Staying mentally fit during lockdown

Canoe Racing NZ men’s squad psychologist Dominic Vettise puts together his five-point guide for maintaining mental health and wellness during the current Covid-19 Alert Level 4 lockdown

During times of uncertainty, the brain does not always cope well. This is why it is so important to stay on top of mental health.

We are currently two weeks into lockdown with Easter looming and there is a temptation for people to let their guard down. The mindset of many during Easter is that it is a special occasion and we can do things we normally wouldn’t, like drink or eat more. The “novelty” of being in lockdown is slowly coming to a halt and people start to become complacent when they see a flattening of the curve. In this scenario the danger is we might enter what is known as a relapse cycle. I use the example of someone who is or was addicted to alcohol, and may be successfully avoiding alcohol but during a period of stress he might suddenly change his usual safe walking route to go past the pub – putting himself in a high-risk situation. He’ll be tempted to seek immediate gratification. He’ll recall all the happy memories and fun he had the pub. He may decide to have one beer and shift his thinking into a justification of “why not have six or ten!”

To convert this to greater relevance to our canoe racing community, the brain will start to remember all the good memories we have on the water. We may recall the fun we had pushing the boat out on to the water and having a laugh with our mates. The temptation could be to go out for a five or ten-minute paddle. The next time it might be a 30-minute training session. Each time this occurs (and people get away with it) the self-justification for going against the rules set out during COVID-19 lockdown is increased.

It is very important in these times of crisis to contain our complacency. Poor and unhelpful decisions don’t just happen. We go through stages, and we need to be monitor our awareness around this.

1 – Safety First

In any sports team/club safety and care should underpin everything. First and foremost people need to look after themselves, their family and friends and get good sound medical advice. Avoid searching the internet too much because of the risk of misinformation. In these times it needs to be remembered that the priority is not about performance, but minimising risk.

I’d also advise people to try and limit information on Covid-19. In these times of great stress, people tend to go looking in order to feed their anxieties and create certainty.

On the other hand, it is not helpful to completely shut out this global crisis we are experiencing. That is just avoidance, and this is not helpful either. We need to find a balance

Dom’s key takeaways

*Choose sources of information that you can trust – ie doctor/medical team

*Limit information intake to once or twice a day. Get the information you need, then avoid the temptation to keep watching news highlights

*Use this information to help you build plans for you and significant others

*Don’t minimise the risk with COVID. This is an incredibly serious moment in eradicating a serious threat to all New Zealand and the globe. Hold strongly to the medical guidelines and challenge others around you to do the same.

2 – Your thoughts, emotions and actions are your friends

In times of crisis, the ability to think clearly and plan is the most important skill. To do this you need to regulate your emotions.

Your brain interprets situations which we know as thoughts. It is these thoughts that drive the intensity of your emotions, and emotions influence behaviour. So to adhere to COVID-19 behaviours we need to make sure we are not putting ourselves at risk, and to do this we need to manage and grow our awareness as to how we think.

In times of stress the brain can play tricks (e.g. misinterpret real versus perceived threat). So we need to calm the mind to help more rational, clear judgement occur. I would recommend breathing or meditation.

It is also important that people understand their values. For the men’s paddlers I deal with – this is about respect, accountability and courage. They will be reminded to act in a way that exemplifies these values.

It is fine to feel angry, anxious or upset. These are genuine emotions that tell you a lot about yourself. Pay attention to those emotions, don’t run away from them but try and revert back to your values and identity as the anchor.

Dom’s Key Takeaways

*It is likely that you and those around will be experiencing various emotions and differing intensities

*Remind yourself that these feelings are absolutely normal in times like these. Don’t judge them or tell yourself you should be feeling any differently. It is likely you may feel worried, scared or even stronger, panic, about the current crisis

*Practise good breathing techniques to help quiet the mind and physiology

*Choose optimism and look for information from around the world of the countries who already appear to have got solid control over the virus. If they can achieve this then so can we.

*Anchor in on your identity. The current crisis is a real challenge to live to your core values and hold on to a concept of courage. We know that those who have gone before us had to deal with various extreme moments in their lives and most survived. Hold on to that. You are here because you are part of a line of adventurers who would show deep character under extreme situations. You are now living that heritage. It is your turn to do the same

*Build solid daily rituals and schedule to help mentally get through the days and weeks that will be involved in helping eradicate the virus. Set daily goals and try to exercise early in the day to help trigger feeling great for the day ahead. Eat well. Hydrate well. Avoid day time sleeping to encourage great night rest and sleep.

*Support others around you to follow similar routines

3 – Make the most of your time

This is not a normal situation. But it is important to keep up a good daily routine within reason. Try and make the most of your time and stay connected. Even if it is for ten minutes – talk to your friends. Grow connections with each other and keep an eye on the future.

Dom’s Key Takeaways

*This is a great time to rekindle what you used to do in the past like play cards and family games.

*What life plans do you have outside of sport? How can I use the extra time to establish a strong foundation to grow your future.

*Challenge yourself by using the time to learn something completely new. What about encouraging those around you to do the same.

4 – Stay connected through social media

A real positive could be to set up challenges within your community. Or for a club coach it could be to connect with other club coaches to check on the mood of other clubs and what is happening. In my work with NZ Football we set out a four-week programme based on tactical, technical, physical and the mental side of the game

Dom’s Key Takeaway

*Although we will be isolating for a significant period of time don’t disconnect from friends and the wider family. Connect regularly with them to make sure they are okay too. Share stories of what is working and going well. There is a difference between social and physical distancing.

5 – Be strong and reach out to others

Don’t feel like you are a burden. Professional support is here to help and different health lines. Don’t be afraid to tap into this. You don’t need to feel alone

Dom’s Key Takeaway

*External professional support is here to help

*Feel free to reach out to talk about your wellbeing, or even if you want to do some relationship work with your partner during this time, people will be available to help.

Dom Vettise is an experienced clinical psychologist who also works with the Black Ferns Sevens, NZ Football, Auckland Aces and the Bay of Plenty Magic netball.
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