There are many strategies, mental, physical and emotional, that can reduce the negative psychological consequences of living in a time of global pandemic. What follows are suggestions informed by my clinical work as a therapist and from my own journey to figure out how to cope during this trying time. However, each person is unique. You must consider your own situation, health and personality when adopting coping tools to fit your individual needs. My hope is that you will find something that is useful for you and your loved ones. Feel free to take what might work and leave what does not.
Take Care of your Mind
I think it’s fair to say that most people feel a range of emotions including anxiety, right now. Considering that this is most people’s baseline, it is crucial to actively intervene with tension reducing measures. While it’s unrealistic to expect yourself to avoid challenging thoughts and moods, managing your reactions to some extent and counterbalancing with nurturing behaviors is feasible.
Relaxation- I suggest before you get out of bed or pick up that phone, do something that is psychologically soothing for you. If you have a familiar meditative practice do that. If not, do some conscious breathing or listen to a guided meditation when first waking up. Grounding exercises can be effective option. To do this concentrate your attention on the sensation gravity creates for your body. You might notice the pressure of your bed or chair underneath you. For those that struggle with meditative practices, it is also be helpful to listen to music that brings you a sense of calm or connection or spend 10 minutes thinking about things that increase your peace or happiness.
Whichever way you do it, give yourself the gift of relaxation in your day. There are many specific meditations or activities for mindfulness. However, almost anything can be done, mindfully. Doing routine behaviors like breathing, walking, cleaning, eating, etc. while paying attention to your sensory awareness gives your brain and body the benefit of mindfulness.
Breathe- Don’t forget to breathe deeply and often! Like now, take a full breath…People tend to take shallower breaths as a reaction to anxiety or when thinking or reading about a contagious illness such as droplet infection. Inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply brings fresh oxygen into your body and communicates to your nervous system that it’s OK to be in a more relaxed state.
Put breathing sessions on your schedule as part of your daily routine as well as to treat a need, in the moment. It’s a choice to plan these for right when you wake up (before commencing scrolling), the last thing before sleep, before each meal, signaled by an alarm at intervals, any and all of the above or any way that ensures you do it.
Some people prefer a structured practice such as Dr. Weils 4–7–8 breathing cycle[i], counting 5 in and 5 out, and varied formulas. Others are more comfortable with deepening a natural in and out pattern. This is a great activity to do mindfully! One way to do this is to observe your torso and abdomen changing shape as air flows in and out and notice the temperature change on your lips or nose. See if it’s possible to pull the sound your breath makes out of all the sounds around you as you draw it in and release it again. Breathing mindfully tends to look like immersing yourself in the sensations occurring in the present.
Manage Worry- Of course it is natural to have concerns in light of the current events. Yet, when possible, draw a boundary around how much you allow yourself to spin the worry wheel. The more you are able to control distress about potential futures that may never come to be, the more energy you’ll have for working through actual challenges, presently. If you find yourself stuck in rumination, change your surroundings, blast your favorite song, move your body, or give a breathing or mindfulness a try. Do whatever it takes to rest back control of your mental condition.
Journaling can be a useful way to handle agitation by creating a buffer between you and your anxiety. This happens because the act of writing requires you to use a different kind of brain function than when worrying. It also could help you gain insight into what is happening inside you. In this time of physical distancing, many people have less social contact, limiting opportunities to vent or gain perspective from objective parties. Although journaling won’t be a substitute for talking it out with someone you trust, it might tide you over as a way to process until a friend or loved one is available to offer support.
Create- Have you ever lost track of time while engaged in a project and then a sense of satisfaction as you look at what you have created? This is the sort of reaction you are going for when selecting activities that feed you creatively. Different activities will induce this state depending on the person.
Drawing, painting, photography, etching, lettering, textile dying, sculpture, etc. are a good match for people who have a connection to the visual arts. Those who are gifted in the performing arts may choose composing, choreography or screen writing. Others are predisposed to cooking, gardening or rearranging the layout of a room. If you are feeling inspired, this could be an excellent opportunity to experiment with a new hobby that you’ve had your eye on but haven’t had the time to try.
With that said, it’s not uncommon for a person’s ability or desire for new skill acquisition, such as is used when learning a new craft, to be reduced during times of stress. This is a biological effect and has to do with how the brain delegates energy when danger is perceived (real or imagined). If this is you, don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t able to engage with a style of project. Sticking with a what is already known is just as useful of a strategy in your care of your head space.
Take Care of your Body
In order to cope with the impacts of COVID-19 it’s important to develop strategies that address physical needs. Not only can your mood and perception of control improve when you care for your body, your health may be directly affected. Who doesn’t want a better constitution these days?! Naturally, the guidelines you usually use to manage your basic needs such as exercise, sleep and nutrition may need to be revised to account for higher levels of stress.
Keep moving- Increase in emotionality is a natural side effect of facing the type of position we are in, collectively. Moving your body and thoughtfully raising your heart rate through exercise is a beneficial way to discharge feelings that are difficult to hold. Also, physical activity provides your brain necessary with neurochemicals to combat anxiety, depression and to keep a positive outlook.
You may need to use your imagination with this recommendation since gyms and yoga classes in many communities are closed or not advised. If you’re in a rural area, getting to an outdoor space for a walk, jog or run where you can maintain the required social distancing might be easily done. For those in a more urban locale, exercising in a yard or possibly inside, might be the only option. As long as it’s in line with your doctor’s recommendations, do jumping jacks, jump rope, stream an online workout or yoga class in your living room or put on some tunes and dance until you sweat! Whatever you do, it is important to keep close to your usual level of physical movement.
Eating well (enough)-Many people use treats or comfort food as a way to deal with uneasiness. Right now, it is understandable if people grab for whatever coping strategies are available, even if it’s ice cream. Since the surge of COVID-19, we must deal with a whole new set of stressors and incidents that are novel for most people in places like the U.S. Despite this, make sure you balance treats and comfort food with healthy choices, nutrient rich and whole foods. Your body will thank you!
If you are the type that feels a benefit from the positive sensory experience of cookies or chips, try a soothing cup of tea or some warm broth, to indulge your senses. Really allow the sensations to take up all of your attention. Notice the warmth, the flavors and the smells. If done thoughtfully, you are getting a two-for-one as engaging with sight, hearing, smell and touch is one way to practice mindfulness.
Sleep- This is a suggestion which for many is in conflict with the secondary effects of COVID-19. Most people are at least a little anxious right now and anxiety can lend to sleeplessness. With this understanding it will benefit you greatly if you fulfill your minimum requirements for sleep and perhaps get a small surplus. Of course, if you are prone to sleeping more than your body actually needs, you may need work harder than usual on getting up and participating in the waking world. Keeping some semblance of a normal-for-you sleep pattern may contribute to a sense of stability under these uncertain circumstances.
Good sleep hygiene, your behaviors around rest, can significantly influence how successfully you fall and stay asleep. Strike a balance between sufficient rigorous exercise and too much activity near to bedtime. Eat the right amount so that you are not going to bed hungry but don’t eat too much too close to when you call it a night. Try reading instead of screen time if you need a margin between getting into bed and laying your head down and read instead of scroll if you wake up in the middle of the night. If you drink caffeine, consider changing your “last cup cut off” rule to a bit earlier. If you would like to learn more about how to improve your sleep hygiene, there are many articles available online[ii].
Remember to be gentle with your expectations of your body during this time. Your routine that commonly works may need tweaking. It is prudent to expand how you nurture yourself as these are exceptional times!
Take care of your heart
Strategies for the body and mind get a lot of attention when people discuss ways to counteract negative consequences of a crisis. Your heart has needs that deserve to be addressed, as well. Even people who tend to focus be less emotionally oriented benefit from figuring out how to make more space for their feelings.
Let Yourself Feel- Some, though not most, are actually grieving the loss of a loved one due to COVID19. And if you are, my heart goes out to you! People in general are reacting to the loss of something that they aren’t able to participate in or experience. Just an awareness of the collective weight of suffering can produce symptoms of grief. Everyone is facing a large amount of uncertainty which is enough to create a wide range of emotions. Events are occurring that we can neither prevent or control and may adversely impact our lives. This is literally what is said to cause existential angst, a state of unrest that has afflicted humankind for millennia. Certain people are predisposed to handling troublesome circumstances and yet, the most adept at facing adversity would be wise to expect stronger emotional reactions in response to the current world crisis.
In this current state of affairs, giving yourself the space to safely feel your reactions can mitigate a misdirection or an outburst of repressed feelings. If focusing on emotions has been overwhelming in the past, use techniques that create a secure containment such as observing and naming your feelings as they arise. This targets the part of your brain where reasoning, wisdom and emotional regulation occur. Set up a structure so you have a way back out if you start feeling lost by lining up support or an activity ahead of time that usually raises your spirits. Ideas for this could be planning ahead for a conversation with a trusted friend or relative, watching funny or inspiring video/show or a soothing bath.
Connection- One of the areas that is affecting most people is loss of in-person connection to their community, friends and family. As social creatures, our need for meaningful contact is hardwired into us through evolution. For those who live alone, this can be a major challenge as, before COVID19, schools, employment and social events may have been the only daily opportunity to interact with others. Do not underestimate this need and make sure you stay connected in whatever ways are available through options like phone, video conferencing and online social platforms.
If you are lucky enough to have a pet, your furry family can be helpful for filling some of the natural need for connection. Many animal shelters and rescue programs are allowing people to foster animals to provide companionship during “sheltering-in-place” ordinances. So, if fostering is a good fit for your situation and temperament, bringing home a dog, cat or other animal could be a way to soothe the ache for connection.
Humanity- Look for acts of kindness and collaboration in the news, not just the articles speculating about disaster and the worst conceivable outcomes. There are wonderful instances of communities rallying together to aid and comfort the most vulnerable[iii]. Watching uplifting documentaries and movies can bring into focus the warmest parts of humanity and remind you of the compassion and resiliency that exists in the world along with the strife.
My strategies list is in no way exhaustive. I encourage you to use this list as a point of inspiration. Please adapt and come up with personalized interventions that are the best fit for your unique personality, lifestyle and circumstances. I am trained in and am skilled at helping people navigate emotions such as anxiety, depression and grief. Nevertheless, I am not a doctor, nutritionist or researcher and this is in no way meant to be a substitute for the advice from qualified professionals in these fields, especially when considering your specific situation.
I emphasize that if you are unable to manage your mental or emotional condition seek help! Many therapists and social workers are offering virtual counseling. And I must stress, if you suspect that you could be a danger to yourself, someone else, or need support assessing your safety risk level, please seek help immediately by calling a crisis line such as (800) 273–8255, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. This is a difficult moment for everyone and it is understandable if some people need support to manage overwhelm. We are in this together!
[i] Oshin. M. (2017. October 19) This “4–7–8” Breathing Hack Could Help You Fall Asleep in 60 Second or Less. Retrieved from https://medium.com/the-mission/this-4-7-8-breathing-hack-could-help-you-fall-asleep-in-60-seconds-or-less-8dfe3fc5247b
[ii] Morris. R. (2019. September 11) Sleep Hygiene and Why you Need to Master it. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@joannecipressi/random-acts-of-kindness-during-coronavirus-outbreak-58cab3c9b7f4
[iii] Cipressi, J. (2020, March 19) Random Acts of Kindness during Coronavirus Outbreak. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@joannecipressi/random-acts-of-kindness-during-coronavirus-outbreak-58cab3c9b7f4
Of all the important realities those in couples, romantic relationship, and other relationship formations, should be prepared to face, the fact that conflict is inevitable may be number one (or at least in the top 5). No matter how much happiness and love exist between people, eventually, some issue or event will arise that will end in a disagreement, argument or altercation of some sort. However, the manner in which they engage in a conflict can make the difference between a parting of ways and a healthy enduring relationship. Here are 5 important tips to keep in mind as you figure out how to “fight right”.
1. Don’t engage when very upset - It may seem counter-intuitive to wait until all parties are relatively calm to reason things out. Some might ask “Why would you want to bring an issue back up after things seem ok, again?” The answer has everything to do with the nervous system and the biological response to situations that humans perceive to be threatening. These responses are commonly called FIGHT, FLIGHT or FREEZE. When most people hit a high level of emotionality, something like a switch can flip inside. If this happens, it can become challenging to access the part of the brain that helps to reason, compromise and understand others. Here’s the good news! It is possible to intentionally flip that switch back over. Employing self-soothing activities such as moving the body, intentional breathing, being in nature or with a loved pet, etc., may help to regain neurological stability and approach a conflict from a place of collaboration and empathy.
2. Try to address concerns ASAR (As Soon As Reasonable) - Letting a resentment or hurt stew tends to amplify the sense of separation. Instead, honor the mutual sense of connection by making time to work through difficult issues. Holding on to hurt without processing with you partner/s can lead to compacted resentment and it tends to be easier to work through problems while they are current. Once everyone involved is in a place to give and receive feedback in a collaborative way (See Tip 1), prioritize creating an environment where a productive conversation can occur. If someone needs to step away during the conversation to regulate themselves, set a timeframe to at least check back in. In this case, it’s best if the party who needs to self-soothe, takes this time to actively work on reaching a state where productive communication is again possible. Since it is common for feelings connected to fear of abandonment to arise from a very primal place in the one/s left behind, keep lines of communication open while taking space. This could look like “I’m noticing, I am having a lot of intense feelings right now, I think I need 20 minutes to go take a walk. Can we check in when I get back? Hopefully then I’ll be ready to come back to this topic with more clarity.” This way, space is created to regulate the self, regain a balanced state and still respect the feelings (needs) of all involved. For very complicated situations, another bracket of time may be needed, however keeping in touch during times of independent self-soothing will help to protect the connection until the conversation can be resumed.
3. Lay down ground rules - Some people in relationship choose to follow formal models like Non-Violent Communication (http://www.nvc.com) and rules from the Gottman Method (http://www.gottman.com/couples/) Approaches such as these generally provide strategies that support productive communication. However, even without input from the experts, it can be helpful to decide together agreements like no cursing, no yelling in front of the kids or no serious issue brought up right before bed, in the car, on the phone, etc. Just as human beings each hold a unique set of needs, the needs of each intimate network together is just as diverse. Expect to tailor the underpinnings of your relationship so it has the best fit possible for the people in it. It is best to approach this process with an understanding that compromise on both sides may be necessary. Example; Pat comes from a background where swearing is considered an acceptable way to emphasize intense feelings. For Mel, any swearing, even when not directed at them leads to an experience of hostility. For Pat, refraining from swearing while processing a conflict with Mel will be a benefit since receptivity in a partner will make processing a conflict more productive. On the other hand, it is advantageous for Mel to understand that Pat is changing an engrained behavior. Being patient if a swear occasionally escapes when Pat is emotional will help keep the focus on the task of reaching resolution.
4. Find your accountability - With the exception of situations involving intimate partner violence, there is always a way to focus on personal accountability even if it is only the accountability to ones own values. As a baseline, each person’s choices and behavior stand alone. One person’s inappropriate behavior, does not justify similar behavior in another people. To take a further step into accountability, realize that you are a participant in this current dynamic and the more you look for what you can own, the sooner you can move yourself to a more positive and collaborative place. As a counterbalance and to keep at the hard task of accountability, it helps to remember that even if your partner is experiencing you a certain way it does not determine your original intention. It is helpful to know how one’s behavior impacts close others however it cannot change the internal quality of a person.
5. Trust your partner and the shared connection - If you genuinely suspect that your partner is trying to hurt you intentionally, it’s time to assess the relationship and at least seek additional support*(see note below) However, if it is possible to trust the positive intent of a partner, bring that perspective to the conversation. Remember that all parties ultimately desire harmony. Trust that, despite what may be happening currently, moving to a place of receptivity is a shared goal. There just may be a need for some time to work through feelings about the events that have occurred or the feedback given. Shame, guilt, regret or anxiety can create powerful reactions that make the task of collaboration much more difficult. It is even possible for the source of a strong emotional reaction to also be connected to past emotional wounds along with the current issue or feedback. When this is the case, attempt to bring an extra dose of understanding for the person struggling instead of reacting defensively or escalating the volatility. In a reciprocally supportive dynamic, each person will take turns acting as the emotional anchor. When compassion increases, the chance of regaining feelings of connection becomes more attainable.
These suggestions are not presented in order of importance since each relationship and each conflict are unique. The order of importance may fluctuate with the situation. Please remember when reading suggestions of this kind, be gentle with yourself. Many of us did not have healthy communication modeled to us or taught to us. However, a willingness to learn makes growth possible. We are all human and even the most practiced communicators will have slip-ups. If you miss the mark, remember everyone makes mistakes sometimes, apologize and try again.
*If you are in immediate danger from someone in your household call 911. If you need support to leave an abusive situation or are wondering if what you are experiencing is abuse contact 1-800-799-7233 or go to https://www.thehotline.org/ for support.