Living through a global pandemic with a chronic health condition: how to protect your mental health

Author: Dr Liza Morton

Like many people living with a serious medical condition my complex cardiac history puts me at greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Initially, I struggled to find expert advice during a fast moving situation where nobody had the answers. I decided to stop going out over four weeks ago just before government and medical advice emerged to ‘shield’ at home for three months.

The current COVID-19 pandemic presents unique challenges for those of us living with a chronic health condition. It can be tricky to get the expert care we need at the best of times, never mind during a global pandemic. Often we learn that being a proactive ‘expert patient’ is essential to living well. We know that health should never be taken for granted. Life is precious, fragile and easier lost than any of us care to admit. I know first-hand that while medical advancements are miraculous treatment is often brutal and unforgiving and prevention is always better than cure. As such, I couldn’t believe events like Cheltenham Festival were still taking place, people were still attending social gatherings and travelling as we witnessed what was happening in China, then Italy. I was petrified when I heard talk of ‘herd immunity’.

Then a narrative emerged in the media about how the virus ‘only seriously affects the elderly and people with serious underlying health conditions’ repeated in countless headlines as misguided reassurance to the masses ‘It’s fine – it’s just the old and the sick that will die’. I’ve learned to navigate subtle everyday discrimination but this was so blatant I felt wounded; an expendable, less important member of society. Ghosts I thought I’d long since dealt with found a voice, ‘maybe you are just a burden on the state, defective, in-valid’? There was poor recognition that many of us work and are parents which presented challenges to ‘shielding’ before (and no doubt after) wider lockdown measures.

For us past traumas may be triggered. The endless talk of hospitals, ventilators, oxygen therapy and ICU trigger memories of the many times I have been in hospital, in ICU, on a ventilator or needing oxygen therapy, post cardiac surgery. I’ve had to protect myself by switching off, at times we all should.

Like many of us, this is far from the first time I have had to ‘take a break’ from normal life to prioritise my health. As such, I’ve found myself irritated with people bending the rules to evade lockdown measures. Only two years ago, I spent a month in hospital on telemetry waiting on complex cardiac surgery to replace my pacing system. Just one example in a lifetime of such experiences. The upside of adversity is post-traumatic growth. When you’re used to life’s challenges you just get on with it when there is no other choice. Yes, these curveballs impact on your studies, career, finances, relationships and mental health. Accepting this, making the best of the situation and setting future goals eases the burden.

Times like this remind us just how vulnerable and interdependent we are. I have been indebted to the NHS and it’s staff since my first breath, which is constantly humbling. I only hope this testament to our common humanity is better supported and valued after this.

​Thank you to all of our key workers, thinking of everyone who has lost their lives and their loved ones.

My tips for coping during a pandemic with a complex medical condition.

  1. Try to avoid absorbing negative messages about people with ‘underlying health conditions’. You matter, we all do.
  2. Feelings of vulnerability, uncertainty and threat may be triggered by the current situation. This is a normal reaction to a difficult life event. Find a way to express how you feel such as speaking to others, writing it down or crying it out.
  3. Current events may trigger earlier, similar difficult experiences, be compassionate to yourself about this and take care of yourself with comforting activities (have a bath, read a good book, watch a favourite comedy boxset, practice mindfulness, look at photos of cute dogs – see Wee Lass my dog above!).
  4. Avoid triggers of medical trauma. If you do feel panicky use grounding techniques, coping statements, breathing exercises or distraction.
  5. Be pro-active, follow guidance on your condition and make a list of the contact details of your healthcare providers to share with loved ones in case you do become unwell.
  6. Make sure you still contact your healthcare providers for any non-COVID-19 related health problems and if you have any queries about your condition and COVID-19 contact your healthcare providers for advice, don’t sit on worries.
  7. If you are ‘shielding’ make sure you maintain social contact and reach out to others via social media, online and telephone. Social support is one of the most important protective factors for mental health.
  8. Remind yourself of everything you have dealt with before, this will pass.
  9. Read our Ten Tips for psychological wellbeing during a time of the corona virus in the March 2020 blog.