How to be happy in a time of uncertainty

Panel of mental health experts offer tips on how to live with the new normal

Our experience of living with uncertainty - caused by the global pandemic - can’t be solved by more information alone, according to a leading Irish mental health expert.

"People are overloaded with information," said Professor Jim Lucey, consultant psychiatrist at St Patrick's University Hospital.

He argued that the Covid-19 pandemic is the first event in the 21st Century when everyone has constant sources of information. “These sources of information bring a new urgency and anxiety which one has to pull back from,” said Prof Lucey. He was speaking at the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland (RCSI) online public talk on Living with the New Normal on Tuesday evening.

Speaking at the same event, Professor Eva Doherty, clinical psychologist and director of the human factors in patient safety programme at RCSI said that we need to look to our emotional responses to the pandemic as a guide. "If we are angry, it is threatening our needs. If we are fearful, we are predicting negatively into the future. If we are disgusted, it is threatening of values. If we are shocked, it is something we didn't anticipate. If we are sad, it is because we have a sense of loss," she explained.


Professor Doherty said that we like to think that things are predictable but they aren’t. “We have an illusion of predictability. We are being controlled by this virus but we can learn to feel in control within terrible restrictions by looking at what we [personally]have mastery over.”

Dr Trudy Meehan, lecturer in positive psychology at the RCSI said that it's important to communicate well with children and teenagers during this time of uncertainty. "Listen to children with your heart - tune into their emotional life, ask them questions and ask them if they have any questions," she said.

As parents, we will make mistakes, get emotional, frustrated and overwhelmed but the worst thing you can be is perfect.

Dr Meehan advised parents and care-givers to “hold their distress”, breathe and be calm so that they can “respond with empathy, compassion and logic” to young people. “As parents, we will make mistakes, get emotional, frustrated and overwhelmed but the worst thing you can be is perfect. Children need concrete, short, specific information. We need to fill up their emotional piggybank with small slivers of your full undivided attention.” This emotional connection will make for calm, happier, connected children, she said.

Dr Meehan said that young people are “grieving the loss of their dreams, the futures they hoped for and reasonably expected to have”.

“We have to help them look for ways to build a different future,” she said.

Dr Meehan suggested children and adults alike could keep a gratitude journal in which to write down three good things from their day. “Bad experiences stay with us longer than good experiences and that’s a trick of the mind which we can [overcome]by focusing on the good things that happened in our day.”

Returning to the importance of looking after ourselves, Prof Lucey said that as well as exercising, eating reasonably well and avoiding the pressure to rush the whole time, we can value sleep. “I tell people to go to bed 10 minutes earlier each night and by the end of the week, they will have 60 extra minutes in bed. This doesn’t have to be a terrible new normal. You can be well and happy but different.”

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment