Two weeks ago, the Singapore government announced an extended ‘circuit breaker’ period in Singapore with the hopes of limiting the spread of Covid-19 — this “soft lockdown” means that the vast majority of the country is working from home, limiting outdoor activities to ‘essentials only’ and for those with access to technology, using those tools to stay in touch with family and friends.
The coronavirus pandemic has not only shaken the economy, but the prolonged period of isolation and social distancing have certainly taken a toll on mental health, giving rise to higher levels of anxiety and depression. Locally, it was reported that over 6,600 calls have been made to the National Care Hotline in Singapore, after it had been set up for just two weeks.
It has never been more important to prioritise our mental health. At V&VPR, we often talk about the importance of holistic wellness and the effects of each choice we make having an impact on our overall wellbeing. It’s understandably easier to care less, or indulge more, when it comes to our food and drink choices these days. Coupled with news of consumer alcohol sales going up during the Circuit Breaker period, we wanted to understand more about the relation between our food and drink choices and our mental health.
We brought together Asher Low, co-founder of Singapore non-profit organisation Limitless — whom V&VPR supports on a pro-bono basis — as well as nutritionist and host, Charlotte Mei, on Instagram Live to chat about their experiences during the Circuit Breaker; tools for coping, and how eating right and working out always makes us feel better. Asher is a certified social worker who founded Limitless to help youths in the fight against mental illness, poverty and social inequality. Follow Limitless on Instagram for the full conversation available soon on IGTV. In the meantime, read on for highlights of the interview.
Part 1: Fighting Cabin Fever — Stay Connected, Keep Moving, Keep Learning
Four weeks into the Circuit Breaker and with another month to go, many of us have started experiencing cabin fever syndrome, a distressing feeling of restlessness and irritability from extended periods of staying indoors. To combat these unsettling feelings, Asher suggests to focus on what you can do instead of what you cannot do: keep in touch with friends and loved ones on a regular basis albeit virtually over the multitude of apps and video conferencing platforms available such as Houseparty and Zoom. Our personal favourite is virtual movie night with Netflix Party. Both Asher and Charlotte support a regular fitness routine for improved mental health — in fact, keep it fun and exercise with friends on-screen to provide you with added motivation!
Another common feeling you may experience in lockdown is a loss of control. It is overwhelming to feel like while you may be doing your best to keep safe and healthy, there may still be other factors outside of your power – for example, having a family member or housemate working in essential services that has a higher risk of exposure to Covid-19, having your entire daily routine turned on its head, or feeling like your space is encroached on since the home is perpetually ‘full’ now. Asher and Charlotte recommend taking back control by focusing on productivity. Choose habits and hobbies that you’ve never tried before such as cooking a new dish outside of your repertoire, learning how to play a music instrument or picking up a new language online. Note that this doesn’t mean you have to be high achieving all the time – setting small goals for yourself is an excellent way of providing a sense of focus and purpose. The objective here is to try — don’t beat yourself up if you don’t achieve all your goals for the day. “If you slip up or are just having a bad day, it’s okay. Stay positive and pick yourself up,” Charlotte advised. “Look back and find out what your triggers are and come up with solutions to cope with those moments.”
And if you have the privilege of space, having just one spot that solely belongs to you can also drastically help with feelings of control. Whether it’s having your own work desk, your own bed to return to, or a corner of the living room that no one else can intrude upon, can make a significant difference in your mood.
Exercise is also an amazing coping mechanism especially right now as it produces endorphins that trigger positive feelings. Exercise doesn’t necessarily mean going for a long run or doing an hour-long workout – doing something small is better than doing nothing at all. We enjoy Nike Training Club for its free workouts that start from just 5 minutes! If you’re not feeling up for exercise, how about cleaning up your room instead? Decluttering is a great way to physically and mentally detox, and burn some calories while you’re at it!
Anxiety and feelings of depression are common issues faced by many around the world right now – unsurprisingly, the Limitless team has also been receiving a higher number of messages and calls during the Circuit Breaker period. Asher and Charlotte both agree that a good way to try and overcome the feeling of helplessness is to practice gratitude – don’t dwell on the negatives but instead, try and keep track of the good things. This doesn’t mean to be aloof or avoid the situation, but to take a moment and understand that while it is a difficult time, it is only temporary and there are many things we can look forward to in the future. A few easy ways to practice gratitude: keep a journal and write down three highlights of your day every day — these can be things that you’re grateful for, goals you’ve reached; or as Charlotte has been doing this year, simply write down one achievement — whether you deem them big or small — on your calendar daily.
Part 2: Eat Well, Feel Better
Diet and mental health are very intertwined, and food should be seen as a positive aspect of life. However, in today’s world consuming food is almost always portrayed as a fattening or guilty activity, and this has caused a lot of disordered eating and anxiety in people. Eating right can vastly boost your mental health, and spending some time cooking healthy meals for or with your loved ones can be an excellent bonding activity.
Let’s start by reframing our relationship with food. Charlotte’s key piece of advice is to not have a restrictive diet, instead focus on good ingredients you can add to your meals (rather than reminding yourself of what you shouldn’t eat). Food should be seen as a form of enjoyment, and an activity that brings people together. It is intrinsically good, providing us with the energy and nutrition we need to survive, and we have license to enjoy it to the fullest – but in moderation. “Make peace with your relationship with food, and this will translate to your relationships with people as well,” she says.
The portrayal of healthy eating in the media often calls to mind boring salads, steamed foods and high price points. Charlotte debunks this by noting that healthy food can come in many different forms and cuisines – and can be vibrant and wallet-friendly as well. In Singapore, a common staple for many of us is cai png, which literally translates to rice with dishes, available at almost every hawker centre and neighbourhood coffee shop. This economically friendly meal is not known for being particularly healthy, but Charlotte considers this an acceptable option, if we turn the concept on its head: Based on the plate concept, we swop the ‘base’ of white rice — which usually takes up at least half the plate — for vegetables instead; a quarter plate of rice, and a quarter plate of protein (opt for healthier options like steamed fish, tofu, or stir fried meat). This ensures a nutrient-dense, filling meal.
Right now, making frequent trips to your corner cai png stall may not be the most viable option, so Charlotte also suggests healthy, affordable ingredients to add to your diet at home. As a trained nutritionist, Charlotte candidly states that scientifically, there is no such thing as a ‘superfood’ (Note: We checked, and yes it is purely a marketing term) — so don’t worry about being able to spend on pricier items like chia seeds, kale, and blueberries. We have perfectly nutritious options in our backyard — that is, easily accessible via wet markets and supermarkets. Leafy vegetables like chye sim and watercress, and plenty of fruit like apples and oranges, should form the base of our diets. Canned foods can be healthy as well! It’s not necessary to buy whole fresh fish to get your vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, instead consider shelf-stable canned tuna, mackerel and sardines. Canned beans and canned corn are also an amazing, versatile additions to your pantry.
Want to whip up a quick, deliciously healthy recipe? Charlotte shares her favourite 3-ingredient meal, starring her ultimate go-to ingredient: eggs!
Egg & Cucumber Toast
Time: 10 minutes
- 2 eggs
- Slice of bread — sourdough is ideal, but bread that you have will do
- ½ cucumber
- Using a mandolin or knife, slice cucumber thinly.
- Toast bread (butter optional)
- Prepare eggs to your preference — scrambled, hard boil, poached, etc
- Assemble sliced cucumbers on toast, top with eggs, and add salt and pepper to taste
For more information on Limitless and their services visit their website here.
If you are coping with anxiety and depression, please do not hesitate to reach out to the helplines below.
Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH): 1800 283 7019
Emergency Helpline (IMH): 6389 2222
SOS (Samaritans of Singapore): 1800 221 4444
Check out the rest of our blog here for more tips and inspiration to get you through quarantine.