The Coronavirus-enforced lockdown presents a really difficult challenge for our individual and collective mental health. Being isolated in this way stops us from doing a lot of the things that keep us well, like being physically connected to friends, hobbies and the outdoors – and this withdrawal can exacerbate feelings of anxiety, loneliness and low mood.

Many of us will now be spending a significant amount of time in front of screens and will have reverted to digital alternatives in an attempt to retain some sense of normality. Such an increase in online activity in itself comes with its own impact on our wellbeing, so here are some ideas and tips for keeping ‘well’ online and managing our digital usage sensibly throughout this weird time:

Use digital to carry on doing things you enjoy

Digital platforms have proved their worth in a huge way in the last few weeks, with apps and sites providing invaluable opportunities to stay connected to the things we enjoy. Lots of musicians and performers are opening their virtual front doors; streaming gigs on Facebook, Instagram and Twitch – and even Zoom, where fans can join the broadcast with their own video and create a more realistic ‘gig’ scenario with hundreds of smiling faces on-screen alongside the performer. This is a great way to support artists at a time where the entertainment industry is taking a battering, but also a really positive and uplifting use of digital for our wellbeing. Similarly, treat yourself to a new Netflix binge or start a new game (“The entire world is streaming more than ever” – The Verge). Use Deliveroo and Uber Eats to support the independent restaurants you like. Use Houseparty, Zoom or Skype to host pub quizzes (or if that’s already feeling a little too cliched – how about a listening or watching party with friends?) It’s crucial that we stay engaged with those things that make us happy, even if it looks a little different at the moment.

Use digital for productive, educational purposes
As well as discovering online alternatives for hobbies and entertainment, we now suddenly have a digital dependency for our educational and productivity needs too. It can be hard to feel productive with a lack of structure day-to-day, but digital resources can help – make use of the extensive library of online courses, educational resources and health and self-care apps available. Even those who haven’t felt the need to use any kind of ‘self-care’ apps may feel some benefit from them at this time; Headspace is an example of an app providing practical mindfulness exercises. With a lack of physical networks and the structure of a school/university/workplace environment, we are all having to be more autonomous in our work and education – but there’s no shortage of resources online to help keep organised and educated. The BBC announced a range of lockdown learning initiatives last week, and while it is in desperate need of more female influence, it’s a useful starting point and likely a God-send for those who have had no choice but to turn into teachers at home since the schools closed.

Use digital to regain a sense of routine

Because we know that aforementioned lack of structure can impact our mental health, it’s important to build in some sort of daily routine – and tech can help. Use a calendar app to help organise daily plans; a to-do list app to tick off those odd-jobs around the home; a meal planning app to help ensure you’re maintaining a healthy and varied diet.

“You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work” – this is a quote that has been circulating online for a few weeks, and it’s so true. Working from home may be a luxury for some, but a nightmare for others – and it’s particularly hard for those juggling childcare and/or homeschooling. One top tip is to have a clear distinction between your living area and work space – if there’s a room in your house you can dedicate as an ‘office’, then do so. Keep your tech in there and try to avoid bringing devices into the bedroom, especially first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Allowing yourself time to ease into the day and separating digital devices from that important morning and evening downtime can really help unwind.

Don’t stay glued to the news – this is going to go on for a while

Unfortunately, we are having to accept that this situation is not going away any time soon. Therefore the noise, the politics and the crushing headlines are only going to intensify in volume and severity. While it’s important to be in-the-know with the key information and government guidelines, try only checking the news once a day and resist exposing yourself to the ongoing live coverage. Constantly scrolling to check the news can be anxiety-provoking and it’s easy (and understandable) to catastrophize at a time like this. Likewise, the constant pinging of notifications can keep drawing you back to that negativity – so customise your notification settings so you’re only getting what you really need to know.

Be sure to use legitimate sources to get your info, such as the NHS and WHO websites, and have a critical eye for the ‘fake news’ and unhelpful commentary around the virus. Consume information from trusted sources, rather than that old school friend who takes conspiracy theories circulating on WhatsApp as gospel!

Physically distant but socially engaged – nurture your relationships

There has been a noticeable and much-needed shift from the use of the term ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing’ – the semantics are important and the latter feels more apt considering we can still be social and sociable via electronic means. While the circumstances dictate that we do have to be physically distant, making efforts to be sociable and stay connected will really support our collective wellbeing, and using online tools can help us do that. It’s a better time than ever to use social media sites and messaging apps to reach out, talk to friends and family you haven’t heard from in a while and check-in on the people you care about. That may be via a simple message, or something more creative: for younger people it may be a few rounds of Pictionary on the Houseparty app; or for elderly relatives, you could help set them up with apps for their online shopping. Keep talking and let people know you’re there for them.

Photo by hj barraza on Unsplash

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Liam McKinnon is Marketing, Communications and Digital Manager at Off the Record (OTR), a mental health social movement by and for young people in Bristol.

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