MetLife’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Samuel Lim, explains the stress signs to look out for, how to bring positive mental health activities into your life, and where to get help if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

If you’ve felt like your life went into a state of limbo during 2020-2021 while waiting for things to 'get back to normal', you’re not alone.

Many Australians have understandably experienced feelings of uncertainty and stress during the pandemic, often caused by external stresses such as isolation and loss of community connections, threat of illness, finding it more challenging to meet physical health needs, and a breakdown in routine.

The mental health benefits of routine

Of all the external stresses, a breakdown in routine is possibly the most straightforward challenge you can address to help improve your mental health, because it's an area of life you can take control of yourself. Here are some ideas to help you create regular activities with mental health benefits:

1. Having a routine helps you feel more in control

Remember to make as close to equal time for work, rest and play. While eight hours of each is ideal, try to get the work for each day done within a time frame, especially if you're working from home, so you don't feel that work is the only thing you are doing with purpose. It helps to keep routine hours for work so you can manage your time more mindfully, knowing you need to clock off each day. Keep your early mornings and evenings as times for self-care of your physical and mental health every day, including healthy meals, hygiene, exercise, and relaxation.

2. Aim for regular sleep times

Going to bed at roughly the same time each night and rising at the same time in the morning helps your body clock settle into a pattern for sleep. These days, many of us have too much 'screen time' on our phones, computers and other devices during the day as it is, so get into the habit of turning off screens an hour or more before you sleep so your mind gets a rest from constant mental stimulation. Rationing social media and limiting how much news you read or watch at any time is a very useful way to reduce your exposure to stress or unrealistic expectations.

3. Create experiences to look forward to

Schedule time into your week for positive experiences that last an hour or more and help you feel good. Put them on your to-do list on your fridge or block out the time in your computer's calendar as a promise to yourself – and keep it. Having positive experiences to look forward to helps motivate you to get other tasks done on time. Plan some experiences that involve other people, too, because maintaining social connections and enjoying meaningful times together helps create a positive feedback loop for friends and family.

4. Learn something new

Developing a new skill is often positive and mentally stimulating, which is its own benefit. Try to make time to practise regularly so it becomes a habit, and reward yourself for each achievement if you can. Even rediscovering the simple joys of making things at home rather than buying them can be extremely rewarding. Learning to cook new recipes became a hugely popular activity during lockdowns because the rewards for focusing time and mental energy on being creative with food can be delicious. It also helped people overcome worries about shortages of 'convenience foods' at supermarkets, because they learned to make more meals from scratch instead – and gained a huge sense of accomplishment.

5. Reframe 'downtime' as bonus time to get things done you've been putting off

It's possible to do a bit of a mental trick by positively reframing how you feel about time. Rather than waiting out the days until lockdowns and travel restrictions are over, think about how you can use the time you have right now to tackle projects you've previously put off. Try committing an hour each day to a project, so it feels less of a chore, and stick to it. The rewards will come.

Use quiet times for meaningful conversations

Maintaining connections and having meaningful conversations with friends and family is important for mental health. It doesn’t have to be about 'a problem shared is a problem halved', but at least by sharing some thoughts on things that are concerning us, we can start to lighten our worries.

While travel restrictions are in place, many people feel disconnected, so it can help to use these quiet times to reconnect and have some of the meaningful conversations we've missed out on during busier times.

Sharing your own feelings can help other people feel comfortable about opening up, and you don't necessarily need answers for each other's challenges – just listening can help a lot.

You might also notice some people who previously felt inhibited about opening up in face-to-face conversations now find it easier to talk on the phone or online after months of virtual meetings for work and school.

Organisations such as Beyond Blue and Lifeline have helped raise awareness about why it's OK to talk about mental health, and we're now seeing positive change in social attitudes.

Where to get help if you think you need it?

If you, or someone you know needs help and are not coping, here are some links and numbers to contact.

  • SANE Australia (people living with a mental illness) Phone: 1800 18 7263
  • Beyond Blue (anyone feeling depressed or anxious) Phone: 1300 22 4636 or chat online
  • Black Dog Institute (people affected by mood disorders) Online help
  • Lifeline (anyone having a personal crisis) Phone: 13 11 14 or chat online
  • Suicide Call Back Service (anyone thinking about suicide) Phone: 1300 659 467
  • 1800RESPECT (National sexual assault. Domestic Violence Counselling Service) 1800 737 732
  • Foodbank Australia (food for people in need)
  • Headspace (mental health assistance)
  • Kids Helpline (confidential counselling service for young people) 1800 55 1800
  • MensLine Australia (for men looking for counselling and support) 1300 78 9978
  • MindSpot Clinic (a digital mental health clinic) 1800 614434
  • National Debt Helpline (for those looking for free financial advice to help manage debt) 1800 007 007
  • ReachOut (mental health service for young people and their parents)
  • Rural Financial Counselling Service (free financial counselling to farmers, fishing enterprises, forestry growers and harvesters, and small related businesses experiencing, or at risk of, financial hardship)

360Health provides solutions to help prevent and manage serious illnesses at every stage of your health journey so that you can live healthier for longer. Learn more about MetLife’s 360Health and our Virtual Care program here.