After two weeks of psychotherapy sessions largely focused on how to cope with the impact COVID-19 has had on our lives, I’ve decided to summarize the advice I’ve given and share it in hopes that others might find it helpful.
- Acknowledge the stress. These are very strange times. We are all adjusting to living our lives in new ways and significantly altering our plans for the near future. The layers of stress we’re experiencing are difficult to even identify. Yet it’s important to be real and honest with yourself about the aspects of your life that have changed. Notice all the various ways you are adjusting. In particular, notice the constant burden of making decisions about things you never even had to consider, like whether a trip to the grocery store is worth the risk right now or maybe a day or two from now. Every decision we’re making feels like it carries this enormous weight of whether we are putting ourselves or others’ health at risk. This “moral fatigue” as it has been called exhausts our emotional and cognitive resources.
- Develop a new normal. We humans tend to do better with routine of some sort. This is an opportunity to perhaps figure out what routine feels best for your body and your life. As regular work schedules and school schedules have dramatically changed, you may find yourself with more options about how to organize your time. You do not need to abide by the same schedule as your sister or neighbor or amazingly organized best friend. Take your time and listen to your body’s natural rhythms to find out when it feels best for you to wake and sleep, to eat and be active, to work and rest. As much as your life allows, try to follow a daily routine that works well with your natural preferences. And allow the others in your life to follow their own natural routines as much as possible as well.
- Eat and drink in ways that nourish you. It is completely natural during times of stress to seek comfort in our favorite treats. We crave something to give us a dose of good feelings or numb the uncomfortable ones. This is okay in moderation. In fact, it can be real mood booster now and then. Just be aware of your own patterns and thoughtfully create balance. Add healthy foods that boost your body’s health and lots of water to stay hydrated. Notice if your eating and drinking patterns leave you actually feeling worse, heavy with guilt or bloat or stomach aches. And use these moments to gently learn about yourself so you can make an effort to correct course for the next day.
- Chunk your time. As this period of social distancing stretches out without a clear deadline, we can easily get overwhelmed envisioning how we will cope with this over the course of weeks or months. This is a recipe for anxiety. Try instead to set yourself with smaller intervals of time to focus on. Perhaps you could envision what your week looks like or maybe keep it to one day at a time. On difficult times, it’s helpful to focus on a smaller segment of time, like what you’ll do just this morning or this hour. Allow yourself to be flexible when your chunk of time doesn’t work out quite as planned. Enter your next chunk of time with a new plan.
- Create things to look forward to. As you envision different chunks of time that you can handle, make certain to plan things that you will enjoy. You can plan special meals to make or treats to bake. You can plan virtual meet ups with friends or movie marathons. Be creative and playful with this. Think about dress up days, dance parties, game nights. If you have other people in your house, everyone can come up with something they’d like to look forward to. The more creative you are, the more your relatively empty calendar can fill with fun highlights to break up the days.
- Get outside. Nature is continuing business as usual. And being outside is very grounding for our nervous systems. Even stepping outside to take a few breaths of fresh air can create a shift in our mental focus and energy. Let yourself feel all of your senses outside. You can try focusing on one at a time: notice what you hear, smell, feel, see. Try to get out each day no matter the weather. You might find that there’s still beauty in nature as cool breezes blow or misty rain falls. Try looking around you like you haven’t since you were a child. Get down low and notice the flowers stretching out of the mud and the texture on the tree bark. Notice how the clouds and sky changes throughout the day.
- Severely limit news exposure. There is nothing more distressing these days than absorbing too much news. While the urge to understand and know more about what’s going on is completely normal, it is essential to resist constant information seeking. Choose one or two news sources you trust and limit yourself to reading or watching only these. Choose one or two times a day to check in on these news sources and then give yourself permission to ignore news the rest of the day. This allows you to return to the present moment in your own life rather than spreading your concern to the broader community and world all the time. The more you can focus on your personal world, the more you can feel grounded in being okay right now. Your job is to manage yourself and your family world. That’s it. As long as you continue to do your part to follow safe social distancing guidelines, you can let go of needing to change anything else. Worrying about things beyond your realm of control is draining and does not really help anyone.
- Filter your social media. Social media can be a source of comfort and humor during these challenging times. However, it can also be a source of anxiety, pressure, terrifying news, and mis-information. This is an excellent time to block or hide posts from people who are increasing your discomfort. It’s also helpful to limit how often you check in with social media. Try this: when you’re getting ready to open your social media, take a moment to notice how you’re feeling and how you want to feel. Maybe you’re feeling bored and want some amusement. Maybe you’re feeling tense and want some distraction. Interesting. Just notice this. And then after you’ve browsed social media for awhile, tune back in to see how you feel. If you find yourself feeling worse than you started, it’s an important piece of information. You may want to limit how often or when you check in with social media just as you do with the news. Give yourself healthy breaks and see how it feels.
- Connect with people you care about. Technology is incredibly helpful right now to check in with people we can’t see in person right now. Play around with the many online platforms to see people across different states, countries, or maybe just next door. Make sure to check in with people you think may be vulnerable. Think of the people in your life who may be lonely, depressed, anxious, in stressful living situations. And don’t forget the people who may look really great on the surface but who are silently struggling beneath. Ask people how they’re “really” doing.
- Meditate. Just try it. Even if you’ve never meditated before, this is the perfect time to try listening to a guided meditation or practicing deep breathing. This can last just 3-5 minutes and still have a significant impact. When we take a break to meditate, we tune into our feelings and calm our nervous system. This is the best way to become aware of how we’re doing and what we need to take care of ourselves. Taking a minute to breathe deeply, just 5 to 7 breaths, is something we can do many times a day. Think of it as a chance to reset your nervous system so you are less likely to build up tension and explode. The more take these breaks, the less likely you are to hit your overwhelm threshold throughout the day.
- Exercise when you have the energy. Light to moderate physical exercise is good for the mood, the mind, and the body. Pay attention to when you have the energy to exercise and be creative in finding ways to move. There are many free online resources right now for guided exercise classes, yoga, and dance. It can be helpful to have a friend virtually join you for exercise time so you can support one another and be accountable. Listen to your body when you feel it’s too much, and give yourself permission to back off too. Exercise is meant to be fun. If you don’t feel better by the end of an exercise routine, it’s time to try something different.
- Rest way more. Stress is exhausting for the body and mind. Expect yourself to need far more rest than usual. Even after a good night’s sleep, you may find yourself tired by the middle of the day. This is part of the stress response. If possible, nap when your body needs it. Even taking a break to sit still without any distractions can be beneficial. It’s okay to not be productive and busy all the time. Rest allows the mind a break from decision making and worry. Rest allows the body to process all the stress hormones being released. View rest as meaningful and productive in its own way.
- Expect kids to have meltdowns. Kids are experiencing stress along with the rest of us. It’s normal for them to have big feelings and behavior outbursts right now. They too need more rest, exercise, outside time, and ways to connect with friends. They also need caretakers to be compassionate and gentle. Parents can be powerful in setting the emotional tone of the home. Prioritize a sense of safety and calm in the home over any other goals, including school assignments and chores. Protect kids from the news and harmful social media. Listen to your kids’ feelings if they can verbalize them. Offer extra comfort measures according to how your kid most likes to be loved. Be honest with them about what’s going on in their personal worlds without overwhelming or frightening them. And forgive them when they struggle or act out. We all need extra grace.
- Expect yourself to have meltdowns. We adults are under stress that taxes our emotional reserve. We are constantly needing to process new changes in our lives and our futures. And many of us are also caregivers needing to process how these changes affect all the people we love. It’s absolutely normal if you feel pretty much fine and comfortable one moment then find yourself overwhelmed and in tears the next. Let yourself ride these waves of emotions right now and be extra gentle with yourself. It’s helpful to name your feelings as they arise and imagine just softening into the sensations each feeling brings to your body. The less we resist these big feelings, the more easily they can move through us. Focusing on deep breaths is helpful during these intense times. Seek support from someone you trust, someone you can be vulnerable with. As we all share our own tough moments, we find that everyone has these experiences. It feels less lonely.
- Be compassionate with yourself and others. There is no more important time to practice self compassion than right now. Give yourself so much love and patience. Each time you lose your temper or end up spiraling down an anxiety hole, take a moment to view it as a learning opportunity and gently refocus your attention on the next best choice. Forgive yourself over and over again. Resist the tendency to beat yourself up for tough moments or fall into a pit of shame that leads to further self-sabotage or paralysis. It is in this place of being loving and forgiving with ourselves that we can find emotional stability and be our best.
The current stress presents a serious challenge to our mental health. If you find yourself struggling with anxiety or depressive symptoms in a way that feels overwhelming and not improved by these coping strategies, then it is time to reach out for professional help. Therapists nationwide are offering telehealth services to care for people in the comfort and safety of their homes. We are part of your team for wellness.
Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D. for Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, wellness, perinatal mood, relationships, or parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment at Lakefront Psychology, LLC for a psychotherapy consultation, please call 216-870-9816.