Many Americans feel that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected their mental health, and it’s really no wonder why. The last six months have been a perfect storm of financial stress, disinformation, misinformation, fear, uncertainty, social isolation, increases in responsibility (home schooling and childcare issues), and other changes in routine. Add that all together and it’s easy to see why the COVID-19 pandemic has created such high levels of emotional stress and mental strain, even in people who are typically not prone to anxiety.
There’s so much about this time in our lives that is not within our control, but there are still ways to improve our mental health and start feeling better.
- Be Kind to Yourself and Others. Few people, if any, have lived through a pandemic of this magnitude before. That means we have no rules or “best practices” telling us how to survive one from beginning to end. Keep in mind that all of us are just winging it…making things up as we go along to help us feel less worried or confused. We may be a little tired of hearing it at this point, but “we are all in this together.” Extend compassion and grace to yourself as well as other people—friends, family, even strangers—as we work toward getting through this strange and emotionally demanding situation.
- Manage Your Feelings. Remember, all emotions are okay—you’re not failing if you can’t “think positively” every moment of every day. Don’t even try. Before indulging in negative self-talk, think about how you would respond to a friend struggling in this situation, and apply that same compassion and advice to yourself. Allow yourself to feel the reality of your experience and move on when you’re ready. You’ve got to feel it to heal it, right? Find a safe way to acknowledge and express your difficult emotions. Write them down in a journal or letter, talk to a friend, get physical exercise, or practice yoga or meditation. Of course, if your symptoms are severe enough to interfere with your ability to function, reach out to a mental health professional.
- Lower Your Expectations and Be Realistic. Think about it. All of a sudden, you’re working at home, virtually schooling your kids, trying to find safe family activities, and find decent food and household supplies on grocery shelves that can often be depleted. You’re dealing with—or helping others deal with—the disappointment of cancelled sporting events, concerts, and milestone events like graduations and more. You’re going to have to let a few things go! Try prioritizing a few things, and take time out for self-care. Housework may have to slide while you work and teach. Carry out a few more meals so you and your family can stay outdoors for a few extra hours. So what if the kids get an extra half hour of screen time while you take an important call? Focus on your highest priority items and practice letting go of what’s less important.
- Make the Best of the Situation.A famous prayer asks that we be given “the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” If ever there was a mantra for these times, there it is. You will do yourself a lot of good if you do your best to distinguish between things you can control and things you cannot. For example, while we were unprepared for the onset of the pandemic, we are now in control of how we respond to it. Try identifying the areas of your life that you can control while at the same time accepting the uncertainty of the future can be an effective coping strategy.
Flip what looks like a “con” to the situation around. Home more than usual? Use some of that time to get outdoors and get some extra Vitamin D, or paint that chipped front door a fresh, new color. Kids around 24/7 now? Why not teach them some basic cooking techniques. Bake a pie or plant a garden or pot of herbs. Are you a nocturnal person who’s been forced into 9-5 against your natural sleep rhythms. Work when it suits you now—become a results-based employee and everyone wins. See if your neighbors need anything, or volunteer in your community. See? Suddenly you have more time for the things you never did before…
- Preserve Routine. Grab a nap or an extra hour of shut-eye in the morning, but most of us feel better if we keep our schedule roughly the same—especially if we were productive on that routine. Keep exercising, watch your caloric intake, and limit alcohol consumption.
- Stay Physically Distant. You can still stay in touch with others while staying physically distant. Facetime and Zoom are great ways to connect, or just pick up the phone. Check in on older folks, or people who may need extra support such as those who have recently experienced a death in the family or who may have limited mobility. Why not resurrect the old-fashioned “written note” habit? This is a great time for your friends and family to find a card or a letter in their mailbox!
It may take a few moments of intentional reframing, but once you change your “pandemic perspective” you will find the silver lining to slowing down and taking care of one another. In fact, many are saying that once the pandemic is safely behind us, they won’t be returning to “business as usual.” Instead, they will make some conscious decisions about what to add back into their lives. As the world where you are begins to reopen, take a moment and consciously decide what you want to invite back into your life, and what you’d rather stay banished forever!