How I Tackled My Mental Health during The Year of COVID-19

By Robyn Albertyn

reviewed by juliana ascolani

The year of COVID-19 was the year where everything fell apart for me, or so it seemed at first. It took a year of discomfort, isolation, and pain to understand the root of my mental decline. And it’s only in retrospect that I’ve learned to appreciate the treacherous terrain and the brave steps needed to become holistically healthy.

 

The big move 

In 2019, I left my home country to live in a small town in the Basque region of Spain. I arrived self-assured, wide-eyed, and open to new experiences. I was confident that I was mentally prepared and had the resilience to take on the new challenges outside of my familiar territory. Little did I know that everything I knew for sure would flip on its head. 

But my first year living abroad by myself was far from the romanticised version in mind. I had unrealistic expectations of what my experience would be like: I expected a warm welcome from new roommates, to feel a sense of satisfaction at my new job, and to have blissful travel experiences with the new friends that I would make. I attached myself to this vision, and when my reality didn’t live up to the images I created in my mind, I suffered. 

Everything was different in that little town that I lived in: the culture, the language, and the way of life. I adapted as much as I could, but I missed my family, the nature in my hometown, and hearing my native language. But mostly what I was longing for was a community in my workplace, in my home, and in my personal life. 

I found myself surrounded by people and yet felt alone. It’s not that I didn’t have friends, it’s that I hadn’t found a sense of belonging in many of the environments I spent so much time in. And what’s more is that I pretended I was okay, suppressed what I was feeling, and put up a brave face so nobody knew that I was struggling. Only later, I discovered that what I was doing was putting up a false positive image, which I have learned is a characteristic of toxic positivity. 

 

My return home

Fast forward to 2020, the year of COVID-19, when I had to travel back home because of a job loss. Initially, I thought that being back home would be my saving grace and all my problems would disappear, but they didn’t. They just followed me like a ghost. What I couldn’t have predicted was that I would spend months fighting depression coupled with isolation because of the lockdown restrictions. 

The journey to recovery was slow, deliberate, and tough. 

For the first time in a long time, I had more time on my hands, which meant I couldn’t escape my mental difficulties. This helped, in one way, to reflect on the experiences I had while I was abroad. I realized that I wasn’t entirely taking care of myself and, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there were fundamental needs not met. I looked at all aspects of my wellbeing and realized that because I hadn’t found a supportive and safe community where I truly belonged when I lived abroad, my mental and social health suffered. 

Once I came to a place of acceptance about my depression, I reached out to my community and, for the first time, spoke out about it. I felt vulnerable, but to my surprise, everyone I told accepted and supported me. I also felt empowered to break the stigma many of us still feel when speaking about our mental health struggles.

 

How I made meaning out of my experience

I still spent months in uncertainty if I would ever overcome my mental struggles. But I kept on reaching out to my community, spent time in nature, and sought meaning out of my experience. 

On days when I felt unrelenting sadness, I read about the 3 P’s in psychology: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. Psychologist Martin Seligman discovered after years of studying how people bounce back from setbacks that these 3 P’s are often the root of our problems; personalisation is when we feel that we’re at fault for what is currently happening to us, pervasiveness is the belief the situation we’re facing will infiltrate into all areas of our lives, and permanence is the belief that the sadness we experience will last forever. During that time, I related to all 3 P’s, and interestingly realised, that personalisation, pervasiveness, and permanence were all rooted in fear. This framework helped me gain perspective on what I was experiencing. 

But one experience stands out above all the rest, and that’s attending a 10-day silent retreat. Having already attended a Vipassana retreat 3 years prior, I was determined to relearn the technique because I gained so much clarity, healing, and insight when I went years ago. 

 

What is Vipassana Meditation? 

The word Vipassana is a Pali word, which means ‘seeing things as they really are’ or ‘seeing reality as it is’. Vipassana meditation is an ancient meditation technique that originates from India and was rediscovered and taught by the Siddhartha Gotama, known as the Buddha. Although taught by the Buddha himself, the teaching of Vipassana is universal and not affiliated with any sectarian religion.

 

What is the purpose of Vipassana? 

When you learn this technique, you undergo a process of self-purification by self-observation. The aim of this meditation is to purify your mind and get to the root of your misery. Vipassana meditation is a practical mental training that helps to keep the mind healthy and balanced. 

 

Where are these retreats held? 

They hold Vipassana meditation retreats all around the world in a remote location where you’re surrounded by nature. People with little to no experience with meditation learn Vipassana under the guidance of a teacher for 10 days. Before learning the technique, you take a vow of noble silence, commit to a set of rules, and a timetable — all designed to help you make the most of your experience. 

 
Anapana 

On the first four days of the retreat, you learn a meditation technique called Anapana, a meditation that focuses on awareness of respiration. The practise is to become aware of your natural breath focusing solely on the air coming in and out of your nostrils. It may seem like a simple instruction, but as you begin, you realise that your mind jumps from one thing to the other, trying to escape the present moment by drifting from the past to the future. You learn later from the teachings that what you’re observing is the habit pattern of the mind. Practising Anapana is important because it heightens the mind’s ability to concentrate. This prepares you for Vipassana meditation, which requires higher levels of concentration. 

 
Vipassana 

After four days of practising Anapana, I learned Vipassana meditation. The practise of Vipassana is to observe your bodily sensations systematically from head to toe. You move your attention through each body part, noticing the sensations throughout your body. The most important aspect of Vipassana is awareness and equanimity. This means to observe the bodily sensations by trying not to react to sensations. The idea is to keep the mind calm and balanced at all times to reach the goal of this meditation, which is to eradicate old conditioning and come out of misery. 

 

What I gained from this experience

Through this vigorous training of the mind and 10 days of silence, I gained insight into why I experienced such mental difficulties. I discovered that I had developed unhealthy mental patterns and unrealistic expectations that kept on distorting my perception of reality. Relearning these two meditation techniques gave me a greater sense of self-awareness and motivated me to continue with meditation practices daily. 

The trajectory of my life has completely changed since this meditation experience. I apply the philosophy of Vipassana along with the meditation daily, and it helps keep my mind balanced. I remind myself often to ‘accept reality as it is’ and that ‘everything is constantly changing’. It brings me comfort in difficult moments that nothing is permanent, whether that’s good times, bad times, or anything in between. 

I’ve learned to be more accepting of life as it is. Practising Vipassana every day helps me cope with life’s challenges, helps me take care of my mental and emotional wellbeing, and helps me react more objectively to what comes up in the present moment. The best part of keeping a consistent practice of meditation is that I can see it positively ripple into my wellbeing, my relationships, and my work. I’m a happier person because of it. 

When the world comes crashing in, it’s easy to think that the world is working against us. 2020 was a year of slow change, isolation, and mental breakthroughs. And if I’ve learned anything throughout this journey, it’s that pain is ephemeral. It takes tremendous effort to change mental patterns; however, the healing, the happiness, and the liberation that follows makes it all worth it.

Robyn Albertyn
I’m a multi-passionate content writer from South Africa. Storytelling has always captivated me. I’m intrigued by how storytelling has been ubiquitous throughout history and how it’s evolved from drawings on rocks, to stories we now read on blogs, watch on Netflix, and engage with on social media. Storytelling carries great potential for collective transformation and global awareness. With this in mind, I’m continuously adapting my style of writing, using my background in English Literature, and immersing what I’ve learned in copywriting to create content that is engaging, educational, and empathetic. I’m an advocate for wellness for all, especially for the marginalised in society. I want to use writing as a platform to bring about change and healing for our global society. A vision of a healed, inclusive, and compassionate humanity drives and fuels my passion.
Researcher

Juliana Ascolani

I am a health researcher who bridges data science and health research with direct experience in healthcare and university institutions, passionately and collaboratively pursuing the integration and synergy of all key areas of health and wellness. I believe in inclusion as the main pillar of our society, especially when it comes to health. Promotion and prevention in health empower people to adopt healthy decisions, thus I have been working during the last years in the development of inclusive and holistic health systems. What do I enjoy the most about my job? Realizing how we are making a difference in people’s lives, and seeing the result in their health journeys. I enjoy the challenge of questioning new paradigms and creating debate around them.

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