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'We have to live with anxiety': Written and published in 10 days, a new book wants to help people cope with our new reality

TCD professor Dr Brendan Kelly has written a book on protecting your mental health during Covid-19.

A sign promoting physical distancing in St Stephen's Green.
A sign promoting physical distancing in St Stephen's Green.
Image: RollingNews.ie

AFTER WHAT FEELS like weeks of this ‘new normal’, it’s clear that Covid-19 can have a major impact on people’s mental health. 

From staying at home, dealing with kids and even coping with the general sense of anxiety that a pandemic of this nature brings, the coronavirus is not solely a threat to people’s physical well-being. 

Dr Brendan Kelly, a psychiatry professor in Trinity College Dublin, saw this coming. Ten days ago, he pitched a book to Merrion Press – how can people cope with a pandemic on their doorstep?

Today – after a flurry of writing and publishing – it’s an ebook available for purchase at €1 – with all royalties going to medical charities combating coronavirus and an audiobook also in development. 

Kelly told TheJournal.ie that it felt important to help people come to terms with how suddenly life has changed. 

“Everyone’s mental health is shaped by this now. Lives are turned upside down at the very least,” he says. 

“It’s affected so many people that it seemed clear to me that it was a good time for guidance about this.”

For many, the biggest complaint is uncertainty. Whereas we were all used to planning our lives week to week and month to month, now it’s much closer to taking each day as it comes. 

Kelly The new book by Dr Brendan Kelly. Source: Merrion Press

“One of the big challenges we need to adjust to is living with uncertainty, more uncertainty and anxiety than we’re accustomed to,” Kelly says.

“There is something to be anxious about now. We have to live with more anxiety now.”

So what does that mean practically?

Simply being aware of the strange contradictions and strangeness of the situation helps, he says. 

“We’re told to support the vulnerable, but we’re told we mustn’t visit them,” he says as an example. Or that this is pandemic of global proportions can be partially solved by people washing their hands.

Some of these ideas are hard to grapple with. “It’s emotionally complex,” Kelly says. “We all want to do something to help, but we all have to stay at home.”

Working at home 

The government advice might be “stay at home”, but it’s sometimes not that easy. Kelly argues that there is nothing inherently bad for people’s mental health to staying or working from home, but it matters how people approach it. 

“Our physical and mental health is ultimately the same thing. Our heads are stuck onto our bodies. We forget that,” he says. 

If we watch TV too late or eat poor-quality food, it can sometimes make us feel worse. For Kelly, a healthy home-life during the pandemic makes managing mental health much easier. 

“Sitting at home, faced with our own thoughts, isn’t always a comfortable place to be,” he says. And while “there is no harm in indulging in things”, he recommends linking it to our good behaviour – whether that’s following public health advice or having a good working day. 

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One of the worst things people can do, says Kelly, is to obsessively follow the spread of the virus around the world.

“How can we manage information? We can’t live our lives constantly tuned into the global pandemic,” he says. 

Instead, think about coronavirus twice a day – morning and evening – and try not to get caught up in the minutiae of every country’s outbreak.  

“For some reason, we constantly refresh a screen as we look towards new case statistics in the evening,” he says.

“Our thinking habits place on a negative filter. Realising that is really powerful and can help diminish it.”

Ultimately, some of this means accepting that the world will be different – and there is not a lot we can do about that at the moment.

Kelly says:

The post-coronavirus world will be quite different. People will be grieving losses of family members, jobs, businesses, ways of life. This is a time of building resilience for that. Things will be different, they will be better. These pass, but there will be fears this comes back.

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