Updated: Mar 24, 2020
Between being home all day, losing access to public services and hobbies, experiencing layoffs, losing access to friends, and more, there is no question that COVID-19 has been affecting our mental health. What's more, having a routine, social supports, and a sense of mastery are all factors in overall wellbeing. What are we to do when we are unable to rely on all of the usual people and practices that bring us joy and wellness?
In addition to taking the appropriate physical precautions like washing your hands properly, disinfecting surfaces regularly, practicing social distancing and more, here are some tips on how you can tend to your mental health:
1. Set boundaries around social media and news consumption.
Of course we all want to stay up-to-date when a pandemic strikes. However, it is vital to exert some control over when and how you’re consuming information. You may want to schedule time to look at COVID-19-related information online and set a timer so you don’t end up accidentally spending three hours researching everything about the virus. You may also want to turn off news alerts and/or social media alerts so that you aren't being bombarded throughout the day and living in a state of fear.
The logic behind setting boundaries here is related to the availability heuristic, a cognitive error our brains make that involves relying on immediate, recent examples when evaluating a specific topic, concept, or decision. In other words, if you watch a news report that provides terrifying information about the virus, your brain may automatically think you're more likely to get it even though the statistics about your specific geographical area and demographic suggest otherwise.
2. Create a new routine.
With so many people working from home—or not having a job to go to any more—it can be vital to add some sort of structure to your day. Some important points:
Don't forget to take care of the basics. Continue to shower, brush your teeth, and maintain your usual hygiene habits.
If you’re working from home, for example, designate one area as your “work area” so that you are able to create some degree of separation between work and home (i.e. no doing work in bed).
You may decide to get into work clothes rather than staying in PJs all day so that there’s some sort of physical demarcation between “work mode” and “relaxation mode.”
Follow your usual "work hours." Start work at the same time, schedule a lunch break, and set an alarm so that you know when it's time to close your laptop.
3. Practice self-care by getting enough sleep, exercising at home, and eating well.
A nourished body means a calmer mind. When we are under-slept, the part of our brain that detects fear can be up to 60% more hyperactive. Practice good sleep hygiene so you may feel better able to handle any stressors that come your way. Additionally, it's very easy to become a night owl when you have the option of sleeping in the next day. However, following a regular sleep schedule is crucial right now. Do not use this time as an excuse to go to bed at 5am and sleep in until noon as this will severely disrupt your circadian rhythms, energy levels, and even different hormones.
Given that exercise also releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins, you may want to start incorporating an at-home workout regimen into your day. Body-weight exercises are highly effective for strength training and yoga flows can be done in small spaces, too.
It’s worth noting that bacteria and viruses thrive on sugar for energy, so limiting or eliminating processed sugars from your diet altogether can serve a protective function right now. Eating real, whole foods with as little ingredients as possible is the simplest, most effective rule of thumb when it comes to eating a healthier diet.
4. Find a hobby other than watching Netflix.
Having too much time on our hands makes it all too easy to fall into the dark corner of the mind, ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, or replaying the reel of our embarrassing moments. It's important to create moments of mental stimulation, distraction, and enjoyment to deter this from happening.
My recommendation here is to be very intentional about scheduling your day and filling it with moments of pleasure and mastery. Mastery-related activities are those that give a sense of accomplishment like cleaning the kitchen, finishing a project, checking things off a to-do list, and more. Pleasure-related activities should be varied and scheduled, too. Again, sitting on the couch watching Netflix all day rarely helps people feel energized or content.
Here is an example of what you could include in your new schedule:
9am - wake up, shower, eat breakfast
10am - go for a walk
10:30am - at home yoga
11:15am - watch Netflix
Noon - make lunch
1pm - read
1:30pm - do some scrapbooking
3:30pm - call friends and family
4:15pm - play the piano
5pm - start cooking dinner
6pm - eat dinner
6:45pm - play board game with roommate
9pm - start getting ready. for bed
10pm - go to sleep
5. Embrace uncertainty.
Fear of uncertainty + ineffective strategies to try and eliminate uncertainty = anxiety. Ineffective strategies most commonly used to handle fears of uncertainty include worrying, ruminating (letting a problem replay again and again in your mind), “what if” thinking, over-analyzing past events, and more. At their core, these strategies are all desperate attempts to make us feel certain about something: We ask “what if” questions about the future because we inaccurately believe that if we think of enough potential outcomes, we’ll be able to gain control over a situation. We over-analyze the past in the hopes that we’ll have some “a-ha moment” that will prevent future hardships. As the expression goes, however, the only certainties in life are death and taxes. We truly cannot be certain of anything else.
As the old adage says: focus on what you can control and forget the rest. In other words, while taking precautions with the Coronavirus is essential, there is only so much we can predict and control here. When you find yourself asking “what if” questions or trying to predict the future, know that this is an effortful yet fruitless mental exercise that will get you nowhere. I call these “U-Turn” thoughts; just get off the highway and focus on what you can control in the now.
That said, if you personally feel more at ease carrying hand sanitizer everywhere and wiping down surfaces before you touch them, then do so. These simple yet comforting habits can be important when you feel like a lot is happening that's out of your control.
The Bottom Line
Hearing the word “pandemic” can catalyze serious feelings of fear, dread, and overwhelm. As understandable as these fears might be, it is important that we also take charge of our lives in whatever small ways we can. By being mindful of how we are consuming information, using critical thinking skills to assess what we’re hearing, and prioritizing self-care strategies, we can handle fears proactively rather than being consumed by them.
If you or a loved one are struggling with fears and anxieties right now, Fresh Insight offers online psychotherapy. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.