As news about the coronavirus outbreak continues to dominate the headlines and millions of people—in the U.S. and the world over—are being asked to self-quarantine, it has become increasingly significant to pay as much attention to our mental health as we do to our physical health.
“Pandemics such as the one we are currently grappling with often ignite fear, anxiety and erratic behaviors,” says Dr. Kelly Vincent, a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Encinitas, California. “When fear takes control, both our nervous system and emotional part of our brain go into overdrive. This response can lead to impulsiveness, panic and feeling out of control emotionally,” she explains. “If a person has a preexisting mental illness or history with anxiety and depression, it can often worsen and intensify during times such as these,” Dr. Vincent points out. And if the stress and anxiety worsen, “it may trigger negative physical symptoms such as an elevated heart rate, insomnia, digestive issues, weakness and fatigue,” tells Dr. Janine Kreft, an Austin-based clinical psychologist.
If you’ve been feeling anxious, frustrated, angry or downright confused lately, know that you’re not alone—we are all in this together. So take a deep breath and follow these handy, expert-backed strategies to improve your mental and emotional well-being:
- Cut back news and social media intake. “I would encourage everyone to limit their exposure to the news and to customize their social media feeds—by following more accounts and pages that make them feel good—regardless of the current pandemic,” says Dr. Kreft. “Your brain is built to problem solve. And when you are already feeling fearful, it naturally seeks out stimuli in your external environment to reinforce the feeling of fear. The brain then deletes, distorts and generalizes all incoming information that does not align with your current emotional state or beliefs. So if you spend a significant amount of time following the news, it reinforces more reason to worry— thus creating a vicious cycle,” explains the mental health expert. To keep fear and panic at bay, Dr. Kreft recommends limiting your news consumption to about five to ten minutes per day and setting a similar time limit for checking your social media accounts. In addition, if someone you follow is sharing posts that are often inaccurate or perturbing, try muting their posts to stop seeing their updates.
- Get information from only reliable sources. Some legitimate and reliable sources of COVID-19-related news and updates include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), John Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “It is helpful to adopt a more analytical approach as you follow news reports about the coronavirus. You will also want to verify information that you receive from family, friends or social media,” says the American Psychological Association (APA). Moreover, “consume only what you need to know, what’s most relevant to you and particularly what is happening or anticipated in your own community,” suggests the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
- Keep things in perspective. “Take a deep breath and remind yourself that most people who contract COVID-19 will only experience mild symptoms,” says APA. “Work is being done to help people who may be more vulnerable to the coronavirus, such as senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions,” it adds. The most important thing you can do to help yourself and your loved ones is to take all the precautions, including washing hands and practicing social distancing.
- Plan ahead and create a routine. “With the closures of businesses and schools, creating a go-forward plan for you and your family will help keep your mind at ease. This could mean creating an at-home routine and schedule for remote work amid social distancing,” says Dr. Mimi Winsberg, co-founder and chief medical officer of Brightside. “Emulate your life before COVID-19 to the best of your ability—follow the same schedule of when you wake up, when you eat and when you go to sleep,” suggests the mental health specialist. “Focus on things that are actually in your control and create action plans to address them,” she adds.
- Stay connected with your family and friends. “Maintaining social networks can foster a sense of normality and provide valuable outlets for sharing feelings and relieving stress,” states APA. “You can maintain these connections without increasing your risk of getting the virus by talking on the phone, texting or chatting with people on social media platforms,” it adds. In addition, you can take virtual tours together of museums, national parks and other sites via Google Arts & Culture, tune in to live-streamed concerts and other events or play online games with friends, suggests NAMI.
- Simply breathe. Practicing deep breathing or meditation are also great ways to alleviate stress and anxiety. Deep breathing helps you regulate your emotions by activating your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS)—which helps slow the heart rate and restore the feeling of calm, tells Dr. Vincent. Similarly, meditating for just five to ten minutes every morning can also prove to be beneficial, says Dr. Kreft. Here are some easy-to-do breathing exercises that can help you relax in ten minutes or less.
- Keep yourself busy. Engaging in activities that distract you from current events can also be helpful, suggests NAMI. You can watch your favorite movies and TV shows, pick up a new hobby like baking or DIY crafts, join an online fitness class or enroll in a free online university course. “You can also currently stream the Met Opera for free,” notes NAMI. What’s more, “the NFL and NBA are also offering complimentary access to online streaming platforms,” it adds.
- Move around. Physical activity helps ease anxiety and improve your mood by producing stress-relieving hormones called endorphins. In fact, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, exercising for as little as ten minutes can boost happiness. Here’s a no-equipment, full-body workout you can easily do at home.
- Prioritize nutrition. “Stress can spike cravings for comfort foods that are high in sugar and saturated fats,” says Dr. Winsberg. “While the instant gratification may be appealing, these types of foods often lead to an immediate high and subsequent crash that can increase stress, irritability, and anxiety,” she explains. When choosing snacks and meals, opt for foods that are high in protein and potassium as they have shown to help calm mood, tells Dr. Winsberg.
- Make time for self-care. “When stress heightens, it is easy for us to let go of our positive self-care practices, prioritizing other activities—like work and household chores. Yet this is the time we ought to practice self-care the most,” tells Dr. Kreft. So carve out some time for yourself every day, even when you’re hunkered down, to do something that makes you feel good. Whether it’s journaling, reading a book, playing with your pet or listening to music or your favorite podcast. Also, don’t forget the critical self-care activities like eating healthy, getting adequate sleep and regular physical activity, adds NAMI.
- Check your thoughts. “Fear feeds off of negative thoughts and beliefs. So try reframing your thoughts to manage your emotions better,” says Dr. Vincent. For example, “this is a scary time right now, but I choose to focus on what I can control—like washing my hands, avoiding going outside and engaging in self-care activities.” “Writing down positive affirmations right when you wake up or before going to bed can also be very powerful in rewiring your mindset,” tells Dr. Kreft.
- Communicate with your kids. It’s important to take care of your kids’ mental and emotional health as well. “Be honest and open with your children. And give them space to process their feelings, especially feelings of fear and anxiety,” tells Dr. Vincent. Besides, “modeling self-care for your kids is also imperative. When they see you doing it, they will often take interest and follow as well,” says Dr. Kreft. So engage in self-care activities with them like washing hands, eating healthy meals, exercising or meditating together, limiting social media exposure, etc. Additionally, “try to maintain a normal routine as much as possible—because kids thrive off of a schedule of some kind,” suggests Dr. Vincent. “It can be disorienting and confusing for them if routines are thrown off,” she tells.
- Be there for others. The “helper” therapy principle shows that helping others is also a benefit to the helper, states NAMI. In Spain, group exercise classes are being conducted for quarantined residents on their balconies. While in the UK, a retired carer is delivering food parcels to the elderly. Similarly, Canadians have kickstarted the ‘caremongering’ trend—where people volunteer to run errands and do chores for those in need. Here are some humanitarian aid organizations in the U.S. that you can get involved with.
If the symptoms of stress and anxiety worsen and you feel it is impairing your ability to function, please speak to an experienced mental health professional at the earliest. “For anyone who is unsure about attending therapy sessions outside the home, especially those who the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has described as being at higher risk, you can ask your health care provider about tele-therapy or mental health services online,” notes NAMI.
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