Taking care of your mental health in uncertain times

On the 15th of July the Irish government announced that we will not be able to progress into phase 4 of easing Covid-19 restrictions. This uncertainty, along with other unpredictable elements of the pandemic has caused anxiety and mental health issues to become an evermore prevailing problem.

According to St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues in Ireland and England, so it is without a doubt people are feeling this even more so in such unprecedented times.

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, discomfort or unease about a situation or an uncertain outcome. Situations such as not knowing if we or someone we know has the virus, when or if we will return to work, or when things will return to ‘normal’ can naturally cause feelings of anxiety.

With social distancing measures and restrictions still in place, online counselling can be a great support to those who need it. Online counselling usually offers video calls, phone calls and sometimes instant messaging services.

Mark*, a law student in DCU, courageously opened up about his anxieties. For Mark, he could not leave his house during the lockdown as it made him overwhelmed and worried. When restrictions eased, he realised his anxieties didn’t get much better.

Mark looked into Turn2Me and decided to book a session with them. Turn2me.ie is a free online counselling charity that works on the basis of donations. They provide instant messaging, phone calls, video chats and support groups.

There is a wide range of support groups, including groups for anxiety, stress, low moods, family or relationship issues, feeling alone or in need and LGBTQ+ mental health support.

Mark is currently in the process of his 6-week programme and is already finding it beneficial. He has learned new techniques to cope with his anxiety and is more open to talking to people about his mental health.

“Online counselling appealed to me because I would feel uncomfortable sitting in front of someone and telling them what is wrong with me,” he said, “now I understand how important it is to open up to someone and look for help.”

James*, a journalism student in DCU, also shared how the pandemic has affected his mental health. With a history of mental health problems, lockdown made James feel purposeless and his anxiety got worse as the weeks went by.

The hardest part for him was feeling as though he lost all control of his life. Other people he knows with anxiety also struggle in situations that they have no control over.

Once restrictions started to ease he could start to manage his anxieties, by seeing friends and gaining more structure in his life.

When James was 18 years old he was referred to a counsellor by his GP. At the time, he was in a position where he felt he could no longer help himself. In these situations, James believes it is best to look for professional help.

“I don’t think I would have been able to go to college or have a job or even make friends again if I didn’t get help when I did,” he said.

James’ counselling helped him learn to deal with his anxieties and gave him a more “healthy and wholesome perspective on [his] life”. He enjoyed in person counselling as he found it to be an escape from his day-to-day life.

While James preferred face-to-face counselling, he acknowledged that online counselling can be a better option for other people as they may struggle and feel anxious in the almost clinical atmosphere of a psychologist’s office.

Irish Online Counselling and Psychotherapy has been established since 2011. They offer a range of services, in which you can choose who you want to speak with rather than being referred to someone at random.

They offer a rate of €40 for students and while this seems pricey it is worth talking to someone about how you feel to learn how to help yourself.

Dr Mary McHugh, psychotherapist and company director of Irish Online Counselling and Psychotherapy, said there has been a visible rise in people looking to access online counselling, showing the increase in mental health issues across the country since the pandemic started.

Irish Online Counselling and Psychotherapy Service are constantly recruiting psychotherapists to keep up with demand, and to ensure there are no waiting lists for people seeking out their services.

Dr McHugh describes anxiety as being “stuck in the future” and when the future is uncertain we often make things out to be an even bigger problem in our heads.

She explains that constantly being at home around family is unnatural to us as we should be out of the house for up to eight hours a day.

Our family is our ‘familiar’ so they can easily trigger our anxiety, since they know what buttons to push to wind us up.

“The body is very wise and it will pull you down. Having a panic attack, breathing very fast, sweating is your body’s way of letting you know …something here is not okay and you’re not listening,” says Dr McHugh.

The less we listen to our bodies, the worse the anxiety can get. Dr McHugh suggests that when we become overwhelmed and worried we should practice coming to our senses and grounding ourselves so we are less reactive.

To come to our senses we must tune into our five senses – what can I hear, feel, see, smell and taste? With practice, this will help you be more confident in handling your anxieties. However, anxiety can be hard to manage alone.

Online counselling is not used to diagnose the patient, instead the psychotherapist works with you to find the root cause of your problem, as opposed to seeing a GP or psychiatrist who will give you a diagnosis and sometimes medication.

“We see the person as a human being not a label,” explains Dr McHugh, “to be human is to have anxiety.”

*Some names have been changed for the sake of privacy and confidentiality.

Emily Clarke

Image Credit: Sarah Kilian