It’s a familiar experience for many Australians over the course of the past year – things are going well, life feels almost back to normal, friends can be hosted and toasted, we can move about again.

Then, suddenly, a sudden cluster of unidentified or out-of-control COVID-19 cases triggers a snap lockdown that can plunge entire cities – in some cases entire states – into the familiar iron arms of lockdown.

Be it five days or five weeks, sudden lockdowns can be particularly triggering, causing downturns in people’s mental wellbeing. For example, during Melbourne’s recent five-day lockdown, by the second day the ABC was already reporting a dramatic surge in Victorians contacting crisis support helplines for mental health issues. 

Why do I feel so bad after snap-lockdown announcements, and what is a ‘trigger’?

In the context of mental health, a trigger refers to something that suddenly – often out of the blue – causes you to experience an extreme emotion, such as sadness, anxiety or distress. It may bring up a bad memory or call to mind negative associations, or it may sometimes be difficult to understand why a trigger is a trigger in the first place.

Triggers can be caused by events, phrases, sounds, sights, smells, even individual words, and the reaction can often seem disproportionate to the triggering event.

Snap lockdowns lasting a mere five days may seem like a relatively small blip in an otherwise fairly open year thus far, but the experience of a sudden lockdown – from the familiar sounds of a press conference, to familiar phrases like “stay at home order” and “five-kilometre rule”, can trigger memories and emotions bound up in the much longer and more distressing lockdowns of last year.

That, coupled with the anxiety associated with new cases among the public, can trigger a sudden downturn in your mental health. This can be quite bewildering, especially as Australians have slowly started to get used to their freedom again.

How can I manage my emotions?

Seeking professional help

As the heightened referral rates suggest, now may well be a good time to get in touch with mental health services. A chat with a counsellor or therapist can help you to reframe your emotions and get on top of your thoughts.

If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis you can contact the services below for immediate, cost-free help. These services provide short-term, instant crisis advice and support, but do not offer long-term, professional support services, so seeking long-term help is still advisable.

  • Beyond Blue has a 24-hour helpline that will link you to a trained mental health professional who can chat to you about your concerns. Contact them on 1300 22 4636.
  • 1800RESPECT offers a 24-7 counselling and support service for people impacted by sexual assault or family violence.
  • Headspace offers free online and telephone support services to young people aged 12-25. Call them on 1800 650 890.
  • MensLine Australia is a telephone and online support service for men. Contact them on 1300 78 99 78.
  • QLife is a national counselling and referral service tailored to LGBTQI people. It’s available between 3pm and 12am. Contact them on 1800 184 527.

How can I help myself at home?

Alongside professional mental health support services, there are ways you can support your own mental wellbeing at this time. These include physical practices and exercises, as well as mental exercises and reframing techniques.

Eat well and exercise regularly

Evidence shows that nutrition and physical fitness can act as buffers for the ups and downs of mental health, so now is a good time to get those good nutrients into your body and get the endorphins flowing.

Practice a mindfulness technique like meditation, yoga or tai chi

Mindfulness is a really handy tool to calm anxious or negative thoughts, and gain perspective in short, quick bursts. There’s a wealth of evidence demonstrating that mindfulness, when practiced regularly, can alleviate the symptoms of common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. A useful quick meditation tutorial can be found here.

Learn more about mindfulness here.

Practice deep breathing

Deep breathing is an evidence-based technique for triggering physical relaxation and mental calm, and can be a handy way to de-escalate panic or anxiety. There are many practices and exercises that incorporate deep breathing, such as yoga and tai chi, but there are also plenty of simpler practices you can do in a couple of minutes, such as box breathing, or 4-7-8 breathing.

Read about deep breathing, including practical techniques, here.

Maintain routine

During a lockdown, it can be easy to slip out of your regular routine – there’s fewer demands on you to get up on time, to exercise at a certain hour, to eat meals regularly and to go to sleep at a set bedtime.

However, slipping out of your usual routine can actually exacerbate the symptoms of mental health issues like depression and anxiety, because you’re left feeling rudderless or out of place. Try to maintain a routine like you usually would, but don’t forget to forgive yourself if you just can’t get out of bed on time – it happens to the best of us.

Keep on top of your sleep hygiene

Regular, deep and enriching sleep is an essential component of a healthy life. If you’re not sleeping properly you’ll likely experience a range of negative effects ranging from mood-swings to physical symptoms like headaches and nausea.

In order to ensure you’re having the best possible sleep, try to go to bed and get up at around the same times every day. Reduce the amount of non-sleep related activity you engage in in your bedroom – for example, if you work in your bedroom you may associate that room with higher stress levels.

Other tips for good sleep hygiene include turning off your devices – laptops and mobile phone – at least an hour before bed, and creating restful lighting in your bedroom.

For a full list of tips for good sleep hygiene from the American Sleep Association, click here.

Dealing with Adversity

There are plenty of practical things we can do to make this time a little easier, but ultimately it’s bound to be difficult for a lot of us. Life Supports Counselling CEO Mahlia Price says:

“When our external environment changes without our ability to have much control over it, this is when our bank of ‘coping strategies’ really kick in.

Our coping strategies are our own personal toolkit of experiences, abilities, and supportive people. They are the skills and techniques we can deploy to weather storms.

Assess your toolkit. What strengths do you already have? How have they helped you in the past during times of adversity? Which people in your life support you, make you feel a sense of belonging? Can you focus in on three things you feel grateful for? What is one loving, kind thing you can do for yourself right now?”

For counselling and support services, contact our intake team on 1300 735 030.

Amalyah Hart

Amalyah Hart

Amalyah Hart is a freelance journalist and content writer, specialising in science communication. She has a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Oxford and has completed a Master of Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She writes on psychology, health and health policy, and the environment. She also works in public policy consulting, specialising in the healthcare sector.

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