We are living in trying times. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a global crisis to our doors. Our normal lives have been put on hold as we all struggle to live with constant fear of illness, economic turmoil, and unprecedented isolation from one another. While most talk of COVID-19 is focused on its physical toll, we as a society are also experiencing a collective assault on our mental and emotional health.
Controlling What You Can
When so much feels uncertain and the paradigm around this pandemic is ever shifting, it’s easy to feel helpless. While there are many things that we can’t control right now, focusing on the things that you can control will help reduce your anxiety and make you feel more empowered. Here are a few ways that you can be in control of your life every day:
Lower your exposure risk. By now, we all know important steps we can take to reduce our chances of getting sick or spreading the virus: practice good hand hygiene, avoid touching your face and eyes, follow social distancing guidelines, and wear a mask when out in public. While these steps may not always feel convenient or comfortable, they are ways that you can actively contribute to your safety and the safety of others.
Limit your media intake. It’s important to stay informed during this pandemic, but a constant barrage of frightening 24-hour news stories can seriously contribute to increased anxiety and worry. Research has shown that excess media exposure to coverage of stressful events can result in negative mental health outcomes. Use trusted media outlets to gather the information you need, then turn them off. Choose certain times of the day to check the news rather than all day, and don’t read or watch it before bedtime.
Take care of yourself physically. Our bodies hold onto stress. Taking care of your physical health will reduce anxiety and make you feel better overall. Take time to cook healthy meals for yourself and your loved one. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene. Find creative and fun ways to workout at home, and enjoy hobbies that engage both your body and brain. At the core, engage in behaviors and activities that are personally meaningful and that foster a sense of Achievement, Connection, Purpose, and Pleasure.
Managing Anxiety and Stress
Anxiety is nature’s response to both real and perceived threats. When confronted with a stressful or dangerous situation, we are hardwired to respond and react in self-defense. “Fight or flight” is a phrase that describes the way different people react under such duress, though “freeze” is also a common response. Many of us are feeling frozen with anxiety right now, but there are a number of tools available to help us lower stress and turn down the “noise” of our bodies’ fear responses:
Recognize the signs. Anxiety is often caused by unhelpful thinking patterns we experience when our mind fixates on threat, uncertainty and negativity. This is all the more true when threats are ambiguous, novel, new, or unpredictable – all of which certainly describes our current reality. Anxiety has both mental and physical symptoms, and these symptoms vary from person to person. Common signs of anxiety include: nervousness or restlessness, panic, trouble staying still or concentrating, increased heart rate or heart palpitations, rapid breathing, sweating, trembling or shaking, dry mouth, clammy hands, difficulty falling or staying asleep, nausea or GI problems, and irritability.
Tune into your feelings; don’t run from them. Emotional upset and distress is common in the context of uncertain and potentially life-threatening situations. A good first step for mitigating your stress is to acknowledge that it exists and normalize it for yourself and for others. Reminding yourself daily that billions of people are feeling this way right now and it is completely normal and understandable to be afraid. This seemingly simple act is an important step towards building resiliency.
Practice gratitude. Purposeful reflection on and appreciation of what is good in our lives can be very grounding and uplifting. Start a journal or blog and write down things you’re grateful for every day. There are no wrong answers! You could be grateful for your health, your family, your friends, your pets, your home, or even something as simple as your morning coffee or favorite TV show. Remember that goodness and joy still exists, even in a fragile world, and take time to celebrate the good in your life.
Build your skills. Familiarizing yourself with Cognitive Behavioral skills can help mitigate anxiety. Mindfulness techniques in particular are a great tool that you can use anywhere, anytime. Mindfulness simply means to focus your awareness on the present, while acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations in that moment. This is a great way to feel more grounded in times of stress. Many people use mindfulness exercises to manage extreme anxiety responses or panic attacks. Consider downloading an app to guide you through mindfulness or help you practice meditation.
Social distancing and quarantines have separated us from the people who make up our support networks – family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, teammates, spiritual communities, and so many more. Many of us, especially those who live alone, are struggling with loneliness and isolation. Fortunately, there are ways to cut down on these negative feelings and maintain a healthy social life from home:
Reach out and connect. While we may not be able to be physically present with the people we love, we can take advantage of technology to keep those bonds strong and support one another from afar. Set up regular times to catch up with your social network. Call a family member, set up a FaceTime or Skype chat with a friend, or organize a weekly Zoom party. Put it all on your calendar. Regular video chats will give you something to look forward to each day and create more structure in your week.
Join a virtual event. Many museum, zoos, aquariums, parks, and historical sites are offering live virtual tours and special events through Facebook, Instagram, Eventbrite, and more. These can be a fun way to experience new places without needing to travel and connect with other people who have similar interests. If you’re financially able to, consider making a donation after the event. You’ll feel great doing it and you’ll be helping to support these cultural institutions.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you notice yourself experiencing significant distress and need someone to talk to, remember that professional help is available. Most doctors and therapists are still able to see patients and clients via telehealth services, so please feel empowered to reach out and ask for an appointment.
Above all things, remember that you are not alone in this. We will get through these hard times together, and we will emerge with renewed compassion for ourselves and for one another.