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Cabin fever? 10 useful tips from the experts to stay sane under lockdown

30 March 2020 - 14:35 By Claire Keeton
Being confined takes a toll, but mental health specialists have tips on how to make the best of lockdown. Stock photo.
Being confined takes a toll, but mental health specialists have tips on how to make the best of lockdown. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Tim Hester


“Let’s try to act calm,” says digital life skills expert Dean McCoubrey.

“Our children are seeing men in white suits, people in masks, schools shut down, the president declaring a national disaster.”  Then lockdown.

“We need to show calm even if we feel anxious to allow children to contain this. Even if kids look cool and savvy, it doesn’t mean they are.”

The power of social media, whether streaming credible news or spreading fake reports (for example, regarding the sale of cigarettes) is triggering a panicked herd mentality about the coronavirus.

Take the senseless run on toilet paper pre-lockdown. That was an example of social media contagion, says Professor Kevin Thomas, UCT head of psychology.


“People need to understand who they are listening to and why, and why they are doing what they are doing,” he says, recommending that people don’t tune into the pandemic 24/7.  Rather check credible online sites only and at set times.

This is critical to staying (somewhat) sane while coping during lockdown.

“The pandemic is unprecedented in two ways,” says Professor Lenore Manderson of Wits University's public health and medical anthropology department.

“First, the scale and speed at which the coronavirus is spreading is horrendous.

“Second, we have the technology to watch that. This feeds into our anxiety and our behaviour.”


People need to recognise the fear and stress they feel to allow them to shift from “a state of fear to a state of calm" says executive life coach Lindiwe Mkhondo.

Stress and panic trigger adrenaline which lowers immunity, the opposite of what we need to fight Covid-19.

“We need to slow down and be self-observers: to look at the words we are using [‘the world is falling apart’] and the behaviours evoked by our fears, like being stuck in front of TV or overeating.

“Our words and behaviours can fuel positive or negative energy. They can put us in a downward spiral, or we can be conscious and look at this as an opportunity,” says Mkhondo.


Shelton Kartun, founder of the Anger & Stress Management Centre, says: “You have the ability to control what you do and what you think. The greater the sense of having some control about what is going on, the lower the stress.”

Our own actions are the most reliable antidote to the helplessness associated with a rising tide of infections, economic threats and unknowns about the future.

Sandy Lewis, head of therapeutic services for Akeso mental health facilities, says people must try not to get stuck in negative thinking.


“Worrying about the future and asking yourself questions such as, ‘Will the economy crash and leave us destitute?’, tend to lead to more anxiety,” says Lewis.

“Staying present with the reality that you are faced with today, focusing on your current tasks and distracting yourself can all assist in developing greater resilience.”


Thomas says: “In recent years therapists have heard a lot of complaints that everybody is on their own screen and not interacting, but screens could be a way for people to carve out time to be by themselves, especially parents.

“When people have to live in close quarters and are overcrowded, friction can develop. As far as possible people need to find their own space, even if it’s mental space to do their own thing.”

That could be putting on headphones to listen to music, reading a book or playing a game.


Planning a structure for the day can make life easier, the experts recommend.

Life coach and Burnout author Judy Klipin, says a daily structure is useful to create our own sense of predictability and routine.

“Set a schedule — exercise, outside time, eating, housework, reading, sleeping, times to talk to family and friends on the phone and so on — that you can follow every day."

American agony uncle Doctor Phil also proposes changes in routine.

“Don’t do the same thing every single day. Do something different,” is his recommendation

Be aware that “the first four minutes of interaction can set the tone for the entire day”, so don’t argue in front of the children and don’t be a slob (yes, shower and change your clothes) are among his other tips.


Not rushing out to work gives families more time to slow down and connect, and individuals extra time to study and explore hobbies, says Mkhondo.

“We have become a ‘human doing’ but now we can find ways of being a human 'being' again, connecting inside and with each other.”

Good habits will help people cope during lockdown.
Good habits will help people cope during lockdown.
Image: 123RF/ Tatyana Merkusheva

Mkhondo, who advocates a daily practice of gratitude, says this is a critical moment to shift the “'me' culture to the 'we' culture and to show more empathy”.  

“I can be safe but if the person on the other side of the fence isn’t, I can help.”


South Africans know how to show solidarity in a crisis says Klipin, listing ways for people to help the vulnerable, including calling them.

Making donations to charities is another way to counter hopelessness.

Nurses, cleaners and others on the front line of the primary health system will need extra support, says Wits public rural health specialist, Prof Steve Tollman.


A recent Lancet medical journal review about the psychological affects of quarantine found post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion and anger to be among them.

Social media and technology have the potential to mitigate the negative affects of quarantine, including loneliness.

The networks and vitality of social media should be “our saving grace” in this pandemic, says McCoubrey, founder of the MySocialLife life skills programme for teens and tweens.

This is a pivotal moment for them to learn about what is true and false online, and the role they play in magnifying this, he says.

“Ask your children what they’ve heard about Covid-19 and answer as many of their questions in age-appropriate ways as you can."

“Every time I go on to TikTok I have to watch a video about hand-washing,” a 14-year-old boy says about the app popular with his age group. “And elbow bumping.”

McCoubrey says: “Share the facts with children and co-create a plan of action so they can feel like they’re in control.”