I’ve only been holed up in my apartment for a few days, but already I’m feeling nostalgic about the days when I could chat with my colleagues without having 100 tabs open in front of my face. I miss being able to sit down in a restaurant or cafe. I’m doing my best to work from home, but anxiety keeps sending me to Twitter to see what fresh new horrors COVID-19 has in store for my city. And my cats aren’t helping my productivity, either.
Social distancing is hard. In order to slow the spread of coronavirus, people around the country and the planet are being asked to stay home and minimize their contact with the outside world. This is changing everything, from how we do business to how we interact with our loved ones — and that’s on top of the stress and uncertainty most of us are already feeling because of the pandemic itself.
Manhattan may be mostly shut down, but Wendy Greenspun, a former Columbia University psychologist who now works in a private practice, is still seeing patients via video calls. She says she can already observe an uptick in distress, anxiety, and sadness among her patients.
“Social distancing disrupts the usual social support structures that we have built into our lives,” Greenspun explains. “People feel isolated or lonely or bored, or they feel the loss of routines. Underlying mental health issues also get exacerbated at times like these.”
So, how can we cope with all this stress, isolation and boredom, and make the most of this hiatus from civilization? I asked for advice from Greenspun and two other psychologists.
Tip #1: Establish new routines
“People need structure and things to anticipate, says Elke Weber, a psychology professor at Princeton University, who founded the Earth Institute’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. She recommends establishing a routine for yourself and your family. Set what time you wake up, sit down to work, and make sure to take breaks for lunch and coffee. Shower and get dressed as you would for work.
“How we look affects how we feel,” says Weber. “And we may need to feel and act professionally and competently while working from home for many months to come, in order to keep our family, communities, country, and planet safe and the economy going as well as we can.”
It may be tempting to sleep in and eat ice cream for breakfast, but “all of those things add to our psychological stress and immune stress,” says Greenspun. Better to stick to a consistent sleep schedule and try not to stress eat.
Save watching your favorite series for evenings and weekends, Weber advises, and try to find something special to do on the weekends — such as going on a hiking trip or streaming the Met Opera. That may help to keep the weekdays and weekends from blurring together.
Although many of us will have to develop new routines and alternative ways of carrying out everyday functions, Greenspun is optimistic that these new routines will eventually start to feel normal. “We as humans tend to be pretty adaptable,” she says.
Tip #2: Get active
Now is a great time to engage in activities that you really enjoy, like music, art, painting, or baking.
It’s also very important to make sure you’re exercising, said Greenspun. “It’s one of the best mental health strategies that exists. There are studies that say it can be as effective as an antidepressant. Aerobic exercise in particular can help with stress relief, as well as help keep our bodies healthy in the face of medical risks.”
You could make up your own exercise routine based on the furniture and equipment you have available, or follow along with exercise videos on Youtube, Netflix, and other streaming services. Whether you like yoga or dancing or martial arts, there are plenty of exercises you can do at home.
Tip #3: Go outside
If you aren’t showing signs of being sick and haven’t been asked to quarantine yourself, you are likely still allowed to go outside. Take a walk through your neighborhood or a local park — the fresh air, sunshine, and nature will do wonders for your mental and physical health.
Tip #4: Focus on family time
Weber recommends coming up with communal activities for the whole family. Her suggestions include: reading books or plays, with different family members taking on different roles; cooking (or learning to cook) together; watching movies or television series as a family; and planning out what you’ll all do together when the crisis is over.
Tip #5: Connect with friends and people who are vulnerable
Call your parents. Set up a coffee date over video chat. Host a virtual dinner party. There are lots of ways to be social without potentially spreading the virus.
These interactions are important for your own mental health, and they could help other people who are going through a rough time. “Find meaning in connecting virtually with people in your life who are more vulnerable,” advises Peter Coleman, a social psychologist at Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity.
Tip #6: Give each other some space
Being cooped up is bound to stress your relationships with the people you live with, but thinking ahead can minimize the strain.
“With people being stuck at home with other family members, there can be family conflicts that emerge,” says Greenspun. “You have to take breaks from each other, talk to other people, so you’re not just putting everything on one person.”
Coleman, too, says it’s a good idea to give each other some space. “People have different needs for solitude — mine are high. Know yours, know your partner’s, and don’t be afraid to ask for downtime.”
In addition to communicating your needs, try to be understanding and positive, Coleman adds. “Realize that this is big — it’s not business as usual — and that everyone is highly anxious. So agree to give each other some slack. Do everything you can to increase the positivity reservoir in your relationship. You will need every drop of it after two weeks.”
Tip #7: Limit your exposure to the news
“Manage your media intake,” Coleman advises. “The 24-hour cable news cycle addiction was taking its toll before the virus, and now it’s out of control. Pay attention, but don’t obsess.”
It’s not good to be constantly exposed to negative news. Take breaks from social media and the news, and when things start to feel overwhelming, try yoga, breathing exercises, or other relaxation techniques.
Tip #8: Look on the bright side
“Look for silver linings in this, as we need optimism going forward,” Weber recommends. For example, you could treat social distancing as an opportunity to do chores you’ve been putting off for a while, such as cleaning out your closets or mulching the garden. Pace yourself, and remember that kids and other family members might benefit from having chores to do as well.
Along similar lines, maybe staying home frees up time for you to learn something new. Consider taking an online course, learning how to crochet or do home repairs, or watching a free livestreamed event about a topic you’ve been interested in.
Greenspun suspects the coronavirus crisis may also provide new opportunities to connect with loved ones, and to reconnect with ourselves. “Maybe there’s more time for self-reflection. In our wired lives, we often don’t take that time to self-reflect, to reassess your values.”
“See this time as an opportunity for a reset — for yourself, your relationships, and your approach to your work,” Coleman suggests. “Take the time to take account, and to reprioritize.”
Tip #9: Recognize that it’s ok to be feel down, and talk to someone about it
It makes sense to feel distressed, and talking to someone about it can be helpful.
Greenspun says that in addition to talking to friends and loved ones, don’t hesitate to seek professional mental health support if you need it. A few resources she recommends: the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s disaster distress helpline (1-800-985-5990); the American Psychological Association help center; and students and staff at Columbia University can reach out to the Columbia Health Center.
Why good mental health is important right now
As the world slips into fear and uncertainty, it is easy to let your mental health fall by the wayside. But taking care of yourself mentally will help to build up your psychological resilience, enhance your immune system, and will ultimately make you better able to help other people and support your community during this difficult time.
What’s helping you to maintain your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic? Feel free to share tips in the comments below.