I have to admit, I never imagined I’d ever type the words “caring for your mental health during a pandemic,” but I guess that is a big part of this. No one expected to experience this and most do not have a reference point of some experience to draw upon. We are in uncharted territory, which is leaving many unsettled, scared, sad, angry, frustrated, or just confused. Our everyday lives have been turned upside down, and we feel powerless to stop it.
Here are some tips, born out of my 20 plus years as a psychologist, including my recent work helping my clients weather this storm.
Focus on what you can control. Life may feel very out of control right now. Often, we get stuck ruminating on the things we can’t control. The people not practicing social distancing. The stock market ups and downs. What can you control? If you catch yourself focusing on the uncontrollable, take a deep breath and choose one thing to focus on that you can feel power over. One thing you can control is choosing to participate in activities that make you feel better. I sometimes say, “As long as it doesn’t hurt you or someone else, and is legal, I don’t care what it is, just do it.”
Keep perspective. What is happening is scary and we must take precautions. However, it is easy to engage in catastrophic thinking. Most people who get sick will have mild symptoms. There are ways to protect yourself and your loved ones. Vaccines and medicines are being developed.
Limit your exposure to media. Having tons of information at our fingertips is both a blessing and a curse. When we are stuck inside, it is normal to scroll through social media or have the news on the television in the background.
- Make an effort to only check the news once or twice a day.
- Get away from social media, or at the very least, consume selectively. Unfollow extremely negative sites or people. Purposely follow positive sites like Upworthy or Good News Network.
- Be aware that much of the information you receive from soft sites or family and friends may not even be accurate. Try to only get news about the pandemic from reliable sources like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Stay connected. While we are practicing social distancing, we may feel lonely. Being physically apart does not have to mean being disconnected. It just may require some creativity or extra effort.
- Using virtual ways to connect can be fun. Facetime, Skype, and Zoom are great ways to see people you haven’t seen in a while. Think about organizing virtual book clubs or religious studies. Games can be played virtually like Pictionary, Heads Up, Scategories or trivia. Netflix Party is a way to watch movies with your friends.
- Post videos of your performances if you have a talent to share.
- Offer to tutor someone or read to someone.
- You are allowed to walk, run, or bike, so go meet a friend and stay 6 feet apart.
- Have a picnic but bring your own food and stay apart.
- Garden together or help a neighbor with their garden.
- Even writing letters and putting them in the mail can help us feel connected to others around the world who are going through this with us.
Have good boundaries. While we need to stay connected, we may need to do it carefully. Some people in our lives, maybe including those we are stuck in the house with, may not always be good for our mental health. Respect that everyone is dealing with this in their own way. Take some physical space away from one another. Limit contact with people in your life who are very stressful, including on social media. Ask others to respect your needs.
Appreciate what is good. Many of us are facing new challenges, but are being given the gift of time and being forced to slow down. Hopefully, soon our lives will return to normal and for many that means running from activity to activity in very busy lives. What can you do now that you don’t feel you normally have time for?
- Talking to someone you haven’t connected with in a while or who may be alone
- Learning something new like a language, a craft, a skill, or a recipe (now is a great time to teach life skills to kids)
- Cooking or baking
- House projects
- Home spa days
- Cuddling with pets
- Exercise (look for free videos online)
- Meditation (there are many free apps or online videos)
- Exploring the outdoors including places a bit farther away than we’d normally go
- Doing something to help others, even small, can make us feel more in control
One note of caution: comparing yourself to others can be harmful. Be careful not to fall into the trap of holding up your friends’ social media posts as examples of what you should be doing. You don’t have to run really far, repaint your house, or teach your child physics. Do what works for you and your family.
What to say to children. Answer their questions in an honest but age-appropriate manner. Keep the news off and their access to online coverage limited. Be a good role model for self care and know they will pick up cues from you on how to feel about this. Remember you have more control than you may realize over how they will experience this unusual event. I had a child say to me today, “I hope summer is like this but just with more freedom.” I was happy to hear they are enjoying this down time and hope that’s what they will remember when they look back on 2020.
Reach out for help. Notice if you are struggling to sleep or eat. If you are having a lot of physical symptoms of stress like muscle pain, headaches, stomach distress, racing heart, or shortness of breath, it may be anxiety. Crying often or having many angry outbursts may be signs you are struggling. Also using alcohol or drugs to cope may mean it’s time to reach out for help. Getting help may mean connecting to supportive people in your life. Maybe it means finding an online tutor for your child or financial support through a community agency. It could mean finding an online support group. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous is holding virtual group meetings. There are hotlines for those that need to talk and are in crisis through the National Suicide Prevention and SAMHSA with both text or phone options.
Many psychologists are offering telepsychology sessions using HIPPA compliant video formats. Our office is supporting patients through these platforms in order to keep our patients and staff safe from the virus, while still caring for patients’ mental health. Let us know if we can help you through this challenging time.
Dr. Christina Carson-Sacco is a clinical psychologist and a partner with The Center for Neuropsychology and Counseling, P.C. with offices in Warrington and Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania. To learn more about her group practice visit www.TheCenterInWarrington.com