Coronavirus anxiety is real.
With restrictions tied to the coronavirus outbreak leaving millions confined to their homes, even those who call themselves introverts are feeling the effects of quarantine on the body and mind.
Does someone feeling edgy, constantly or obsessively checking news updates, losing sleep, or waking in the early hours of the morning feeling anxious indicate they are experiencing or developing mental health issues?
“No. These are completely normal, human reactions to a completely abnormal situation,” says Masaki Nishida, a psychiatrist and associate professor at Waseda University.
“If you feel lonely, talk to friends and family on the phone or any tech-enabled form of communication. It’s good to limit how much information you consume about the coronavirus outbreak and not respond impulsively to social media feeds,” he says.
Although Nishida understands the government is trying to deal with a public health crisis, he is not impressed with its messaging so far and thinks the way it has chosen to communicate about the crisis has done more harm than good to the mental health of the Japanese population.
For example, the government has implemented measures like school closures and has promised to distribute two free face masks per family, but to him, it appears the lack of information and reassurance has exacerbated the situation in an already anxious nation.
The media, filled with self-proclaimed coronavirus experts giving their own advice, is just as guilty, Nishida says.
He thinks the government and media should keep people safe and informed during these scary times by providing access to accurate information from the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 mental health resources.
Japan’s emergency declaration will allow governors to call on people to stay at home and businesses to close, and more people will experience a lack of human connection as social distancing becomes the new norm.
For those who are lucky enough to have unlimited access to the internet and lots of free time, watching movies, taking online courses and playing video games are ways to stay distracted and entertained.
Even older people who are vulnerable to loneliness as well as the disease are enjoying the benefits of technology like video chat, virtual karaoke and livestreaming church services.
There are enough virtual escapes and strategies that help us feel less alone, but some time in solitude is not in itself a bad thing for some.
“Being alone isn’t the same thing as being lonely,” says yoga influencer Mae Yoshikawa, who has been teaching her social media followers how to practice self-care in the midst of a global health crisis.
Yoshikawa says this is a chance to “evolve into the next version of yourself” by allowing external sources of happiness — material objects, people, relationships — to take less of a prominent place in life, now and in the future.
“What makes me happy? What makes me feel whole? Try to answer those questions in a way that doesn’t require external conditions. It might be showering or reading or cooking, it can be anything,” she says.
“Some people can be 60 or 70 years old and have an open mind, while others can be 20 and be stubborn. It’s not about age but habit. The key to breaking the habit of thought is to start small. For example, if you want to start yoga, start by touching your mat.”
Being your own best friend and knowing how to be happy alone is a great advantage at times like these, and Japanese people are well-versed in dealing with solitude.
More Japanese live alone than ever before, accounting for 34.5 percent of households in 2015, according to census data, and the stark reality of kodokushi, or lonely deaths, is starting to hit home for many.
Heart-breaking stories are making headlines all over the world.
In mid-March, the Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom ran a story headlined “Beloved father dies a lonely death in coronavirus isolation unit,” and on March 29, CNN published an article titled “Coronavirus preys on what terrifies us: dying alone.”
Ayumi Makita, a 44-year-old single woman living alone in a compact studio in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward, has been trying to calm coronavirus fears by baking and doing zazen, or seated meditation, but she says she is also preparing for the worst-case scenario.
“I’m used to aloneness, but I’ve never felt more single than I do right now,” says Makita, who normally enjoys the perks of solo life like choosing what to do in her free time.
“If I get sick nobody will be able to come over and look after me. I worry about what will happen to my three cats. I’ve been reading about what pet owners are supposed to do if they are diagnosed with the virus. I’ve even written a living will,” she said.
Nishida, who is also a sleep specialist and author of books that address mental health topics, says if someone experiences trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep every night for more than two weeks, it could be a warning sign of mental illness.
While stress and sadness are natural responses to COVID-19, health professionals like Nishida say people should seek help if anxiety or depression symptoms start to interfere with work, relationships or ability to manage day-to-day tasks.
Nishida warns that there will be obvious risks to visiting clinics at a time Tokyo residents are requested to stay at home. However, if the stress becomes too much to bear alone or if others are encouraging therapy as an option, do not hesitate, he says.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan must be ready for a “long battle” against the coronavirus. And chances are that the nation will not quickly snap back to normal once the pandemic is over.
So while forced to dramatically adjust our daily lives and look after our mental well-being, we can hope that this unprecedented challenge has the potential to embed new self-care habits that will stick.
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