity to start exploring ways to be creative. Could you start an art project with items you have available at home? Find that old pile of magazines you never threw out and make a collage picture, perhaps even a vision board of goals or dreams you want to achieve.
Children’s book illustrator and artist Carson Ellis started a quarantine art club (https://www.carsonellis.com/) with daily ideas for people stuck at home.
Bereavement is an immensely distressing experience at any time. If you are facing grief and loss during this pandemic you may also be dealing with additional concerns and stressors, for example, being unable to attend the funeral of a loved one, or be there for them in their final moments. If you have experienced a loss in the past, you may find that the constant news coverage of death and illness is particularly difficult for you and that it brings back sad memories or feelings of loss. It’s important to remember that grief is not a linear process; it’s normal for some days to feel harder than others, even if the person died many years ago. Social distancing can increase feelings of isolation, which can be especially difficult if you are bereaved. Try to reach out to friends and loved ones, even if you find it difficult to talk about how you are feeling or the loss you have experienced. Some people find it helps to share funny stories and memories about the person who has died, whereas others prefer to deal with their grief more privately and struggle to share those details. Remember there is no ‘right’ way to deal with loss; your way of grieving might not look the same as other peoples’, and that’s ok.
At a Loss – guidance on what to do if you are bereaved during the coronavirus pandemic
At this time where there are many restrictions placed on the time we are able to spend outside, many of us are experience feelings of claustrophobia. These can be especially intense in those who are shielding, do not have a garden or balcony, or have experienced claustrophobia or a fear of enclosed spaces in the past. You may notice yourself feeling anxious, panicky, trapped, or as though you need to immediately escape. To some extent, these feelings are a natural response to the restrictions placed upon us right now, and they can often be alleviated by simple measures like opening a window, practising breathing exercises or speaking to a friend. If you are feeling claustrophobic while in lockdown in your home, consider ways of bringing the outdoors indoor to create some different spaces in your home. Can you get some seeds and planting equipment delivered, or put up photos of green spaces? If you find that feelings of claustrophobia are becoming overwhelming or preventing you from feeling safe at home, do arrange a virtual consultation with your GP and tell them how you are feeling.
Despite social distancing, it is important to maintain ties with the communities we are all part of. While our ‘worlds’ may be feeling a lot smaller and somewhat restricted right now, it can help to remember that our communities are still there for us, and that we only need to reach out. Think about how you can stay connected to work colleagues, neighbours, and fellow members of any clubs or groups you belong to – perhaps using technology, or maybe just good old-fashioned pen and paper. If faith is an important part of your life, why not see if your place of worship is running services online? You may also like to think about ways you can support your communities, particularly those who are elderly, shielding or otherwise vulnerable. Research shows that when we do things for others, it benefits our own wellbeing too. Maybe you could offer to walk a neighbour’s dog if they are shielding (providing you are not experiencing any symptoms yourself), or check out community Facebook pages to see if there are members of your community who need support? Perhaps you can explore volunteering. Remember that you are also part of the veterinary community, and there are a number of groups on social media to explore, where you can chat with others from the profession.
It is possible – and okay – to experience a number of conflicting emotions at the same time. For example, you may be feeling grateful that you have more time to spend with your close family who you live with, while also craving your own space! It’s not uncommon to be relieved that you no longer have to commute to your place of work, while also missing the daily interactions with colleagues and clients. Perhaps during lockdown you have been able to take up a new hobby, or rediscover an old one. While many people report that this is a difficult time for their mental health, you may find that the opposite is true, and that you actually feel better working from home, having a slower pace of life, or not socialising as much. It is important not to feel guilty about any conflicting emotions, and to avoid comparing your experience with that of others. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by this kind of thinking, it can help to take a few minutes to stop, take a breath, identify the emotions you are experiencing and give yourself permission to feel them. This is more helpful than judging yourself or pushing them away.
You may find yourself feeling low or depressed right now, particularly if you are no longer able to take part in the activities that usually help with your mood. It can help to follow a daily routine. Get up, shower and get dressed even if nobody will see you. Try planning activities to break up the day, being sure to include an element of movement, for example, an online dance class or a walk. Social activities like video chats and Netflix parties can help prevent insolation and protect against depression taking hold. Remember that you don’t need to achieve anything special during this time, despite what others on social media may be up to! Now isn’t the time to set yourself overly ambitious goals – give yourself permission to just get through each day, and use this as an opportunity to practise kindness and acceptance towards yourself. While feeling low and depressed can be a natural response to these difficult circumstances, do seek help if these feelings persist or are interfering with your quality of life.
Above all, now is a time to be kind to yourself. It is normal to have periods of overeating when you are stuck at home, particularly if you are anxious. Now may not be a good time to radically change your diet. For some excitement, you could branch out and try new recipes and flavours. Or, if you are seeking comfort and familiarity, try recipes from your childhood. Rather than restricting your diet, try to focus on eating regularly and having balanced meals and snacks. Planning your meals ahead of time may reduce grazing, while also providing structure to the day. Planning will also help you use your food wisely and avoid waste or unnecessary trips to the supermarket. Remember, no single nutrient has proven effective in reducing your chances of contracting coronavirus.
For people with eating disorders, Covid-19 can pose some specific challenges. Supermarket restrictions and limited stock may mean that it is difficult to access specific foods that you are comfortable with, or that form part of your treatment plan. Increased levels of isolation, anxiety, and stress can trigger relapse in those with existing eating disorders, with an increase in behaviours such as restriction, over-eating, binging or purging. Eating disorders are often intensely private conditions that thrive on isolation. Without face-to-face contact with family, friends and healthcare providers, you may be feeling more drawn towards the behaviours that form part of your eating disorder, or more inclined to keep them secret or hidden. It’s important to maintain your support network at this time and to talk about how you are feeling.
Regular physical activity is not only beneficial for our physical health, but can also improve mental health by improving overall feelings of wellbeing, alongside reducing the risk of depression and anxiety. If you are able to, get outside to exercise. Consider changing your walking or running route to mix things up. If you’re self-isolating, look at the online platforms that are offering virtual classes (some of them are free!) and try something new. Remember, not all exercise needs to be ‘structured’. Try being creative, making up your own routine, dancing, using things in your house like stairs.
We know that many people are experiencing financial worries right now, particularly those who have been furloughed or are business owners. It is important to seek help early if you are struggling, as financial problems have a tendency to get worse the longer they are ignored. Remember that Vetlife also has a Financial Support Service which is available for vets. We have listed some good sources of support and information below.
Being in the midst of a pandemic, where we are required to socially distance, and in some cases isolate ourselves from others, can lead to increased feelings of loneliness. Try planning out your week and scheduling your contact with friends, family, and colleagues in advance. When you use scheduling as a tool, it’s more likely to happen, and gives you social contact to look forward which can help with combatting loneliness. In addition to staying in touch with family and friends, try combatting loneliness by using online platforms that connect you with people who share something in common. Examples of this would be participating in Facebook groups about topics that you are interested in, or joining online forums about your hobbies and interests. Signing up to sports games like Fantasy Football, or multiplayer games online can also be ways of experiencing social contact with others.
Remember that during this time there will be many people dealing with varying amounts of stress for many different reasons. Try to be understanding and patient with your close family. No one is used to spending this much time with the people they live with and therefore everyone may be a little bit out of their comfort zone. Remembering to be kind and have patience will go a long way. Don’t forget to be kind to yourself too; remember that the best caretakers are those who also take care of themselves.
Here are five ways we can spread kindness, while physically distancing ourselves:
Be an accountability partner – offer to check in to ensure your friend meets their daily goals (fitness, diet, stopping work to eat lunch). A simple text is all it takes to show you are thinking of someone.
Spread some love by cooking someone a meal and leave it on their doorstep.
Send a bunch of flowers to a friend, elderly relative or neighbour.
Write and post a letter to someone who might need cheering up, or just some friendly contact. Getting a letter these days can mean a lot more than a simple email or text.
Offer to teach a child something you have skills in via an online video platform. This could be as simple and reading a child a story, but if you are a maths or science whiz then you may have friends whose teenagers would benefit
Dealing with a long-term health condition can be challenging at the best of times, but during this pandemic you may be finding it particularly difficult. If you are particularly vulnerable to the virus you may be dealing with increased anxiety about becoming ill, and the repercussions that would have for you. If your condition is negatively impacted by stress or changes to routine, you may find that your health has deteriorated or is more difficult to manage than usual. This can be frustrating and worrying. If you are required to shield, it can feel upsetting to see photos on social media of your friends and family enjoying their daily outings. While you may value your independence, do think about reaching out for assistance and support – remember that most people like to be useful and will be glad to help! Practically speaking, it can help to plan ahead using a diary for future medication orders and appointments. Bear in mind that it may take a little longer to receive your medication, and that some of your appointments may need to be held remotely.
It can be easy to rush through life and not to notice much of what is going on in your mind or around you. Mindfulness is learning to pay attention to the present moment – to be present in your own thoughts and feelings, and notice more about the world around you. Doing this can improve your overall mental wellbeing, and help you to enjoy life more and understand yourself better.
While news and the media can be a great source of reassurance and information during this time, they can also cause increased anxiety and worry, particularly if you are receiving conflicting messages or unsure about the validity of the facts. Although it’s tempting, try to avoid checking social media or news websites compulsively; it can help to limit yourself to checking a few times a day at set times. It may be an idea to avoid doing this before bed, if you find that it is impacting on your sleep. Remember that not all of the information shared is accurate. Try to select only one or two sources of information, such as the government websites.
The coronavirus pandemic is a particularly challenging time for those with OCD. It is important to remember that many people without this condition are naturally spending more time thinking about hygiene, illness, hand-washing and contamination right now – this does not mean that everyone has OCD and it is important not to confuse these natural responses with a diagnosed mental health condition. If you have OCD, these thoughts may become allc onsuming. You may feel you are to blame for the virus or be preoccupied with thoughts that you are contaminated, or have contaminated others. You may have noticed an increase in your harm-related obsessions or compulsions, or find these harder to control. If you are receiving therapy for OCD, you may have noticed that advice from your therapist conflicts with government guidelines – for example, around handwashing. This can be particularly difficult and it is important to discuss these concerns with your GP or therapist. Be compassionate with yourself during this difficult time, and focus on the strategies and support networks that have helped you in the past.
Young Minds – Tips for dealing with OCD during the coronavirus pandemic
If you are a parent, you may be finding this a challenging time, particularly if you are having to combine work with home-schooling. Although many parents are enjoying the opportunity to spend more time with their children at home, it can be difficult when you are unable to go on outings. You may also be unsure of how to deal with your children’s concerns and anxieties around the coronavirus. They may be asking questions you are unable to answer, and will be missing extended members of your family, or their school friends. It is important to offer comfort to children, but also to be honest about not having all the answers or feeling a certain level of stress or worry yourself. Structure and routine can help children to feel secure, so you may want to think about ways to introduce this during lockdown. Go easy on yourself if you are finding it difficult to home-school, or to juggle competing roles of parent, teacher and employee. This is perfectly natural and there will be many, many others in similar circumstances. Now, more than ever, is the time to practise patience, both with yourself and with your children.
Our relationships with our friends, partners, families and other support networks are incredibly important for our wellbeing. Our loved ones are a source of great comfort and security, and hearing words like “I love you” or “I miss you” can be therapeutic when times are hard. However, in times of great stress, we can find that relationships can fall under strain. You may be feeling a little cut off or detached from friends, particularly if social distancing means you are no longer about to do the activities you used to bond over. Conversely, maybe spending too much time at home with your partner is creating friction and frustration! If that’s the case, now is a great time to practise appreciation and gratitude for the people who matter to us. Try to remember that, just like you, everyone else is doing their best
Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or hurts their body, and can take a number of forms. There are many reasons why somebody might self-harm, and it is not uncommon. If you are self-harming, it is important that you see your GP for help – this may be offered to you via telephone during the coronavirus pandemic. You may find that your urges to self-harm increase during the pandemic – perhaps as a response to stress, or maybe because you are unable to use the distraction techniques or coping mechanisms that usually work for you. It is always extremely important to seek immediate medical attention if you are seriously injured – this applies during the pandemic too. You may feel feelings of guilt or shame, or be reluctant to access medical care during this time. Remember that you are always entitled to have your medical needs addressed effectively and compassionately, and this includes the treatment of self-inflicted injury.
It is not unusual for our sleep to be negatively affected in times of stress. Now, in particular, you may be out of routine, moving less than usual or spending a high proportion of your day using technology or screens. All of these things are known to affect our quality of sleep. Try to stay in a routine, even if it’s different to your usual one. This can help to regulate your sleep cycle. You may find it helpful to initiate certain bedtime routines that help to cue your body for sleep. Remember to keep your bed for sleeping. It may be tempting in lockdown to stay in bed watching Netflix, or even working on your laptop in bed. When you use your bed for other activities, getting into bed will no longer be a cue for sleep, and this could disrupt your sleep cycle. Natural light is essential for regulating our sleep, and when we are limited in the number of outings we can do it is important to think about how you can maximise your exposure to sunlight. If you are shielding, try to spend some time sitting near an open window or position your workstation so that you are getting some sun exposure.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, it is important to reach out for help.
VetLife Helpline is there for you 24/7 on 0303 040 2551 or you can send a confidential -mail through their secure website www.vetlife.org.uk
Samaritans is available round the clock on 116 123 for whatever you are going through. You can also email on email@example.com for a response within 24 hours.
In an emergency or if you feel unable to keep yourself safe, dial 999.
If you are a student, you may be feeling a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about your course and career prospects. Perhaps you have had to sit exams remotely, or even not at all. You may be missing your classmates or be struggling to get to grips with online learning. All of these issues, along with the loss of routine, can lead to heightened stress and anxiety. It’s important to talk about how you are feeling. Reach out to your friends and classmates, and consider creating online study groups to discuss assignments and reduce feelings of isolation. Try to introduce routine and structure to your day, factoring in some exercise and leaving the house if you are not self-isolating.
VetKind – recording of the AVS and Mind Matters Initiative event, hosted by SkillsTree
The pandemic can be a difficult time for people living with trauma and PTSD, particularly if the trauma stems from a health issue, illness or bereavement. You may find that that news footage is particularly triggering, or that in lockdown you are unable to use your usual coping strategies or distraction techniques. If you have been directly or indirectly affected by Covid-19, this may also have been a traumatic experience, particularly if you have been in hospital or had very severe symptoms. While many people feel safe at home, feelings of being trapped can be unhelpful for people with PTSD. You may be finding the lockdown and associated restrictions particularly difficult to manage. It is important to be patient with yourself at this time if you experience a worsening in your symptoms. Try to reach out to trusted friends and loved ones, and avoid self-medicating with alcohol to numb overwhelming emotions.
During the coronavirus pandemic, a large number of us are working from home. While this can be effective, and many people prefer it, it can take some getting used to. You may miss seeing your colleagues every day, and constant video conferencing can be exhausting. If you are juggling work with other responsibilities such as caring for a family member or home-schooling, it can be particularly difficult. Try to create structure and routine in your day, including breaks. It is important to create work/home boundaries where possible. If you can, try to designate a specific room or area as a workstation. Remember that nobody is 100% productive 100% of the time. Try to accept this and be kind to yourself if you are less productive than you would like. You could try to plan your day around lulls in concentration – if you know you lack energy and focus after lunch, this could be a good time to check your emails or take your allocated daily exercise. Try to stay connected with your colleagues – consider picking up the phone and calling a colleague you wouldn’t usually speak to, to increase your sense of connectedness and unity. Maybe as a team you could organise a virtual quiz night or Friday night drinks via Zoom!