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Five ways to improve your wellbeing during lockdown

Just as we were dusting ourselves off, wiping the sleep from our eyes and tentatively venturing out into the world again, many states have been thrust back into the uncertainty of lockdown. While the optimistic are looking on the bright side, it is equally understandable if you felt rudderless.

Stress, confusion and anger have become “commonplace” for Australians amidst the pandemic.

In previous lockdowns, those feelings played out in the one in six parents who drank daily, the many who ate their emotions and the gaping loneliness that affected one in two Australians.

“What we’ve learned from multiple different lockdowns around the country and internationally is that being proactive about your mental health is really important,” says Addie Wootten, a clinical psychologist and the chief executive officer of Smiling Mind.

Armed with the right information, it is possible to approach current – or future – lockdowns differently and even improve our wellbeing while we’re at it.

1. Set the tone early
We can’t all spend our mornings meditating and journaling, chanting and necking brain octane oil. Luckily, whether you rise at 6am or 11, a simple regime at the start of your day will still set up the momentum for the rest of it.

“I think one thing most people have found helpful, learning from the past, is to create some routine,” says psychologist Dr Tim Sharp, who exercises upon waking. “We lose that a bit if we’re not doing the normal commute. It can be helpful for most of us to create another version of that – even having something at the beginning or the end of the day to separate work from personal.”

It can be as small as making your bed every morning, to mark the first accomplishment of the day and promote a sense of order, and then going for a short walk. Sharp suggests also book-ending the day with an activity – another short walk, exercise, reading a few chapters of a book or stretching – and packing away your work gear, especially if your workspace is also your living space.

For anyone who feels like lockdown creates a structureless expanse of time that stretches on endlessly, Wootten suggests planning the rest of the day too, from what you cook to when you exercise or go to the park, to when you call someone to check in or have a Zoom wine date.

2. Commit to one little thing
Exercise is one of the most evidence-based ways to improve our mental health.

Lizzy Williamson, a PT and author of Two Minute Moves, starts her day by checking in with herself. “If I’m struggling to find three things I’m grateful for then I know something is quite wrong,” she says.

She then stretches, does a 10-minute Headspace meditation and moves for her mood. “If I find I’m starting to get anxious or stressed, I’ll get a pillow and start to have a punch of the pillow. I’m a real stress-eater… so I’ll go into the kitchen and do 20 pushups instead, or put on a song and have a dance, punch and kick.”

Punctuating your day with regular short breaks to move makes a difference too.

When people’s motivation to move wanes, which can happen as lockdown goes on, Williamson suggests committing to “one little thing” each day.

“I might not have done the hour-long walk or whatever, but at least I’ve done something,” Williamson says. “It could be some kind of little game, like squats while you’re brushing your teeth or pushups at the kitchen bench while you’re cooking.”

3. When life gets big, go small
The uncertainty about how long lockdown will last can “eat away at the hope and optimism,” says Sharp, who is also the Chief Happiness Officer at the Happiness Institute: “One thing I’ve found helpful is one day or even one hour at a time. Thinking of the two weeks or whatever it can be is disheartening.”

He likens this approach to bushwalking: you need to know your destination and scan ahead but your focus must remain on each step so you don’t trip over. Breaking it down makes a daunting task like lockdown more manageable, and allows us to enjoy each moment more.

“It changes our perception,” Wootten adds. “We’re getting positive reinforcement quicker than waiting for that endpoint.”

Focusing on each moment is essentially a practice in mindfulness and lockdown, Wootten suggests, is a good time to start. Smiling Mind has a free mindfulness app or you can try putting it into practice on your daily walks.

“[Try] paying attention to what you can smell, what you can hear, and really tuning into what you can see,” she explains.

“Rather than rushing through the walk, take time to notice and savour what you have around you. Doing things with awareness, with openness and curiosity is the crux of what mindfulness is.”

4. Separate physical distancing from social distancing
Even when we have to be physically apart, we don’t need to be apart socially.

“We are seeing that loneliness is a really big thing emerging from the pandemic – young people as well as old people,” Wootten says. “That connection piece is really important.”

The incidental conversations and connections may not happen, so we need to be proactive.

“Even if we can’t see our friends, family or colleagues, making the effort to connect and do FaceTime or whatever it is, is better than nothing,” says Sharp, who suggests that exercise time can double as social time. “Do whatever you can as best you can to foster and maintain those relationships.”

5. Stimulate a positive focus
“Finding opportunities to pay attention to those things we’re grateful for is really helpful because it stimulates a positive rather than a negative focus,” Wootten says.

The key is to ground the gratitude in reality, Sharp adds.

“[Unrealistic] positive thinking can be just as bad as negative thinking,” he explains. “I think it’s a bit the same with gratitude.”

Research shows that people who practise gratitude or appreciation are happier and healthier, but it doesn’t mean we can’t also feel sadness or stress.

“They shouldn’t be mutually exclusive,” Sharp says. “We sometimes forget that we can feel multiple feelings at the same time. We can feel grateful or happy to some extent and sad and grieving at the same time. There are those complexities in our emotions. We can feel anxious and brave or confident and uncertain at the same time.”