Self-care in the time of COVID-19: Creative ways forward

By Andrew Staniforth, Head, ANU Counselling
30 March 2020

Rather than fighting for toilet paper or buying up in panic, we should be considering ourselves as a collective and harnessing this shared experience to unite and find creative ways forward.  

The world has become much scarier recently with the COVID-19 crisis deepening by the day. Our fight/flight/freeze response is more sensitive and fear is leading us to behave in ways we ordinarily wouldn't. So how do we soothe this autonomic nervous system response and create room for resilience?  How do we retain hope and maintain our capacity for love and goodwill toward others and to ourselves?  How do we not drift toward boredom or believing in doomsday? Rather than fighting for toilet paper or buying up in panic, we should be considering ourselves as a collective and harnessing this shared experience to unite and find creative ways forward.  

I think about these things in the daily work I do as a clinical psychologist and Head of Counselling at The Australian National University.  I also recently returned from a work trip to San Francisco just in time to avoid being caught up in border closures.  I had a taste of what a major city in lock-down feels like while I was away. While I was frustrated that the conference I travelled to attend was cancelled, I focused on the bigger picture and tried not to let disappointment dominate my experience.  As much as the circumstances allowed, I still engaged in things that offered hope-from appreciating creative arts to walking briskly outside and focusing on sensorial experience. 

An exceptional period of time in history, like we now face with Covid-19, while potentially devastating, is also a chance for all of us to recalibrate. It's a chance to reassess what kind of rhythm to your day and week could work for you. It's an opportunity to slow down and be more mindfully present. It's a moment to be creative-in how we connect with loved ones we cannot physically visit and in the expression of our experiences through writing, drawing, music and other arts.  

In addition to the essential health advice-like washing hands, keeping 1.5 metres distance from others, and staying home-here are some practical tips about how you can take care of your mental health and embrace potential opportunities to change for the better during this challenging time.

  1. Be mindful of what you consume and take a break from continuous news. Read, watch, listen to and eat things that help and sustain you, which nourish and bring in energy. When was the last time you listened to an album?  And did nothing else?  Try it!
  2. If anxiety or fear comes up, recognise this as a signal.  After acknowledging it, do something to help calm your system.  Then reappraise.  A helpful hint here is that if you are really scared and panicking, it is very challenging to do mindfulness of breath.  Match your calming and soothing response to the level of intensity of the emotion-try star jumps, running on the spot or jumping on a trampoline if you have one before moving to a slower, more mindful activity like yoga and mindfulness of breath.
  3. Reframe your negative emotions and thoughts, looking for opportunities for positive change and gratitude for the little things. Enjoy the sensory experiences we rarely stop to appreciate-how the wind moves the trees, the light in the evening, the taste and smell of coffee.  The more we notice these small things, the more hope and positivity we can generate.
  4. While we observe social distancing or quarantine, and with gyms closed, exercise is hard-but so important for our physical and mental health. Find a new exercise routine, supported by videos, apps as well as outdoor activities at a safe distance from others. Like me, you could dance at home like no one is watching (at the moment, my family are busting moves to Shiny Happy People).
  5. Connect with others in the ways that you can.  Reach out and phone, or text or videoconference.  We can bring the world to us, even if we keep our distance.

While providing this guidance, I fully acknowledge the enormous hardship many people are experiencing with the loss of jobs and serious threats to health.

Members of the ANU student community can access 24/7 support on 1300 050 327 or via SMS Text message service on 0488 884 170.

Staff and their family members can access free support and counselling through the Employee Assistance Program on 1800 808 374. To learn more about looking after your wellbeing and mental health, visit