Protect your mental health during this period of crisis and social distancing
The novel coronavirus has plunged our world into uncertainty, unpredictability, and a constant stream of news about the pandemic. All of this can take its toll on even the most resilient of us, present company included.
Distressing news is never an easy thing to live through, especially in an era when information comes at us so quickly. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and anxious. Indeed, in uncertain times, our anxious minds can gravitate towards the worst-case scenario, it’s called the “Negativity Bias.” If you’ve ever wondered why bad news seems to grab your attention more than neutral or good news, it’s not that there’s simply more bad news out there, our brains are actually more sensitive to unpleasant news.” The Negativity Bias is so automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stage of the brain's information processing. For those who already struggle with mental wellness, particularly depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive illness, the struggle of staying calm is that much more of an effort. However, with patience, support, and self-awareness, it’s possible to maintain your mental health.
1. Keep your routines as best you can.
This includes wake-up times, meals and snacks, work or study periods, exercise, and relaxation. Create a new daily schedule for yourself, one that takes into consideration social distancing and a reduced availability of services (recreational, bars and clubs, libraries, etc).
2. Limit your media consumption and focus on accurate, evidence-based sources.
Subjecting yourself to a constant stream of bad news is distressing as you attempt to process everything and avoid letting your mind gravitate towards doomsday scenarios. Psychologically, if we constantly ruminate and worry about coronavirus, the perception of threat will increase regardless of the actual risk. By limiting or eliminating contact with the media you can help yourself manage your own anxiety and worry. Commit to Checking the news or social media a couple of times a day, only at regular, standardized times. Disable news alerts on your phone. Take a break from social media and mute things which are triggering anxiety (e.g. hashtag follows).
3. Talk less about coronavirus; more about things that are pleasant.
Water cooler chat with coworkers, “what ifs”, and sharing the latest details of the coronavirus with family and friends is inevitable. But it keeps you thinking about it,which will influence your sense of well-being and risk. To counteract this, don’t initiate a coronavirus conversation. Or change the subject if it does come up. Not only will this help you feel less anxious, it may help others too.
4. Reach out and support your community.
Social distancing and keeping your hands to yourself doesn’t mean that we can’t reach out to each other. Research shows that helping and volunteering can boost mood and reduce anxiety. Doing your bit to help minimise the spread of the virus is paramount. But beyond that, in times of heightened anxiety and uncertainty, tapping into our community spirit and thinking of how you can help others can benefit everyone. All it takes is a phone call to provide a kind ear or happy distraction, a letter communicating care, or arranging a thoughtful package of goods. For example, heading to the store for supplies? Call a neighbor and shop on their behalf. Or drop off a puzzle or game to a friend who is self-isolating. Or send a bouquet of fresh flowers to brighten someone’s day. Helping others keeps us anchored in perspective, focused on something constructive and purposeful, and deepens our feelings of connection at a time that is very alienating for many.
5. Maintain your social connections.
When we’re feeling overwhelmed with bad news and socially distanced it’s important to maintain our connections and relationships. Indeed, it may be more important now than ever. Technology can help you to stay in touch with friends and family. Set up a FaceTime or Skype date with a friend or family member. Make sure you have the contact information of the people you care about. If online communication isn’t possible, never underestimate the value of a regular simple phone call...yes, people do still talk over the phone!
6. Incorporate self-care and mindfulness practices into your day.
Find something to help you calm down a little bit – meditation, yoga, going for a walk. It also helps to maintain a healthy lifestyle in terms of your nutrition – exercise and healthy eating are things we tend to throw out the window when our stress takes over. If you’re feeling tense, consider swapping out your regular cup of coffee for some herbal tea. And limit use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. If you're self-isolating, strike a balance between having a routine and making sure each day has some variety.
Be creative! We live in an age of free exercise apps and videos. You can stay active with a Zoomba class on YouTube if you are not going outside. Perhaps your worry is compounding—you are not only thinking about what is currently happening, but also projecting into the future. When you find yourself worrying about something that hasn’t happened, gently bring yourself back to the present moment. Try the mindfulness “Apple” technique from getselfhelp.co.uk
Acknowledge. Notice and acknowledge the uncertainty as it comes to mind. Pause. Don't react as you normally do. Don't react at all. Pause and breathe. Pull back. Tell yourself this is just the worry talking, and this apparent need for certainty is not helpful and not necessary. It is only a thought or feeling. Don't believe everything you think. Thoughts are not statements or facts. Let go. Let go of the thought or feeling. It will pass. You don't have to respond to them. You might imagine them floating away in a bubble or cloud.
Explore. Explore the present moment, because right now, in this moment, all is well. Notice your breathing and the sensations of your breathing. Notice the ground beneath you. Look around and notice what you see, what you hear, what you can touch, what you can smell. Right now. Then shift your focus of attention to something else - on what you need to do, on what you were doing before you noticed the worry.
7. Keep your children informed with age-appropriate information.
Most children will have already heard about the virus, so parents shouldn’t avoid talking about it. Not talking about something can actually make kids worry more. Look at the conversation as an opportunity to convey the facts and set the emotional tone. Your goal is to help your children feel informed and get fact-based information that is likely more reassuring than hearing things from other sources. With schools closing across the country because of the COVID-19 virus, parents will, if they have not already, find it difficult to keep their students occupied during the day. Boston25News has a link to dozens of websites that offer online lessons, fun games, printable documents, and videos to keep children from getting bored during the time schools remain closed. Also included are a few sites that offer parents tips on structuring their children’s day.
8. Look after your older relatives.
Ensuring an older relative stays socially connected, physically active, and stimulated, protects against loneliness and protects mental and physical well-being. If you are visiting an elderly relative you must maintain a safe distance, no kissing or hugging, and those hygiene practices are particularly important. Older people are more likely to become severely ill if they catch coronavirus and you could potentially expose them. If it’s not safe to visit in person, stay in touch over the phone, online or by regular post. If you are concerned about an older relatives’ mental health, encourage them to stay active (e.g. cleaning, dancing, doing seated exercises) and get sunlight and fresh air (e.g. a walk outside, sit on a bench outside their living facility, opening a window for fresh air). To prevent loneliness, make sure they find time to do things they enjoy, such as watching TV, reading, writing, art, or cooking. And teach an older relative how to use technology if they don’t already know...what better time to learn and to use technology to stay connected. Families and carers should also consider contingency plans if the situation changes such as arranging for a trusted neighbour to help an elderly relative if they are unable to.
Remember, you are not in this alone.
Each of us finds a sense of safety from different things, and in different ways. Don’t compare yourself to others. We’re on this journey together. Making healthy, reasonable choices about what to do and what not to do will make a big difference in being able to stay as safe and as mentally well as possible. Ultimately do what helps you feel a sense of safety and calm while respecting the needs of all and the greater good. We’re on this journey together. We’re all struggling on this journey together. And we will all celebrate when this journey is complete. Together.