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Mental Health Experts Share How To Deal With Anxiety In These Times Of Uncertainty

First and foremost, be assured that these feelings in the face of a pandemic are normal.

Cover image via Miera Zulyana/Malay Mail & Asia One/The Straits Times

COVID-19 has changed life as we know it in the past few weeks

From panic buying and social distancing to constant updates of the number of infected, and finally the implementation of the Movement Control Order (MCO), this pandemic has certainly caused us humans a lot of stress.

Free Malaysia Today reported that there has been an increase in anxiety and irritability among Malaysians since the outbreak began, with people getting concerned over the lack of work, financial difficulties, feelings of isolation, and the fear of contracting the virus.

It doesn't matter your background, there has been a general decline in mental health across the country.

Therefore, we asked some mental health experts on how to better take care of ourselves while this pandemic looms on:

1. First and foremost, are these feelings of fear and anxiety even normal?

Both the clinical psychologists we interviewed, Dr Joel Low from The Mind and Dr Chua Sook Ning from Relate Malaysia, assured us that they are.

"Oh yes, completely! The virus, the epidemic, and the lockdown are unprecedented in our day and age. And in these times, uncertainty is our new normal," said Dr Low, adding that the anxiety we feel is only preserved because of the significant urgency for us to maintain our hygiene at all times.

Dr Chua, too, explained that we are feeling this way because of all the change.

"In general, there is a need for stability to feel like our world is functioning as it should be, and we are used to a sense of predictability. When things are uncertain and unpredictable, anxiety increases," she said.

"There is also a fear of illness and death. This fear is important for survival so that we do things that keep us alive. However, when illness or death seems to be out of our control, it becomes scarier for us."

Image for illustration purposes only.

Image via Asia One/The Straits Times

2. If that is so, then how can we deal with all these emotions and take care of our mental health at home?

According to Dr Low, this issue can be tackled not just by keeping ourselves psychologically healthy, but also biologically, behaviorally, and socially.

"Psychologically, it's important that we have an outlet for all the thoughts, anxieties, fears, and doubts that are bound to arise and stew in our heads when we're cooped up at home," he said.

He suggested a good way to unload some of the overwhelming thoughts is by starting a journal, or simply writing them out on a piece of paper.

Dr Chua suggested that if you are anxious or depressed, or just feeling overwhelmed with all these uncertainties, that you should reach out for help.

"Don't wait. Look for resources available that can help you problem-solve rather than ruminating or worrying inside, which can be quite overwhelming," she said.

Next, both experts recommended that we keep our physical health up.

"Biologically, it's critical that we workout, eat, and sleep to the best that we can," Dr Low said.

Dr Chua said that we ought to keep a schedule despite being at home all day long.

"It should be a balance between meaningful activities including work, play, and social activities. It isn't because we have to be productive all the time, but because it gives us a sense of purpose and meaning which helps keep our mood up," she explained.

Image for illustration purposes only.

Image via Hayley Seibel/Unsplash/Medium

"Behaviourally, especially for those of us who are working from home, it is important that we carve out a workspace, separate from the rest of the house," Dr Low continued.

He said to make sure there is a dedicated spot for work, so that your entire house doesn't feel like one giant office - there has to be a place for you to rest and decompress.

Meanwhile, Dr Chua reminded us to keep clean, not just because of the virus, but because cleanliness makes a difference to the way we feel about ourselves.

Lastly, that brings us to the social aspect, to which Dr Low advised, "It's also important to keep social as much as we can. Having someone to speak to, and not just via text, will help us keep our social 'muscles' working."

He emphasised on verbally speaking to friends and family such as through video calls whenever possible, and not just through written messages, as talking helps you better connect with others.

Dr Chua said to simply remember "physical distance, but social closeness".

Image via SAYS/YouTube

3. What outlook should we have in these times of uncertainty?

Dr Low said that we should adopt a "wait and see" kind of approach, instead of trying to constantly anticipate situations or possibilities, which ramps up the anxiety we feel.

"So instead of 'expecting' the MCO to end, or that COVID-19 would suddenly stop, we should instead roll with the punches so to speak. By stopping ourselves from living in possible futures, and living in the here and now, we can be much calmer, and be able to handle our confinement better as well," he said.

To help adapt with the uncertainty, Dr Chua said we should have the sense of self-efficacy, flexibility, and community.

Thought examples she gave were:
- "You can do this and you can get through this",
- "Things may not be the same, but it doesn't have to be bad", and
- "Let's help each other get through this, it's not the time to be independent."

Image for illustration purposes only.

Image via Today Online

4. When should we start seeking for psychological help?

"Even without the MCO, I think seeking for help is important for individuals who are facing disruptions to their ability to function socially and occupationally," said Dr Low.

He said it can be beneficial to seek a professional just to see how things are going.

"Best case scenario, there's nothing wrong and off you go. Worst case scenario, we catch whatever it is you have early, and we can make changes to improve on the situation."

Meanwhile, Dr Chua said it is often difficult to notice our own negative thoughts, so monitor physical signs such as our appetite, sleep, fatigue, or muscle tension.

"This is a great model to help guide you. When you are reacting, injured, or ill, reach out for help," she encouraged.

5. Finally, where can we look for help?

Both clinical psychologists said that with the MCO currently ongoing, there are many other avenues to find help such as through online and phone services by both public and private centres.

Dr Chua said that Relate Malaysia has been organising free open community support groups and workshops online, and encouraged people to reach out for help on their Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Image for illustration purposes only.

Image via Centers For Disease Control And Prevention

Seeking professional help is not a form of weakness.

If you or anyone you know need help, please call these Malaysian hotlines:

24-hour hotlines:

1. MINISTRY OF WOMEN, FAMILY, AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT
Contact: 15999
WhatsApp: +6019-2615 999 | Facebook

2. PERTUBUHAN KEBAJIKAN SNEHAM MALAYSIA
Contact: 1800-22-5757 | Facebook

3. BEFRIENDERS KL
Skype: BefKL Skype 1
Contact: +603-7627 2929 | Facebook


Appointment-based hotlines:

1. THAN HSIANG MITRA WELFARE ASSOCIATION PENANG
Contact: [email protected] | Skype

2. LIFE LINE ASSOCIATION MALAYSIA
Contact: [email protected] | Zoom/WeChat

3. YBAM ONLINE PSYCHOLOGICAL GUIDANCE
Contact: WeChat | Facebook


Additional support contacts:

1. RELATE MALAYSIA
Contact: [email protected] | Website

2. MENTAL ILLNESS AWARENESS & SUPPORT ASSOCIATION
Contact: +6013-8781 322 | +6019-2362 423 | [email protected]

3. KASIH CARE
Contact: +6017-2455 600

4. MERCY MALAYSIA
Contact: +603-2935 9935


24-hour domestic violence hotlines:

1. WOMEN'S AID ORGANISATION (WAO)
Contact: +603-7956 3488

2. THINK I NEED AID (TINA)
Contact: +6018-9888 058

Remember to #JustStayAtHome. Watch the latest update on the COVID-19 situation:

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