In the past few weeks, as the COVID-19 pandemic (the coronavirus) has spread across the United States, we have seen firsthand how a crisis like this can exacerbate mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
This virus is real, and you should be taking it seriously. But panicking isn’t going to help anyone–least of all yourself. You should also be staying informed–but inundating yourself with information from news and social media is a recipe for anxiety. These are stressful times–but stress lowers your body’s ability to fight infections.
In the midst of all this, it’s more important than ever to stay calm and protect your mental health. But how do you stay calm when it feels like nothing is normal anymore?
Take a deep breath, unclench your jaw, and let us share some tips on how to find a healthy balance.
Be a good neighbor.
Community is a vital part of good mental health. Humans depend on other humans for socialization and survival, and we all need to stick together during these hard times. Part of that means being a good neighbor.
One way to be a good neighbor is to practice social distancing. That means you don’t congregate in groups, don’t make physical contact, and stay at home as much as you’re able. While you may be healthy, and while you may not be worried about how this virus will make you sick, you might contract the virus and then pass it on to someone with a much higher risk of serious complications, like the elderly or those with chronic health conditions.
Another way to be a good neighbor: don’t hoard food. When you buy every box of pasta on the shelf, no one else gets to buy pasta–and that means you might be causing others to go hungry. It’s perfectly reasonable to stock enough food for 1-3 weeks in case of emergency, or to gradually stock up for longer periods by buying a little extra each time you go grocery shopping. Many stores are starting to put limits on how many of a single item you can buy, but even if your local stores don’t have those limits, you can impose them on yourself. As a general rule, don’t buy more than 4 of any single item (except cans, in which case do not buy more than 12 of a single item).
Stay connected with friends and family.
Social distancing refers to the physical distance you put between yourself and those around you–but it doesn’t mean you need to (or should) distance yourself emotionally from those you love. People in long-distance friendships or who don’t live close to their families have been depending on services like Skype and Discord to have virtual chats for years–and your friends and family can take advantage of these things, too. You can have virtual coffee or dinner dates even when you’re all stuck at home!
When you do talk, while it’s good to be honest with your loved ones about your fears, it’s also important to talk about things that aren’t the virus–things that bring you joy. Laugh or cry or pray together–whatever brings you the most comfort and reminds you that life is still going on like normal in many ways.
(And if you can’t reach out to friends and family at this time, try joining a Discord chat, or using a service like QuarantineChat to talk to a stranger who is similarly isolated. You are not alone!)
Keep a journal.
If you don’t already keep a journal, this is an excellent time to start. Journaling has many benefits for mental health. In this crisis, it can help you verbalize some of your fears and work through them, and can help you create goals on how to keep moving forward. (It also means you’ll be able to give friends and family a break from talking out these problems, which means you’ll have more time to talk about happier subjects.)
Set limits on checking news and social media.
At its best, social media is a great way to stay updated with news from the world and from your friends. Browsing your feed, you might learn that your sister is having a hard time and needs a little extra support, and you might also learn that your county is taking new measures to protect its citizens. This is all good information to have.
But when you’re bored, endlessly scrolling social media can be more detrimental to your health. You’ll start seeing people post a lot of hypotheticals, worst-case scenarios, and anxieties. Scrolling social media endlessly makes the world feel like a lot scarier than it really is.
Set limits on how long you’ll check your social feeds at any time, and keep checking in with yourself, asking yourself questions like: is this making me feel better? Is this helping me? Am I enjoying this? If the answers are all no, it’s time to find something else to do.
Keep your normal routine.
If you’re self-isolating or working from home, one of the top pieces of advice that others who work from home will tell you is to keep a routine. It’s easy to feel disconnected from the world and from other human beings if you don’t keep a sleep schedule, stay consistent with meals, and keep up with your hygiene. And if you’re used to working at a desk from 9-5, it may help you feel a sense of normalcy if you keep working at your home desk from 9-5!
Beyond that, if it helps you to wear work clothes or put on some makeup to feel good about yourself–even though no one will see you–go for it. If it helps you more to wear pajamas all day, that’s great, too (so long as they’re clean!).
It’s important to have down time to check in with yourself and name your feelings. Staying busy all the time without some self-monitoring is the recipe for a breakdown! But as long as you’re giving yourself a little down time, you want to keep yourself busy and distracted.
For some people, that means starting a new hobby, or developing a current hobby. That’s a great option–it gives you a sense of accomplishment, and sometimes gives you a finished product that you can share with others. It doesn’t have to be the next King Lear (which Shakespeare wrote while under quarantine for the plague!), so long as it’s important to you.
But others might need to get through this by binging Netflix and focusing on survival. That’s OK, too. Whatever helps you cope.
Know that your risks of death are low–no matter who you are.
Many people seem to feel as though if they get the virus, their death is a certainty. That’s a valid fear to have, and it’s the kind of fear that it’s important to verbalize when talking to friends or writing in your journal. But keep in mind, the data we have suggests otherwise.
Figures that say it is a certain number of times more deadly than the flu only make the reality seem worse than it is, which feeds anxiety. There is still an over 96% chance that most people will survive. And while some groups of Americans may be at a little higher risk, our current data shows that no group is more likely to die than they are to survive.
Know that this crisis will end.
I mentioned earlier that browsing social media endlessly will show you a lot of hypotheticals. There are many people out there doing important work in planning for the worst case scenario of this virus–both how many people will be impacted, and how long it will last. But don’t let that scare you–just because they’re planning for what-ifs doesn’t mean that these scenarios are likely to happen.
One day, this will be over–China is already recovering from the virus after they practiced social distancing and good hygiene. We might learn some lessons and make some changes given what we learned, and our sense of “normal” might change a little. But this will end, and you’ll be able to shake hands again.
The best thing you can do for yourself and all those around you is to come at this with a sense of both caution and hope. Be smart by practicing good hygiene, social distancing, and general emergency preparedness–but keep reminding yourself that this, too, shall pass.
And overall, focus on what you can do and what you can change–not what you can’t. I’ll leave you with this great diagram on the difference from The Counseling Teacher: