Dealing with the physical health challenges of a pandemic, especially during allergy season, is paramount for all of us. But what about our emotional health? We’re all feeling the stress of working from home (if we’re lucky), working in public or not working at all. Even folks quarantining with others are experiencing isolation and frustration. Loneliness is nipping at our heels. And we’re all worrying if that cough is because we swallowed a bug or have COVID-19. There’s a lot for our brains to handle.
While it’s easy to feel a little helpless right now, it’s really important to remember that there are things we can do to boost our emotional wellbeing.
I first tackled this topic with my friend, psychologist Fox Vernon, a couple weeks ago. Judging by the response to that post, staying mentally healthy is a highly relevant subject, so I decided to revisit it with two other professionals:
Dr. Katherine Prakken, Chapel Hill, NC-based psychologist kprakkenpsychology.com
Jim Weinstein, DC-area psychotherapist, life and career counselor https://www.dclifecounseling.com/
Q. If you could only give one piece of advice for staying emotionally healthy during quarantine, what would it be and why?
Prakken: Keeping to your usual routine as much as possible is crucial. Don’t stay in pajamas all day. Be productive. Every single day. Even if it’s just for just half an hour. Returning a call, folding laundry, cleaning out a drawer – any of those things will create an immediate mood benefit. Too much unproductive, unstructured free time makes most of us feel anxious and at loose ends.
Weinstein: Practice gratitude. As bad as things may get for many of us, unless you are literally dying you can be grateful for gifts like loved ones, relative health, the wonders of nature –particularly as spring arrives. Dwell on those things consciously every day.
Q. What’s a common mistake we make when it comes to managing stress?
Prakken: Trying to manage things that are outside of our control. For example, trying to manage the pandemic by obsessively reading everything available will escalate fear and anxiety. Instead, focus on a small, manageable goal. For example, give money to a charity, sew a mask, or focus on finding a creative activity for your kids which decreases their boredom and fighting and hence decreases your stress.
Weinstein: Also, for those spiritually inclined, prayer. The Serenity Prayer is always worth turning to: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change – like the state of the economy – the strength to change the things I can – like getting off your bum and walking a mile or two – and the wisdom to know the difference. So many of us – myself included – reach for soothers like comfort food, alcohol, weed, nicotine, etc. In moderation these are OK, but it’s hard to keep them in moderation when you’re stressed. Shift your focus from anxiety and unproductive worrying to staying mentally engaged in a task. For example, studying up on something like a new skill or a foreign language. Audio learning could also be great for many people.
Q: How important is exercise?
Weinstein: Mental and emotional factors are inextricably entwined with physical ones. Prolonged uncertainty creates anxiety that has measurable physical impact, like higher levels of hormones that create inflammation, for example, which is damaging to all sorts of bodily systems. Exercise releases stress-relieving endorphins and will just make you feel better about yourself.
Q: Let’s talk about isolation. What can we do to ease the impact of being alone?
Weinstein: One tactic is to volunteer for some kind of organization that is devoted to aiding the less fortunate – even doing the volunteer work from home. The knowledge that you’re making a difference to another can be soothing. Another, and this is a little bit crazy but it actually helps, is to engage in play with people you care about but who may be far away – something like Words with Friends. Seeing people react to something you do is a form of connection that, while slight, is at least something.
Q: Is there anything friends and family can do to help someone who is feeling isolated, sad or hopeless besides encouraging them to talk to a doctor?
Prakken: For those feeling lonely: Regular brief contact. No lengthy conversations needed. A daily text or email or shared funny video has huge impact for someone who is disengaged from others. With those who are struggling the most, schedule a daily talking time so they have something to look forward to.
For people experiencing sadness or hopelessness, validate the reality of their feelings, then move to distraction. There are examples all around us of things that are not sad and hopeless. Share uplifting stories or images with those stuck in despair. Remind them that this situation is temporary. Talk about plans for after this period passes. Do not try to deny the reality of their sadness but balance it. Help them prioritize facts over feelings. Suicide prevention hotlines are still active. Provide these resources to anyone who needs them. Encourage them to attend online support groups even if the issue is not an exact fit. For example, Al-Anon and AA have online meetings that can be very useful.
Q: For folks quarantining with others, how can do better at managing conflicts?
Prakken: In our typical world, interpersonal dynamics are played out in many realms – with coworkers, friends, teachers, coaches, etc. In quarantine, it’s all distilled down to interactions and trying to get needs met with the one person or few persons with whom you live. You may end up holding them unfairly responsible for too many of your emotional needs and upsets. They will be expected to fix things, do things the way you do, know what you want, make your life easier, juggle work and parenting, manage their moods, be emotionally available and present, pay you attention but also give space. They will inevitably fail at some or all of these things. My favorite coping skill is always “Be kind not right”. This is the time to love each other anyway. Practice tolerance and compassion. Know that people have to put up with your warts, too.
Weinstein: And fess up. Acknowledge the stress you’re under. If you snap at someone, apologize rather than holding on to resentment. And if they snap at you, put yourself in their shoes and remember the stress is hard on them, too.
Q: Any final thoughts?
Prakken: Focus on resilience, which helps us contextualize, have a sense of humor, keep trying even when it’s hard to. It allows us to be less reactive and respond less emotionally. Practical ways to build resilience include getting adequate sleep and daily exercise, avoiding under or overeating, being in nature and immersing yourself in art, literature, humor or music.
Weinstein: It’s important to remember that the sun will come out again. Even with trillions of dollars being authorized to assist the faltering economy, we’re going to have a long, and I think slow, road back. But even if it’s a long time coming, today is the time to start planning for a brighter future. Learn something new, think entrepreneurially, strengthen existing relationships and build new ones.