Are you feeling restless, isolated and anxious? So am I. And we are not alone!
Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions. With the social isolation and quarantine imposed on us, there is a chance that we will lose our marbles by being confined to a four walled room.
Don’t worry though, there are some things in our control. Self-care is critically important at this time, as worries can be made worse if we aren’t taking care of ourselves. Here is a 5-step guide on how to maintain your mental health during these uncertain times.
1. Understand and Accept – Recognize that feeling anxious is completely normal
Have you heard of the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? If you did, you know that from a psychological point of view, it lays out a person’s individual needs depending on what they already have. The bottom level of the pyramid represents our safety needs. Safety needs in Maslow’s hierarchy refer to the need for security and protection. Expert for clinical psychology Dr. Thomas Shamekia explains in his online lesson that when we have our physiological needs for food and water met, our need for security dominates our behaviour. These needs have to do with our natural desire for a predictable, orderly world that is somewhat within our control. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic makes us feel insecure about the future. This is what is on my mind all the time now, even if only on a subconscious level. Consequently, this generates discomfort and fear.
It is very natural to feel scared, stressed or overwhelmed as our mind and body are responding to this stressful situation. In fact, that’s how we’re supposed to feel! “Psychologists have long recognized that anxiety is a normal and healthy function that alerts us to threats and helps us take measures to protect ourselves,” says expert adolescent psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour in an interview with the New York Times.
What’s important but I often forget is the understanding of what anxiety actually is. What is this tension that we feel in our whole bodies?
In a recent podcast that I have listened to about Ways to Manage Anxiety by Dr. Steve Joordens, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, he explained it this way: Our bodies are wired with two modes. When everything is going well, we’re in relaxation mode. Therefore, our body is converting what we ate into nutrients and spreading them to our body, which makes us feel good. But if we suddenly feel under threat, as we do now, our so-called sympathetic nervous system kicks in. This system puts a lot of energy in our body, lets our heart beat faster and makes us breathe heavier.
Part of the problem here is: It is not always obvious, and everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. I noticed for example that I have more nightmares and during some nights I even suffer from insomnia. The way in which you react and the intensity of emotions you feel as a result has a lot to do with your background, your state of mental and physical health, your life experience and the community you live in. You don’t have to be sick (or even quarantined) to be allowed to feel anxious, worried or sad. Give yourself permission to experience your emotions.
2. Inform – But limit excessive, continuous exposure to media
While anxiety around the illness is completely understandable, we should make sure that we are using reliable sources to get information, or to fact-check any information getting through less reliable channels. One of the coronavirus-related stressors is being bombarded with negative, ever-changing information on the internet.
However, the key to almost every addiction in human behaviour is something called random reinforcement. Dr. Steve Joordens illustrated it on the example of our mobile phones. I had to laugh when he explained it since I am guilty of this behaviour, too. Most of us experience the urge to check our cell phone multiple times a day. Something groundbreaking might have happened since you last checked. And so you check to see if something groundbreaking has happened. But no, it hasn’t. Still, almost immediately after you checked, your subconscious thinks “Well, maybe something groundbreaking just happened,” and so, it pushes you to check again. And again.
This behaviour is crucial since right now, we’re all hungry for information. We’re living in a period of uncertainty and our brain does not like that at all. It wants facts. This is why it’s natural to have the habit of keeping the news on and occasionally finding something that gives us that “hit” and makes us want to stay connected to the news. We are becoming obsessive-compulsive, constantly reminding us of the threat that we’re under and constantly re-engaging our sympathetic nervous system.
Rather than getting ongoing updates throughout the day, we should set boundaries to our news-intake. The Mental Health Department of the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends to only seek information updates at specific times during the day and to only do this once or twice per day. Personally, I now even try to go news-free for as many days as I can. I have noticed that I feel much better when I simply just don’t read any corona-related news any more.
Appropriate information consumption can lessen the sense of danger. After having read, watched, or listened to news stories, including social media, give yourself a break. Watch something silly (unrelated animal documentaries always do the trick for me) or something that was recorded before this all happened. Distract yourself to get the news out of your head for a while.
3. Connect – Staying socially connected is more important than ever
This one’s tricky. What we have to do now, in order have a positive impact, is to socially distance ourselves from each other. It is somehow insidious since it is robbing us of our number one coping strategy as Dr. Steve Joordens remarks. In times of social distancing, quarantine and isolation, remember that the mandate is only to physically distance ourselves from others. Luckily, technology allows us to be together regardless. Maintaining regular communication with people you love and trust is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety, depression, loneliness, and boredom. Be sure to make time to talk to your friends and loved ones during phone or video calls. Don’t forget about your older family members, colleagues and neighbours who may be feeling particularly isolated. We all need social connections in order to let us dissipate the stress.
It is also the ideal time to leverage positive social media use. I think very often we’ve used social media to have superficial interactions with others. We have to learn to use it to have much deeper connections now.
4. Soothe – Practice mindfulness and self-care
During times of increased stress, it’s essential to prioritize your health. Be conscious of coping in healthy ways and pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Why not try Yoga or guided relaxation for example? Doing Yoga every day helps me to relax and get my mind off the current situation. There are many apps that you can download for free. I personally recommend Down Dog, Yoga for Beginners, HIIT, Barre, and 7 Minute Workout, which are all completely free to download.
But also feel your feelings. “When it comes to having a painful feeling, the only way out is through. Go ahead and be sad, and if you can let yourself be sad, you’ll start to feel better faster.” highlights Dr. Lisa Damour. What is important is that we do what feels right to us.
5. Honor and Distract – Focus on things we can control
Separate what’s in your control and what isn’t. I find it very helpful when I am in a stressful situation to divide the problem into two categories: Things I can do something about and things I can do nothing about. Admittedly, there is a lot that falls under the second category right now.
This is why it is important to make time to unwind. I set aside time every day to do something that I love like cooking my grandma’s recipes – that really brings me into the present moment again. I recommend you to find active ways to divert attention. Meditate, stretch, take a bath, cook, journal, puzzle, read, paint, exercise, sing, dance – do whatever would ordinarily give you joy, too.
If you’re using your time in a positive way for personal development, that’s a very positive thing to do. Finally, I have time to finish all the books that I wanted to finish reading that have more than 600 pages. I have also started on my ever growing list of films to see, and I’m sure you have these lists, too!
We also underestimate the importance of our daily rituals – having a coffee, unloading the dishwasher, walking the dog. All these little dalliances we have throughout our day order it and move us along, explains Dr. Joordens in his podcast. Having that camomile tea first thing in the morning makes me feel more grounded. This structure as well as the social interactions are important to make us continue to feel some sense of normalcy in these abnormal times.
Most importantly, we must keep things in perspective and maintain a sense of positive thinking. Authorities are taking drastic action to contain the outbreak, public health institutions and their personnel, from researcher to nurse, are working hard to ensure the best care to those in need. And we, the ones staying in our own four walls? We are also doing our part. After all, it has never been this heroic to be a couch-potato.