As we go into the second week of lockdown in South Africa, a clinical counsellor breaks down the stages we may be going through with practical tips on how to cope.

Adapted from an article that appeared in Condé Nast Traveller

Bhavna Bharvani – a clinical counsellor based in Hong Kong – tells us what to expect and how to cope with the seven different emotional stages of isolation (that may not necessarily occur in this order):

  1. Optimism: This is going to be great. I can finally get to all the side-projects I’ve been wanting to work on, or improve a certain skill, pick up that hobby.
  2. Determination: When you feel you’re less positive about isolation, but you’re determined to keep going and stick to your routine and have a schedule to help you manage the situation.
  3. Satisfaction and frustration: You’ll experience times when you’re more productive and less productive leading to moments of satisfaction and periodsof frustration.
  4. Depression: When you start struggling and feeling this is hard. Boredom may set in. Your routine or lack of routine might not be working and you may experience restlessness that makes it difficult to concentrate. You may also miss the freedom of going out and seeing friends and loved ones and could feel demotivated, hopeless or experience a sense of despair.
  5. Anger: You might experience anger about the situation, the confinement, and get easily irritated by others in your household.
  6. Acceptance: When you accept the situation for what it is and carry on doing whatever is in your control and letting go of what is not in your control.
  7. Making meaning: Remembering that this lockdown is necessary and that you’re serving humanity and the greater good to prevent more sickness and death. You can also make meaning from imaging or creating innovations or envisioning new, better ways of living or doing things.

So, how does one cope?

Anticipate:  Social distancing, quarantine measures, school closures and working from home have increased the number of stressors that people are having to cope with making it increasingly difficult to maintain good mental health.  Don’t expect yourself to handle this perfectly or to behave impeccably under difficult circumstances.  For people with pre-existing mental health issues, this period is extremely de-stabilizing and those who had previously been able to find a good equilibrium may find symptoms re-emerging.

Prepare: For those working from home:

  1. Have a getting-started routine that allows you to transition psychologically into work mode. This can be sitting down with a cup of coffee or tea and logging out of all social media apps. As part of your morning routine, take a shower before you start work, get dressed, shave and / or fix your hair. Predictable morning routines give you some sense of normality and control.
  2. Try to stick to a schedule where you start and end work each day around the same time and go to sleep and wake up at about the same time.
  3. Set boundaries. This is with regards to i) others in your house so that you are not distracted by the kids or having to open the door for people, and ii) physical space: try to create a workspace in your home that is separate from your spaces for relaxation (i.e. where you sleep/chill/ watch tv). It’s crucial to have this psychological difference in where you work and where you relax.
  4. Schedule breaks and take them. If the self-isolation and social distancing measures permit, go for a walk (even if it’s just around your garden or gated community).
  5. Make time to chat with colleagues and friends virtually. Isolation does not have to mean loneliness.

Cut back on the news: It is hard during this time of uncertainty to not keep up with the news. However, for many people, this can lead to increases in stress, anxiety and even panic attacks. Prevention is the best cure, so limit the amount of time you spend reading news and indulging in social media.  Breaks from media allow the mind to settle down.  Otherwise, we’re constantly triggered into a state of worry. Avoid clicking on coronavirus hashtags and seek feel-good #coronakindness stories. Look for information to understand what practical steps you need to take and what to prepare for. When you do seek information, do so at specific times and from trusted sources.  Fact-check everything and avoid emotive fake news stories that play on our fears.

Dealing with family

Best behaviour:  Times of crisis can bring out the best in folk. Sometimes when people have no choice but to be around others there can be a slight shift to be more accommodating.  However, when this is not the case, it’s a good time to practice setting boundaries which can be as simple as saying ‘no’!  In a family system, if even one person makes the tiniest change in the way they behave, it will have a ripple effect on the rest of the family. Try making a small change in your behaviour and see if others respond differently.

Also, don’t underestimate the mental resilience of the elderly. They have seen and been through much more than we have. Ask them for advice, it could make them feel useful and valued.

Nurture friendships:  Reach out to good friends even those who you haven’t caught up with in a while. Set up group video chats. This can be anything from just a check-in with everyone, to virtual happy hours, to playing games online. Invest in strengthening your existing relationships and support systems.

And seek laughter … lots of it!  Humour provides a massive sense of relief to our nervous system and forces us to relax. Watch stand-up, watch comedies (old and new) and share memes that make you laugh on WhatsApp groups and social media.

Stay safe and stay calm!

Steph Vermeulen is South Africa’s Emotional Intelligence guru.  She offers life-coaching (virtual too) to give you insights into your emotions and behaviour and helps you develop habits that will keep you feeling safe and calm when managing life’s ups-and-downs (no matter how big or small).  In addition to books on EQ, she has authored a work on women’s issues and helps women who are trapped in abusive relationships find their way to freedom – especially emotional freedom.

Her book Personal Intelligence: Future Fit Now (EQ+IQ) is available for download on Amazon:

Steph can be contacted on: or sms her +27 83 4577435 to arrange a session.