Two weeks ago, we were in the middle of our already complicated lives. Although many had heard of the coronavirus, most were busy simply managing day-to-day ups and downs. That was more than enough. While some were hitting strides, others experienced worry about careers, marriages, or health. Baseball season and crocuses were peaking through the frost as we were cautiously optimistic seeing it getting lighter as we left our offices.
Then, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pulled the rug from underneath us.
What many originally described as an asymptomatic or mild flu-like infection morphed into a potentially life-threatening respiratory illness, ready to steal the lives of our parents, grandparents, friends, even ourselves. Panic spread as we all anticipated the worst-case scenario. Most rushed to purchase food and stockpile paper goods, and mandated our children stay home. Businesses shut down, causing financial worries to many, as the stock market plummeted and the nation entered a recession with the possibility of more bad news to come. Now, feelings of being out of control seem only to grow. Stuck in our homes without a regular routine, we stare at our family members, struggling to stay both safe and sane. This is an extremely hard time, but there are some steps we can take to improve our personal situations.
Structure, structure, structure. Maintaining structure is critical.
It is the best psychological medicine for the external chaos created by the coronavirus. Waking up at the same time, sleeping regularly, and eating three meals a day are the first steps. Prioritize your responsibilities by categorizing them as critical, important, and optional. Stack the most difficult tasks first, so you have more time to complete them if and when a snafu arrives.
Thinking about what can ground you.
It can be very difficult to think clearly when you are panicked. So take time first, sometime when you are feeling grounded, to think of reassuring phrases and activities that can help you handle difficult emotions. Make a set of columns on a piece of paper. Under the first, list negative emotions, feelings, and challenges such as loneliness, aggravation, health and financial concerns. A second column should list axioms and advice for difficult emotions we are facing. For example, for feelings of aggravation, you might list “I am an anchor in the storm”. For financial panic, remind yourself of other instances of financial difficulties in your life, and how you rebuilt.
Although we enjoy good times, it is mostly through difficult times that we learn and grow. This is a period where we are all building resilience, the inner musculature that will help us withstand this and future challenges. The third column, actions, might include bringing yourself back to the moment, reminding yourself to breathe, playing music, calling or video calling a friend. These are activities that remind yourself that this is temporary and that you are not alone. Then, when you experience one of the negative emotions or challenges in the first column you can turn to columns two and three for help.
Isolate Physically not Emotionally.
We have heard the warnings. We all need to socially distance, automatically assuming we are carriers so that we do not infect ourselves or others. But this does not mean that we have to stop communicating with friends and loved ones. Force yourself to reach out to at least three people each day. Remember that when you do this you are helping the people you connect with at the same time you are helping yourself. We are all in this together, even if our situations differ. Try to join groups or exercise classes online. Reorganizing your closets and binge-watching NetFlix will get you only so far. Some musicians are even playing music online together or organizing virtual open mics. Whenever possible, connect with others while observing the rules of physical separation.
Engage in activities that make you feel better.
Exercise can do a lot to boost mood and reduce reactivity in close quarters. It increases immunity, reduces stress, and keeps you in the present. Consider starting a regular meditation practice if you do not have one already or engage in self-compassion work. Taking walks in nature (6 feet apart) can center us and give a greater sense of perspective. Reading fiction and listening to music can take your attention away from thinking about worse case scenarios. Many museums have online tours. Consider picking up your dusty guitar and giving it another try. Or taking out that sketchpad. Get creative.
As we navigate these very challenging times, remember to maintain structure and connect with others while you maintain social distance. Remember that we are all in this together, and although this is extremely trying, normal life will return at some point. Anticipate the hard times by reassuring yourself and engaging in preplanned activities that help you tolerate your emotions. Stay healthy and well. And, for many of us who complain that we do not have enough time, perhaps now we do. Use it to start a healthy practice. Lastly, remember that when you are feeling alone, and nothing seems to work, please contact your therapist, or consider starting psychotherapy. Video sessions are a highly effective way to connect safely and get confidential help and support. That can make a tremendous difference during difficult times like these.
Sources for Support During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Tips on Managing Anxiety in Anxiety-Provoking Situations
New York State Office of Mental Health
Tips for Coping with Social Distancing, Quarantine, and Isolation
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA)
Parent/Caregiver Guide to Helping Families Cope with COVID-19
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)
World Health Organization
Supporting Emotional Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Outbreak
The Suicide Prevention Lifeline
FACE COVID. How to respond effectively to the Corona crisis
ebook by Dr. Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap
7 science-based strategies to cope with coronavirus anxiety
Talking to Children about COVID-19: A Parent Resource
National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
Managing Healthcare Workers’ Stress Associated with the COVID-19 virus outbreak
National Center for PTSD
Coronavirus Sanity Guide (videos and meditations)
Ten Percent Happier
Insight Timer (world’s largest free library of guided meditations)