A sign on an MRT Jakarta bench to prevent passengers from sitting next to each other. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

It's Not All in Your Head: How to Take Care of Your Mental Health During Pandemic


MAY 12, 2020

Jakarta. To say that the coronavirus pandemic has triggered stress in many people stuck at home under lockdown – or conversely, those forced to keep going to work despite shelter-in-place orders – is a major understatement. But how does the pandemic actually affect our mental wellbeing? And how can we fight back?

People have been living under increasing anxiety and fear: fear of catching the disease, fear of losing a job, even fear of boredom.


This may sound like a no-brainer to some people. But how exactly does the crisis affect our brain?

Clinical psychologist Gisella Tani Pertiwi said our brain perceives the pandemic as something foreign and a threat.

The brain goes into a survival mode and tells the body to react accordingly. 

"This pandemic is something unknown, uncertain, dangerous. The brain sees it as a threat and automatically activates our defense mechanism to survive. This survival mode is what triggers the anxiety, fear and alertness," Gisella said.

She said some of us might become more prone to overthinking and think too much of the future. Our ability to think logically is also often overpowered by intense emotions.

This temporary "disability" may trigger irresponsible actions such as panic buying and discrimination against Covid-19 victims.

Gisella said we've only reached the beginning of the pandemic and that the current symptoms might develop differently later for each individual.

"People might develop sleep, eating or mood disorders as they experience more and more intense and fluctuating emotions, including sadness and grief," Gisella said.

"However, some people might develop resilience to these conditions as well, they might just accept the situations and start adapting to them," she said. 

While it's clear the pandemic has major psychological consequences, Gisella said it won't b easy to lump the different symptoms under one category of mental disorder. 

"Everyone is psychologically affected, but the intensity and complexity of the symptoms are different in every individual," Gisella said. 

Dos and Don'ts

"Be positive" might be an overused mantra, but Gisella said it might actually help during the pandemic to relieve some of our stress. 

We must also maintain our physical – not just mental – wellbeing by keeping to a healthy lifestyle. This means eating healthy food, getting enough sleep and exercising.

A healthy body will make it easier for you to maintain your mental health.

A balanced daily routine is also important. Aside from working from home, you should also take the "mental vitamin" of quality family time and also me time.

The next stage would be to get to know ourselves more. Acknowledge challenges that might make our time under quarantine more than just a little stressful and, most importantly, find solutions for them.

If hanging out with friends on the weekend was a way for you to let loose before the pandemic, try video calling them instead. 

In any case, keeping in contact with your loved ones will help you feel connected to a caring community. 

You can also make a list of all the positive things that have happened in your life to help you to appreciate it more.

When the symptoms become unbearable and continue for more than two weeks, please reach out for professional help.

If you're unsure who to contact, the Indonesian Psychiatrists Association (PDSKJI) offers psychological assistance through its Instagram account, @PDSKJI_Indonesia, and free consultation through the Health Ministry's Sehatpedia app.

Lastly, Gisella also said people should not read too much news related to the pandemic. Instead, get regular updates one or twice a day, and only from trustworthy sources.

A few Covid-19 patients have admitted they followed the "no news is good news" approach during their recovery.

In an interview on the Covid-19 Task Force website, survivor Tung Desem Waringin said while recovering he was able to stay emotionally stable by avoiding news with a negative tone and watching funny videos on YouTube.

Curbing Discrimination

Actor Detri Warmanto, who was diagnosed with Covid-19 in March, told the Jakarta Globe that aside from avoiding consuming too much news, he also had to force himself to stop paying attention to people who blamed him for contracting the virus.

"A lot of people were bullying and attacking me; they blamed me for contracting the virus and accused me of spreading the disease. I decided to stop [reading the messages]," Detri said.

He said the criticisms had hit him hard, especially early on when he was still struggling to come to terms with having contracted Covid-19.

"Mentally, I felt under pressure. I panicked, I got confused. I worried that I might not be able to recover from the disease," he said.

Detri self-isolated from his family for 21 days. It became easier to stay positive when the symptoms he was experiencing turned out to be not very severe. 

In April, 46 medical workers at Kariadi Hospital in Semarang had to be isolated after contracting the virus from a Covid-19 patient who did not disclose he had the disease.

Detri condemned the patient's action, more so since one of the doctors at the hospital had once treated his child.

However, speaking from the patient's perspective, Detri said the negative stigma toward Covid-19 patients might have played a role in the incident. 

"Lack of information is a big problem. It might've driven the patient to behave like that – running away, hiding... because they didn't know what might happen to them,” he said. 

Gisella said discriminative attitude is common in an emergency situation. It's part of our flight-or-fight response when the brain detects a threat.

"The cure for discrimination is education. People should know the effects of discrimination. They should be told what to do, what to say, when their families or friends are diagnosed with Covid-19,” Gisella said.