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Lockdown measures: Penguin authors on looking after their mental health this winter

As the Covid-19 pandemic threatens more time in lockdown, Julia Samuel, Charlie Mackesy, Sara Jafari and other authors share their methods for coping with difficult times.

Julia Samuel, Charlie Mackesy and more on taking care of their mental health during coronavirus lockdown
Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

As the coronavirus numbers climb and the threat of a second lockdown looms, people in the UK are preparing for a longer, lonelier winter season than anticipated. Yet, what was once ‘unprecedented’ now has a precedent; we’ve done this before, and we’ve learned lessons about how to deal not just with the virus, but with the attendant isolation and feelings of grief that can accompany lockdown.

Here, we speak with a host of Penguin authors, from psychotherapists to novelists to illustrators, about the mental health measures they’re taking this time around, based on their previous experience of lockdown.

The top thing is to keep my expectations doable; don’t set them too high. Another is to do exercise every day, but only 15 minutes. It might be a run, it might be pilates, but I try to get outside every day, even if it’s raining, and exercise every day. That was vital in lockdown.

The other thing is I make sure I have rituals to begin work and end work. So I do three minutes of breathing – in for seven and out for eleven – before I start work, which kind of clears my mind. And then I do a ritual at the end, which is that I stop work, and close my laptop. I make myself a cup of tea, and I move into a different room, where I don’t work, so that I have an ending to my work day.

I also need something to do that feeds my soul or my creativity – ideally not Netflix. It might be dancing, just in the kitchen, or watching something like ballet or theatre online, but something that takes me totally away from myself, someplace different, psychologically.

Finally: I always need a hug. I’m lucky; I live with my husband, and I need that physical contact every day.

Julia Samuel is a psychotherapist and the author of This Too Shall Pass.

Breathe. That’s really important. I breathe in for five or six seconds, then hold four seconds or so, and then breathe out the same amount of time. If I get nervous, I tend to do that, and breathe into my stomach. I’ve been told that I’m a panicky breather, and breathe into my chest a lot, so I’ve learned to breathe like I’m filling a balloon in my stomach. That’s helped me a lot.

Drink a lot of water. Sleep well, eat well. Make sure you talk about your feelings and listen to others. Focus on relationships. I think if you reach out and care for others, it lifts your spirits. There’s a reciprocal spirit there.

And know that the storm will end! There’s nothing we can do about the storm, but there are things we can do about ourselves. I think there’s this terrible feeling that because we’re isolated, we’re therefore in isolation, but we’re not; we’re together in this. It’s good to remember that. It’s not very profound, but it’s how I go about things.

Charlie Mackesy is an illustrator and the author of The Boy, the Mole the Fox and the Horse, whose audiobook edition is out in November.

I would absolutely suggest to everybody: you are the alchemist. You have all the tools to care for yourself by the greatest tool on Earth: breathing. Deep breathing changes you; do it in the morning. Covid is absolutely very stressful. If you do deep breathing, you can cleanse yourself, and feel light and unburdened. Once you feel clean, you are up for anything, because then the energy is free to flow. We are artists of life, all of us; we are not just here to survive, we are here to create.

Wim Hof is the author of The Wim Hof Method.

The biggest lesson I learned from the first lockdown was that it wasn't going away quickly and I needed to have a routine in place to keep my mental health in check. The first few weeks, I dilly-dallied around with no real routine or making space for "me time". Which for me is working out in the morning and getting my endorphin release to help me get ready for the day and be focused on the tasks at hand. 

Niran Vinod is the co-author of How to Build It.

If there was ever a time to reflect on how we live our lives day to day, week to week, it’s been now. The first lockdown taught me that ‘being busy’ had become a hobby. Pre-lockdown I was the definition of a ‘busy-body’ and I carried that through into the pandemic, like a yoke.

As the second lockdown approaches, achieving good mental health means being more intentional about how I spend my time. In a way, I want to treat time like we’re told to treat money: investing it in the right things, like relationships with specific people, budgeting it, so I have enough time for the hustle, some sleep and to think, and spending it on frivolous things now and again, because in these most serious of times, everyday still needs a little bit of joy.

Damola Timeyin is the co-author of How to Build It.

Last year as I cleared my vegetable beds, I noticed a tiny tomato plant. I potted it up and placed it on my office windowsill. It was a difficult winter; a family member was seriously ill and for several weeks I spent more time at the hospital than I did at home. Each night when I returned, I checked on my plant; here was a living thing that could be saved by elemental care. Flowers appeared, and in December it presented me with a beautiful, fat tomato.

During our initial lockdown, I spent a lot of time in my garden. In August, while thinking about the winter ahead, I removed the seeds from some fresh tomatoes and buried them in compost. The seedlings grew into plants that now line my office windowsill.

Like many of the ‘sandwich generation’, I’ll be doing my utmost to support several young adults and a reluctantly shielding octogenarian this winter. I am certain to fall short and, when I do, I hope I’ll find a little consolation in the tomato plants on the windowsill, thriving under such uncomplicated care.

Carys Bray is the author of When the Lights Go Out, out in November.

As we teeter on the precipice of a second lockdown, it’s as good a time as any to evaluate where energy is being invested. I would like to say this time I’ll forgo the Zoom quizzes for genuine conversation. I’ll sidestep scaremongering and prioritise light relief. I’ll take up jogging and limit my social media. Of course, this is what I would like to do, but I also know through Lockdown One, there were days where genuine connection and light relief were difficult to come by ­­– and harder to find the motivation for.

So this time, if there is a ‘this time’, I refuse to beat myself up for however my coping looks. If that’s cringey TikTok dances, loaves of banana bread and hastily scribbling down the answers to the movie round, so be it. I’ll have good days. I’ll have bad days. That’s okay. We’re all just carrying it, as best we can. 

Sarah Crosby, aka @TheMindGeek, is a psychotherapist and the author of Five Minute Therapy, out in December.

My mental health really took a hit with lockdown. I am an expert at delayed gratification; I’ve always worked hard, working into the evenings and weekends, thinking I can always enjoy myself later. With Covid, and lockdown, however, the future feels very unknown – what does ‘later’ even look like? If there’s a second lockdown I will ensure I set myself daily routines that lift my mood. I always feel best when I wake up early, and do physical exercise and a little bit of writing before 9:30 a.m., when I start work. It’s something I began to do pre-Covid, but during lockdown I lost this routine. I

t’s very easy to let work become life during lockdown, and work-life balance is so important during these times – especially when you can’t think ahead to a holiday planned as a moment to rest. Doing something for yourself before you start work, even if it is small, sets your day off on a high. And we need any high we can get right now.

Sara Jafari is the author The Mismatch out in summer 2021.

The last lockdown was full of fear and uncertainty. Every trip out the front door brought with it creeping anxiety – even taking the bins out or pressing the lift buttons in my block. This lockdown will be very different. I know what’s coming this time. We’ll be able to sit on a park bench without fear of law enforcement. I can look forward to the upsides of lockdown: never checking my diary; time to read, to paint, to attempt punch embroidery and then once again abandon it. We know it works (lockdown, not punch embroidery – that stuff is a con). This time I welcome it. This time lockdown will provide a break from the decision-making, the guilt, the uncertainty, and the fear.

Flo Perry is the co-author of Couch Fiction: A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy, out in November.

Another lockdown is looming. It will make many of us more miserable. It is good for us to accept this, but we don’t have to be resigned to it. We can prepare for what’s coming and we have experiences from last time to draw upon. Happiness is always to be found in how we use our time day to day, the people we speak to, the music we listen to, the things we laugh at. As I argue in Happy Ever After, we can often live our lives in narratives about what we should achieve that get in the way of us being happy. Now, perhaps more than ever, is the time to remind ourselves that happiness is to be found in the “small stuff” and not the “big stories”.

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