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Words by Isabelle Jani-Friend, 22, from London
No one can be in any doubt that the pandemic has had a heavy emotional toll on the nation - but for those of us with underlying mental health problems, it has been especially challenging.
In a recent survey from Mind, 65 per cent of adults with pre-existing conditions said that their mental health had worsened during the first lockdown.
And with the country now in its third lockdown, you don't need to be an expert to understand the impact this enforced period of isolation is having on us.
I have cystic fibrosis (CF); a life-threatening, chronic condition that causes the passageways in my lungs and digestive system to become blocked with thick, sticky secretions, over time leading to fatal lung damage.
This places me into the clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV), high-risk category.
On top of this, I also suffer from OCD, PTSD and anxiety. So whilst shielding has been necessary for my physical health, it's also had a lasting impact on my mental health.
The guidance to shield was first given to CEV individuals last March for an initial 12-week period, and since then it has been advised on and off.
Despite this, I took the decision to remain shielding consistently, as the virus poses a very serious risk to my already damaged lungs and vulnerable health.
In other words, it's been 10 months since I've seen most of my friends and family. It's been 45 weeks since I got to hug my nan, to spend time with her and lie in bed together watching our favourite shows.
I have missed big family dinners, trips to the theatre and meals out my friends. Before the pandemic I would travel across the country every weekend to visit my closest family and friends.
For the many thousands of extremely vulnerable people who have been essentially locked in their homes all year, it has been a very isolating and lonely time indeed.
All my regular hospital care has been moved to online video appointments and phone calls, which means I've been managing my illness on my own at home, constantly living in fear of falling unwell.
With the steady trickle of bad news beaming out from my TV screen, my OCD and anxiety levels have been at an all-time high as I constantly fret about my loved ones getting sick and panic about touching any item that comes into the house in fear of contracting the virus.
In the summer, the restrictions for everyone in the UK temporarily relaxed as people were able to visit friends, go to the pub, have meals out and even travel abroad.
At the same time, public discourse started to imply that the lives of disabled people and those shielding were disposable and less valuable than others.
During a recent BBC programme, Lord Sumption, a prominent anti-lockdown campaigner, said he did not believe "all lives are of equal value" and responded to Deborah James, who has stage 4 metastatic bowel cancer, saying: "I didn't say your life was not valuable, I said it was less valuable."
But this isn't an isolated event, and comments such as this have been rife on social media throughout the pandemic.
Already deprived of social interaction, hugs, trips to the theatre and even going shopping, this narrative only served to make me feel even more isolated.
After losing my grandad and having to watch his funeral-live streamed on the TV, my mental health plummeted. I was distraught that I couldn't be with my family and I felt trapped. Since then I've been trying to focus on one day at a time. I make sure to stay in touch with people, and care for my mental health. Something I never gave much time to in the past.
However, as the months have dragged on, I have managed to find ways to cope with this strange new way of life.
For almost a year now, my daily schedule has followed the same pattern of medication, eat, sleep, work, Netflix...repeat. And that's OK. Not everyone can be up at the track of dawn for sunrise yoga and meal-prepping. Instead, I've learned to make the most of the small things and celebrate even the smallest of personal wins.
I try my best to strict to a structured daily schedule. This helps motivate me to get out of bed and feel as though I have a purpose. I make sure to reward myself for completing tasks, even if it's just having a shower and managing to get fresh air. I try to remind myself that we are in the midst of a pandemic so whatever little I do manage to achieve, I should be proud of myself.
I have regular therapy sessions over the phone, and recently started medication for my anxiety and OCD. This has really helped me to manage my feelings and feel less alone in my thoughts. Alongside this I have started journaling as a way of managing my feelings. Often my thoughts can spiral out of control, and by simply writing them down, I feel better.
Self-care is also important, but not just in the form of bubble baths and clay masks. I'm also referring to much smaller, everyday actions and finding time to do things you enjoy. I have been taking the time to cook new recipes, read books and watch my favourite TV shows.
Getting fresh air may seem like such a small thing, but even simply opening the window can shift my whole mood. As hard as it can be, even stepping outside the front door for a few minutes each day can improve wellbeing.
Sam Nabil, Licensed Professional Counsellor at Nayaclinics.com recommends maintaining a sense of normality whilst also remembering to practise self-care.
"Having a balanced approach to self-care can be very helpful in mitigating the effects of isolation [as well as] spending time and energy on physical wellness," she says. "Eating well, sleeping well, and exercising are often prerequisites for good mental wellness."
Registered occupational psychologist, Suzane Guest acknowledges how hard the past year has been for everyone and recommends focusing on getting through this period.
"I think it's important to acknowledge that it's tough," she adds. "The toxic positivity that was around at the start that suggested you need to have a side hustle or lear a new skill isn't helpful... we don't need to use the time to make ourselves better."
She recommends unfollowing people on social media who have a negative impact on your mindset and limiting daily news consumption.
Guest suggests a number of activities that can help us to cope during this time including maintaining communication with other people, trying to set a routine by getting up and going to sleep at the same times each day and keeping a positive mind set.
"It can feel like this is going to last forever, but the end is in sight...and there will be lots of things to look forward to once this situation is over."
For more information or support, visit mind.org.uk
Featured Image Credit: Isabelle Jani-Friend
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