Keeping Mentally Healthy During Unprecedented Times of Global Stress
Many of us are feeling anxious, stressed, or depressed during the COVID-19 crisis. We keep seeing lousy news, are locked inside our houses, and are suffering from a lack of physical human connection. Thirty-five percent of Americans say their mental health has worsened over the past week, an increase over 22% a week earlier, according to recent findings from the Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index. Forty-three percent said their emotional well-being had gotten worse, compared to 29% a week earlier. A variety of stressors, including job loss, poor health, self-isolation and quarantine, and general anxiety and uncertainty could negatively impact mental health.
However, you can take action to positively affect your mental state. Take charge of your mental health during this challenging time by using the following tips.
Practice Basic Self Care
You may feel trapped in the house, alone, or confined by your children or roommates, but you still need to take care of your basic self-care needs. My team has been noticing when I wash (and brush) my hair, so I am not the self-care model citizen. Make sure to watch your caffeine and alcohol intake. If you don’t get enough sleep, you might drink excessive amounts of caffeine and then need a glass of wine or two at night to settle down. This habit of caffeine and alcohol can create a vicious cycle.
Exercise will also help you sleep better, and start each day anew. Exercise is not only defined as a 60-minute high impact workout. It can simply be going outside for fresh air or doing ten squats in the kitchen. Some best practices include putting a yoga mat next to your work area and being prepared to do makeshift yoga. If you can, create a standing desk out of a dresser or counter for a more physical work experience. Do your best to eat well. Reach for the fruits and vegetables despite the inclination to eat processed foods. By day three of pub cheese and crackers, I had to switch those out to frozen vegetables. Until the switch, I felt lethargic and angry. Fun fact on frozen veggies, the nutrients are still locked in, yet you don’t face the expiration dates of fresh foods.
Make Good Sleep a Priority
If you can prioritize sleep and sleep hygiene during this time, do it. Set regular bedtimes and wake up times and stick to them. Limit email and intense television at least one hour before bed. For example, try not to watch Tiger King in bed on your Kindle until 2 am. The blue lights from our devices cause issues in our ability to fall and stay asleep. Therefore, if you can do no (or limited) television (especially the news) for a few hours before bed, you will have higher quality sleep. It’s also important to set an alarm. It is quite easy to sleep late due to a change in schedule. However, having an alarm set on the other side of the room (or house) can help your subconscious mind relax knowing that you have support to get up on time in the morning.
Know Your Psychological Triggers
If you are in a moment where something pops into your head that feels critical or alarming, notice it. These thoughts or sensations are called psychological triggers, and they can be indicators of sadness, sorrow, or being overwhelmed. You might think to yourself, “This is a terrible time” (thoughts), which elicits feelings (frustration, worry, sadness), and this can cause a physical reaction such as a headache and reactions (such as compulsively checking the latest COVID statistics or checking out your dwindling Wells Fargo account). This can spiral into negative emotional cycles. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy this is called a psychological loop. One way to reduce thoughts and feelings is to reduce physical symptoms. Yoga, meditation, and breathing can all help. I use box breathing: breath in for four counts, hold for four, breathe out for four and hold for four, then repeat. This simple breathing technique can help you regain control and break out of the loop. For children, ask them to pretend to smell a fake flower you are holding and count to three, hold for three, and blow out a an imaginary candle.
Make “New” Routines
Making a “new” routine can help to manage anxiety and will help you to adapt more quickly to this current reality. If you can create clear distinctions between work and non-work time, ideally in both your physical workspace and your headspace, you will be better off. Articulate boundaries with co-workers and family members to create some space for yourself. One couple I know switches their workspace each day to “keep it fresh.” Find something to do that is not work and is not virus-related that brings you joy, like trying a new activity. For my new activity I decided I will write creatively. If you can work intensely in short bursts with clear breaks, it will help to maintain your clarity of thought. Also, feel free to honor the aspects of your “old” routine that you liked. Keep your regular workout schedule (even if you have to make some modifications because your gym is closed). We know that there is a certain amount of grief that occurs when we have to give things up. For instance, if you enjoyed going to the trivia night, create a Zoom trivia night with friends and family to recreate your “old” activity.
Be Kind to Yourself and Those People in Your Life You (are trying to) Love
Every day, we are bombarded with things we can’t control right now. However, how we relate to ourselves during these challenging times can either be empowering or amplify our distress. People are behaving in a way that might be new or uncharacteristic to what you are used to dealing with. You might also have these thoughts of “I cannot live like this anymore,” or “I am going to stab my husband with my pencil if he walks in on my conference call again.” IT IS UNREALISTIC TO THINK YOU WILL BE HAPPY 100% OF THE TIME. However, if you are feeling sad 100% of the time, that is not healthy either. We have the power to ask for help or reach out to help others.
Another reminder, don’t look too hard into the behavior of those around you. Give people in your life a lot of room and don’t take things personally. All of us are under unusual stress in this moment. You might be the person walking in on the conference call unknowingly, and your partner might want to throw their Swell water bottle at you. Also, with regards to our parenting, perhaps you might raise your voice at your child for coloring on the wall during your work meeting. It is okay. Say “I love you,” at some point, give yourself some grace and give your kid the iPad for a bit.
Maintain Friendships and Social Connections
This pandemic has called for social distancing as a tactic to fight the impact of the virus and keep it from overwhelming our healthcare system. However, in some cases, the physical distancing can turn into emotional distancing. Even the most introverted people require some connection to others for both their mental and physical health. I have turned my lady book club into an online forum, and co-workers have standing virtual coffee groups and co-working spaces where you can work in the (virtual) presence of others. We are in social isolation but do not need to feel entirely alone. Another way to activate social tendencies with those around you is to reach out to those who might be particularly isolated. Ask an elderly neighbor if they need something from the grocery store, and then teach them to download and connect Venmo from 12 feet away. That would be fun.
Try New Things
If you find yourself having low engagement with work colleagues, finding it hard to concentrate on a task, or even procrastinating on that run, this is normal. Adaptation takes time. This pandemic is a good moment to be kind to yourself and try something new. The people I have been coaching, keep saying, “I want to use this time wisely as I have so much space now.” Okay great, read more, exercise more, write more. However, we need to be realistic with the goals we set. Is it realistic to become a concert-level pianist in a few weeks? No. Can you buy a keyboard on amazon and watch youtube videos? You can for now. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t.
Stay in the Now, Instead of Worrying About the Future
Take each day in stride and focus on the things you can control and do. We can control our breath. We can control our actions. We can control if we do laundry or not. We also can control our response to the stress of the crisis. Find a mediation or breathing practice that works for you and your lifestyle. There are so many free or cheap apps out there to experiment with and see if they are for you. That said, you don’t have to meditate to be mindful. Take a walk and notice the scent, sight, feel, and smell of your environment and be in the moment. At the very least, dodging people (and their germs) as they jog near you is one form of mindfulness!
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