8 Tips to Safeguard Your Mental Health in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic by Katie Dixon
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, fear and worry abound. We are confronted with preoccupations about our physical health and safety, financial security, and the uncertainty of the timeline projected for the current quarantine. Additionally, we have been required to make drastic changes to our daily routines, seemingly overnight. Keeping up with news and social media updates can further exacerbate our already precarious state as each piece of new information seems to be more dismal than the last. Fortunately, we are now well-equipped with some practical information about protecting our physical health. My hope is that this post will provide practical information to safeguard your mental health during these uncertain times.
- Stay informed and follow recommendations
It is important to stay informed about changes being made to the current protocol to minimize the impact of the coronavirus. While much remains undetermined, you have control over your response to every situation with which you are faced. There is real power in that. By adhering to the recommended protocol, you are doing your part for your family, for your community, and for yourself. If you are willing and able to find other ways to serve members of your local community, to make donations, or anything else that supports those on the front lines of this issue, that is a most admirable thing to do. However, sometimes the most courageous thing we can do is simply what we have been asked to do. The guidelines you are being asked to follow may be different based on your line of work, your age, whether or not you or someone in your household is experiencing symptoms, etc. By keeping up with any new recommendations for your specific circumstances, take comfort in knowing that you are caring for yourself and those around you to the very best of your ability. When your mind begins racing and asking “what if?” questions, remind yourself that you are acting responsibly by doing what is recommended.
- Know yourself and have compassion
Each of us has a different response to stress. Get in touch with the thoughts and behaviors that exacerbate your stress unnecessarily and those that help to alleviate it. All stress is not bad. In fact, a certain level of stress can keep us alert and motivated to take necessary precautions. That being said, an adaptive stress response has the potential to quickly spiral into unchecked anxiety. The results can impact our sense of ourselves in the world, our relationships, and our ability to function in meeting the demands of our daily lives.
If you know that watching the latest news updates or reading articles from various sources will help you to feel empowered under these circumstances, then that is what makes sense for you. I would still encourage limits with the amount of information you take in. It is important to make time for other things to maintain some normalcy and balance in your life.
Perhaps you are someone who is overwhelmed by the constant stream of information. That is okay, too. You may need to unplug in order to assuage your worries and that is what works for you. Know yourself and be patient with yourself. We do not all need to be on high alert at every moment of every day in confronting this situation. In fact, having a bunch of people who are riddled with worry is not much help to anyone. If you live with other people who are responding to this situation differently than you are, try to be patient with them also. Everyone is responding in the best way they know how.
- Connect and disconnect
It is important to stay connected to what is happening in some way. For those who become easily saturated by media and social media, you may opt for one source for information that you check once a day or every other day for important updates. You may instead choose to have a quick conversation with a loved one who can synthesize updates in a way that feels less overwhelming. This is still staying informed.
For those who feel that knowledge is power, there is often a sense of security that comes with having an intellectual approach towards a problem. If this strategy is helpful for you, then watch and read what you can. I still recommend putting parameters around this, however, as anxiety can quickly feed into an obsessive need to gather information. You do not need to get the latest news update at 2:00 am, for example. It would be better to get some rest and learn any new updates the next day. It is important to make room for aspects of your life other than gathering every piece of information you can. It is okay, and even necessary to your mental health, for you to disconnect from time to time and direct your attention to other areas of your life.
- Have a plan of action
When anxious feelings rise to the surface it may be helpful to ask yourself, “Is there something I can do in this moment to mitigate my worry?” If there is something practical you can do, in most cases, I would recommend that you go ahead and do it. When we boil anxiety down, what we are really dealing with is fear. It is fear of uncertainty, of the unknown, and of that which we can not control. Sometimes creating plans around the things we do have control over provides an outlet for some of our worries. Having a plan and executing it, creates a sense of purpose and allows us to control that which is within our control when so much remains uncertain.
An example of this might be checking in with your grandmother regularly. If you know that calling your grandmother would make you feel less worried, then by all means, make that call. If you know your children will be home from school all day and you want them to get outdoors for a bit, you can plan for that. Having a plan and a routine is an excellent way to manage anxiety. Sometimes our plans won’t go as we expected or an unforeseen circumstance will thwart our carefully laid out agenda. Practicing being flexible also prevents us from creating further stress during an already stressful time.
- Stick to your routine as much as possible
Sticking to your routine may be tricky considering that your usual daily schedule has likely been completely upended. You can still commit to making the time to eat regular meals, to stay on a consistent sleep schedule, to maintain good personal hygiene, and to keep up with the things you enjoy. Of course, a few adjustments will be necessary. Remember, flexibility is key.
If you enjoy going to the gym everyday, you might find some great workouts online that can be done without the need for equipment. If you typically enjoy a favorite meal from a restaurant during the week, you might learn how to make that favorite meal at home. The novelty of this experience may mean that some of you are embracing the opportunity to wear your pajamas all day. Why not? Go for it! However, if you have been in those same pj’s all week, it might be time to consider reestablishing some structure in your day. You can still get up and get dressed. You can plan which things you can still do with very little adjustment at home and those that will require some creativity. There is no right or wrong approach to this, but those who struggle with anxiety or depression usually benefit from adhering to an established routine.
Those who may have been struggling with depression prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic may have already been finding it difficult to complete daily tasks. Now is not the time to give in to your feelings of not wanting to do anything. For these individuals, I recommend setting at least one goal each day and accomplishing it, no matter how small. Weeks of doing nothing or not knowing what to do will inevitably take a toll on your mental health. Of course, you can take a break from the demands of daily life more easily now, if that is what you need. Nonetheless, getting into some kind of routine will be a friend to you while sheltering in place.
- Try something new
Now that most of us have more free time at our disposal, this is the perfect opportunity to explore some new hobbies. This might be a chance to do some home projects, to watch a movie you have been wanting to see, to learn a new language, to read that book you have been wanting to read or write that book you have been wanting to write! I am not suggesting that you pretend like the world is not in the midst of a crisis because it is and we all are. Some of us will be affected more profoundly than others. I am guessing you give a lot of thought to that on any given day and that you have been doing so for the past couple of weeks. It is okay to give your mind a break from it all. If you are practicing social distancing to the best of your ability, you are doing your part.
It is okay to relax, to learn, and even to experience joy in the midst of adverse circumstances. This problem will continue to exist whether or not you take a break from being inundated with new information about it. Having the opportunity to recharge is healthy for you and everyone around you. Taking a break from the demands of daily life is a healthy practice in the best or worst of times. Do something nice for yourself, something that you have been putting off doing because you haven’t been able to find the time. This is your chance!
- Challenge feelings of guilt
Unwarranted feelings of guilt may be a byproduct of this whole situation for those who are generally faring well. It is okay that your situation is not completely dire. It is not your fault that other people are experiencing tragedy and loss. Of course, we must be compassionate, but you will not prevent others from suffering by suffering yourself. Be grateful for the things in your life that remain consistent and stable. You are doing your part to protect others by following the recommended protocol. Find peace in that. You do not have anything to feel guilty about.
- Talk to someone
Talking to someone is undoubtedly the best thing you can do for yourself during this time. If you are overwhelmed by your feelings and unsure of what to do next, please seek the support of a mental health professional. There are people who are trained to work with you in understanding and managing what you are experiencing right now. Due to the current social distancing guidelines, many therapists are offering teletherapy to clients. It is easier than ever to connect with someone who is ready to listen through a video-conferencing platform or by phone. If you are someone who has been personally affected by the coronavirus, there are resources available to you whether your situation involves loss of a loved one, worry over a loved one’s health or loss of income. Please reach out for support. It is readily accessible to you.
From a more personal perspective, it may be useful to have a list of a few people in your life who you can reach out to when you are feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes just being able to express how you are feeling lessens the intensity of it. Many of your family members, friends, colleagues and neighbors will likely be able to relate to what you are feeling right now.
- Avoid complete isolation
Social distancing is a term we are now all too familiar with, but it does not mean complete isolation. There may be introverts who are welcoming the opportunity to spend quiet time alone. For those who thrive on social connection, social distancing may lead to symptoms of depression. Please be mindful of this and to find ways to connect even when you are not able to be with others physically. I would encourage you to connect with someone at least once a day, especially if you live alone. You can do this through FaceTime and any other number of messaging tools such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp and House Party, just to name a few. For connecting with family and friends who may be less tech-savvy, you can always opt for an old-fashioned phone call. It is vital that we make connections with others, when possible, as we are inherently social creatures. This truth is consistent even for introverts.
Additionally, if you know someone who is living alone or is under particularly stringent recommendations due to living in a retirement community or being symptomatic, please reach out to them from time to time. Those who were already feeling isolated are prone to feeling more isolated, alone, and even abandoned. If you are the person who is experiencing such feelings, being the first person to reach out to someone else is an essential first step to interrupting these emotions and preventing the onset of depressive symptoms. If you don’t have anyone you feel you can reach out to, this would be an opportune time to take advantage of the many professional resources available to you and seek the support of a mental health clinician.
- Harness the power of positive thinking
Much of my work with clients involves incorporating positive thinking into their daily lives. There are times in life when thinking positively can seem nearly impossible. For many of us, this may feel like one of those times. I am not suggesting that we should avoid looking at our current situation realistically. In fact, I am a huge proponent of acceptance of the situation exactly as it is. You might say to yourself, “This is terrible.” In this case, you would be absolutely right! Coming to terms with our current reality is a critical exercise. It is even more imperative to recognize that things are constantly changing and the situation as it is right now, will also change. This is where you can learn to harness the power of positive thinking.
It is okay to be scared, angry, restless, and frustrated. This situation may call for any of those feelings at any given moment. The best thing you can do is acknowledge you are feeling that way, and give yourself permission to feel it fully, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. The next step after feeling the emotion fully is absolutely crucial. Commit to yourself that you will not stay there with that negative emotion. Tell yourself that you will not remain in that place of fear, anger, restlessness or frustration. In your mind, you may list all the reasons that justify that the situation is absolutely awful. When you find yourself doing that, counter those thoughts with the things you still have to be grateful for even in trying times. For every negative feeling or thought, counter it with something positive. This will keep you from falling into a pattern of negative-thinking which can lead to more persistent issues relating to anxiety and depression. There is always something for which we can be grateful even when it seems like a complete stretch. Reach for that thing and hold it. Let it be your shield from the things that are not always going your way.
A practical way to jump start positive thinking is to keep a gratitude journal. You can take a few moments each day to write down three things you are grateful for. There is added benefit to doing this in the morning in order to begin the day from a place of positivity. You can re-read those three things again before bed to help offset any negative feelings that may have come up throughout the day.
A final note
We will always be faced with problems in our lives. Usually, these problems affect us individually at varying times, but our experiences are universal. Right now we are facing a big problem together. Your worry at this time is shared by many. Your hope is shared by many also. My hope is that you may find comfort in that. Someone in the world is feeling exactly what you are feeling right now, no matter what that feeling may be. Please remember that whatever you feel at this moment is absolutely okay. If the tips provided in this post do not help to alleviate some of the stress around the present circumstance, please reach out for support. There is so much available. We will all get through this, together.