Managing health conditions during the pandemic

Gemma Cormican

Gemma Cormican is a Mental Health Adviser & Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist at the University of York

If you have any ongoing health condition, the outbreak of the pandemic may have created additional concerns or difficulties for you. We have all noticed an increase in worrying and feelings of uncertainty, but this may be exacerbated by your concerns about your health and the practical challenges of staying safe.

If your health condition has been triggered more often, or flare ups have been worse in response to coronavirus and feelings of uncertainty, developing healthy habits can help your mental health, and help you to maintain your physical health.

1. Practice what works for you

We’re complicated beings, and so are our health conditions, which can often change regularly and sometimes even suddenly. When we take time to monitor these changes we start to notice patterns in the positive and negative impact of situations and/or activities on our health.

2. Keep a symptom journal

This is a chronicle of symptoms you experience, usually on a daily basis.

Three ways to do this are:

  • Write your symptoms in a physical diary or journal
  • Enter your symptoms into a database or spreadsheet you create on your computer
  • Record your symptoms using any of the symptom tracking apps you can find for your handheld devices.

In addition to keeping a symptom journal, it’s important to keep track of your activity as well. When we compare the two, we can take steps to do more of the activities that sooth our symptoms rather than exacerbate them.

3. Stop comparing yourself to others

Worry and anxiety can lead us to adopt more unhelpful thinking habits and behaviors. It’s very common for students to compare themselves to others academically, socially, and physically. We’re now hearing lots of students comparing their ability to cope with health conditions to those of others as well.

It’s important to recognise that everyone’s health conditions, and the ways that they experience them are unique. Lockdown will impact us and our health conditions in very different ways and it can be easy to lose sight of this! As a result, we often assume that we all respond to lockdown, and uncertainty the same way. Here are some tips to help you avoid playing the comparison game.

Give yourself the compassion you would offer to others

It’s easy to be tough on ourselves, we tend to do it much more than we realise. There is a better way! When we forgive ourselves, accept our perceived flaws, and show ourselves kindness, we practice self-compassion. It’s often a lot harder than it sounds, but with the right techniques, we can learn to make it a habit that sticks. Self-help can be a really good place to start.

Rethink social media

You, like everyone else, probably post the best version of yourself on social media. Maybe you use filters, and edit posts several times. The truth is, none of us post the whole, unedited, truth about our lives, and nor should we.

So, remember this the next time you’re mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds, what you are seeing, is what people want you to see! Comparing your unedited, thoughts, feelings and experiences to someone else's edited ‘highlights’ is very unfair on yourself.

Remember, insides and outsides can’t be compared

People edit their real lives too! You may have had the experience of being shocked when a couple that appeared to be happy and solid announce that they have broken up. Or, when a student who appears to be doing well, suddenly drops out of university or takes a leave of absence.

Just as others edit their lives, we do too. As human beings we have a tendency to filter the information we receive from others, only remembering the good bit. We also confuse the memories we have and put lots of information from various people together in one. This means that we end up with a compilation of people's best bits with none of their difficulties!

Continue to wish others well, of course, but in the event that their life gives you reason to feel bad about yours, remind yourself that you don’t actually know what goes on behind closed doors.

4. Give yourself permission

When giving advice to friends, it’s easy to say things like: “take a break,” or “you’re not a machine.” Yet, when it's time to give ourselves the same permissions, we become less inclined? You’re not alone! For a lot of us, it’s very difficult to give ourselves permission to take what we need. However, we can learn by using the following tips:

Notice the baby steps and praise them

We tend to get so wrapped up in the destination, that we don’t focus on the steps we’re making along the way. By giving yourself permission to celebrate your small wins, you’re reinforcing that you are enough.

Make flexibility your friend

When managing health conditions, often, what works one day, may not the next. Practice changing things up, set yourself guidelines instead of rules, and set rough time scales instead of rigid ones.

Avoid ‘shoulding’

We often get caught up in what the potential outcome of situations ‘should be,’ and how we ‘should’ feel or behave. This can lead us to avoid starting or being disappointed if things don’t go exactly as planned.

When you let go of what you think you ‘should’ be like, you give yourself permission to see what happens. The openness and self-trust that comes from this, can decrease stress, increase productivity and reduce symptoms associated with your health condition.

5. Keep in touch with your university or institution

Many students with health conditions will have already made contact with support services. However, it’s less common for students to provide up to date information. It’s not only important to use the support available at your university or institution, but to also keep them up to date with any fluctuations or changes in your condition. This way, your support can be adapted and updated accordingly.