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