Stress, anxiety and a sense of isolation amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and South Africa’s current 5 week lockdown can add to psychological distress, and for those already struggling with mental health disorders it is now more important than ever to keep up with treatment.

​We asked prominent Johannesburg-based  psychiatrist, Dr Ajay Makan, for some tips on how to cope during these challenging times.

Journalist Chelsea Pieterse spoke to Pietermaritzburg-base clinical psychologist, Clive Willows about staying mentally strong mental during lockdown.

It’s been a nightmarish time for South Africans as we face “very abnormal times” during the 21-day national lockdown.

Feelings of fear, anxiety and stress during this time is completely normal and, according to medical journal The Lancet, is an expected outcome for people who have been in quarantine and lockdown situations following past studies on much smaller outbreaks of viruses in previous years.

Pietermaritzburg-based clinical psychologist, Clive Willows, said it is important to try and deal with these intrusive feelings as best we can.

How we view the situation and the time we have been told to spend indoors will determine how we get through these strange, stressful times.

“People feel the lockdown has very much limited their decision-making and choices in daily life and it is important to try take control and manage our lives to create a feeling of personal strength,” said Willows.

“Find things where you can make choices and decisions like keeping and writing in a journal, gardening and maintaining a routine.

“Routine is important as it helps us feel more in control of our personal situation. The primary thing to do during this time is to make decisions where you can. People have more time on their hands than they usually do and some have started to view time as an enemy instead of looking at the possible benefits. The way we use our time will determine how we come through this difficult time.”

Willows said another way to alleviate feelings of fear, depression and anxiety was to keep in contact with family and loved ones where possible.

“Try to make it part of your daily routine where you chat to a friend or to family. These are abnormal times and talking to people will help put yourself outside your own situation and feelings of any abnormality and validate our current situation.

Willows added that it is important to stay informed of what is going on in the country and the world especially regarding the COVID-19 virus, however, bogging yourself down with daily news on the mass deaths and increase in infection rates could be “all-consuming”.

“There are not many distractions from the news surrounding the virus and it can make us feel that it is all-consuming but there are other things happening out there. Babies are being born, people are celebrating birthdays and so on. We must recognize that there are other things going on.”

Willows also said that listening to music was also a helpful tool in minimizing anxieties and fears during the lockdown as “it reminds us of life before the pandemic and that there is a future”.

“Reading books has a similar effect to listening to music and can transport us from the present. Writing in a journal can also help manage unpleasant feelings. It gives us an opportunity to take what we are feeling inside and externalise it. It gives us that same sense of power and choice that decision-making does.”

The psychologist also said that helping others such as buying groceries for an elderly neighbour or assisting with tasks such as washing clothes and cooking meals for those who are incapacitated, can give you a sense of purpose and unity during the lockdown.

Willows said the suggestions for trying to minimize our stresses and anxieties during the lockdown are “limitless but the primary take-away is to make decisions where you can everyday”.

Willows added that those who have previously suffered anxiety or depression “should make a particular effort to keep in contact with others in order to normalize their experience and not think their normal reaction to an abnormal situation is a sign of relapse”.

Chelsea Pieterse is a freelance journalist.

“Talking to someone else will often affirm normality in these abnormal times,” he said.