Simple tips to care for your mental health amid COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a trying time for New Zealanders of all walks of life.

But for those with long-term health conditions, it has been a particularly challenging period.

Not only are people with long term conditions already dealing with challenges to their health, but the extra anxiety that comes with being more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 means they need some extra care too.

However, not only is there a wealth of resources out there to support people with these conditions, there are also a number of simple steps they can take to look after their mental wellbeing on a daily basis.

Dr Bruce Arroll, a professor of general practice and primary healthcare at Auckland University and a GP working in south Auckland, says the key to wellbeing is to maintain social contact and to stay self-aware.

In order to do this, he advises people to keep an eye on their "dashboard warning light" - something that alerts us to the fact things aren't quite right.

These warnings can either be physical symptoms - "heart racing, feeling a lump in your throat, chest pains, abdominal pain, feeling tired" - or changes in your behaviour  - "we stop seeing our friends and our families and we stop getting exercise and doing hobbies and interesting things".

With many people facing financial hardship or struggling to work from home while also caring for young children, looking after our own health can often take a backseat.

That's why it's important to keep an eye out for signs that alert us to the fact we are stressed and anxious and may be entering into a downward spiral, Dr Arroll says.

"Getting to know your life dashboard light can be essential to recognise when you are starting to experience distress."

When you notice such signals, it's important to turn outwards, and not inwards, he says.

"When we get stressed, we need to keep our worlds expanded, keep in contact with our support people, and keep doing our recreational activities."

He encourages people to turn to someone they trust, such as a friend, family member or colleague, even if they can't physically meet up.

Because people with long-term health conditions are more vulnerable to catching infectious diseases such as COVID-19 they often spend more time in self-isolation, which can lead to increased feelings of loneliness or social disconnection.

That makes it even more important for them to make an effort to stay social, says Dr Arroll.

"When people get stressed they narrow their social network, which of course isn't good because we're social animals and even if our friends and families cause us stress at times we still need them in our lives to be able to thrive and develop," he says.

"So keep in touch with your social network...if you can't see people then phone them up, Skype them, send them an email, do something on Facebook - just keep your social life intact."

As well as staying social, remaining as active as possible is also important.

"Exercise is the royal road to good mental health," says Dr Arroll.

"Get out and do things, get yourself moving."

Another vital part of wellness, especially during such difficult times, is making sure to keep visiting your GP, says Dr Arroll. This is particularly important for people with chronic conditions.

Doctors reported a significant drop-off in the number of patients they were treating during alert levels 3 and 2 of the first lockdown, with many people fearing visiting health clinics would increase their chances of being exposed to the virus. But Dr Arroll says it's particularly risky to leave long-term health conditions unchecked for a prolonged period of time.

Vanessa Cooper, senior advisor mental wellbeing at Te Hiringa Hauora/Health Promotion Agency, says no one needs to be scared of visiting their GP.

"It is safe," says Cooper.

"And if you still don't feel safe, see if there is a video or a phone-based option for you to speak to your doctor - and don't delay."

Doctors are not only able to help with any physical issues people are facing, but can also direct patients to a wealth of mental wellbeing services out there.

"If you're not getting any better then go and see your GP and say you're not feeling well, [and ask] what options they have," says Dr Arroll.

He suggested giving doctors specific information about how they are feeling, e.g. telling them you're not able to relax or are having trouble sleeping, etc.

"Just say 'what's available, what can I do?"

Anyone needing further information can visit which has a wealth of information to help you get through. You can also call or text 1737 at any time night or day to access free support from a trained counsellor. has resources on its website not only for people with long-term health conditions but also for anyone feeling anxious or depressed as a result of COVID-19.

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