With more coronavirus cases popping up every day and our screens offering an on-demand stream of COVID-19 coverage, while experiencing things we’ve never seen before like widespread school and sports cancellations, it can be hard not to become anxious. This coronavirus pandemic induces so much fear and anxiety in large part because it feels like there is so much beyond our control. While there is a lot we can’t control, there is a lot we can control. We can control our actions—the controllable health measures we’re already taking like washing our hands diligently, wiping down surfaces, and social distancing. Even more important for our mental health, we can also control our attitude and response to this situation.
We can choose to be an alarmist, spreading anxiety more quickly than the coronavirus via our conversations, social media posts, and by the media we consume and pass on. Or, we can choose to be a voice of calm—still appropriately cautious—spreading kindness by looking out for those more vulnerable than we are, posting something positive on social media, having an enjoyable conversation about something other than COVID-19, and taking it one day at a time.
There are myriad ways to maintain our mental health—and doing so is especially important for ourselves and our communities at a time like this. A lot of this might sound basic, but in a time when our routines of work, school, and socializing are being stripped from us, it’s worth refreshing foundational mental health tips for the sake of our well-being.
01. Cultivate gratitude
Practicing gratitude has been shown to increase one’s happiness, well-being, improve physical health, and improve relationships. Gratitude may even improve emotional regulation and protect people from stress. All of these are certainly benefits we could all use, especially in the current social climate.
A helpful practice always, that may be especially helpful (and interesting) now is to keep a gratitude journal, in which each day you write down at least one thing (or many!) you are grateful for. These can be seemingly small things (“the sunshine, talking to Joe”) or big things (“my health, being employed”) but the idea is to begin to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Even if you don’t intend to keep a gratitude journal, simply writing down or verbalizing things you are thankful for can shift your mindset from anxiety and panic to calm and appreciation.
02. Stay (virtually) connected with (positive) people
In her famed TED talk, “The secret to living longer may be your social life,” Psychologist and author Susan Pinker references the work done by BYU researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad on the strongest predictors of how long you’ll live. The top two factors were social aspects of a person’s life: “social integration,” or how much you interact with those you encounter, and “close relationships.” So, if the social aspect of our lives is important for our long-term health and happiness, not tending to it is likely not good for our health or happiness either. In times of intentional social distancing, it might be difficult or feel nearly impossible to connect with others. This is why continuing to have conversations—about topics other than the coronavirus—with your loved ones, near or far, is important.
Play board games or take a walk with your roommates, spouse, or family living at home with you. If you can’t see loved ones because of distance or isolation, even talking on the phone or FaceTime gets us away from the news and allows us to feel the social connection that we might feel deprived of with social distancing.
Anxiety fuels anxiety. On the other hand, calm begets calm, too, so talk to loved ones who make you feel known, loved, and secure—even in what feel like unknown and unsecure times. And let’s focus on helping each other stay positive instead of panicked.
03. Be (calmly) prepared
Obviously, part of what you can control is being poised and prepared without giving into the panic. Buying what you will need (food, medications, etc.) should you actually contract COVID-19 can give you a sense of calm and control. Of course, there is a difference between wisely and cautiously having the recommended 14-day supply of essentials to get by and frantically clearing the shelves of canned goods at the local supermarket and building a fortress of toilet paper.
04. When experiencing anxiety, practice mindfulness, deep breathing, or Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Don’t breeze past this one just because you’ve heard it before. As a marriage and family therapist, most of the clients I’ve recommended this to were skeptical at first. Often they had tried one of them before, albeit incorrectly or half-heartedly. Even if you don’t feel anxiety at the moment, learning these practices now will help keep anxiety at bay and prepare you for when you do feel anxious. If you are feeling anxious—your heart is racing, you’re physically tight or jittery, your mind is racing—with the overload of coronavirus news, take a few minutes to go to a quiet room by yourself. There, practice one (or more!) of the following methods:
Mindfulness: Research has shown that mindfulness can help reduce stress and anxiety. Mindfulness is simple, but not easy. Find a quiet space and take a seat. You can set a time limit on your phone, maybe five to fifteen minutes. First, notice how your body feels on the surface you’re sitting on. Second, begin to notice your breath pass in and out of your nose or mouth and focus on this sensation. When you notice that your mind has wandered, simply and non-judgmentally return your attention to your breath. This will happen over and over again, but every time you notice your mind has strayed from your breath, return your attention back to your breath.
Deep belly breathing: Deep belly breathing can slow your heartbeat and lower blood pressure, counteracting anxiety and stress in the moment. Again, deep belly breathing may be simple, but can be easily done incorrectly if not paying attention or rushing. First, sit or lie down (on your back) in a comfortable position, and place one hand on your belly and the other hand on your chest. Take a deep inhale, letting your belly fill with air, which should push the hand on your belly out while the hand on your chest remains still. Exhale, and feel your belly and the hand on it fall. Slowly, continue breathing in and out as you feel your belly rise and fall each time. Do this five to 10 times, or as long as you desire.
PMR: Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) also helps combat the stress response and can be practiced almost anywhere or any time. It involves intentionally tightening or flexing a set of muscles for a few seconds as you inhale, and then relaxing these muscles completely as you exhale, and noticing the difference in how your body feels. Then, you continue this alternating flexing/relaxing practice with each muscle group, relaxing each muscle group for 10 to 20 seconds before the next set, until you have covered your entire body. You can follow this list of muscle groups and how to contract them before totally relaxing them. In a pinch or in public, PMR can be practiced with just the hands or feet (several times over) to achieve the same result.
05. Get outside and exercise
Stave off cabin fever in times of social distancing or quarantine by getting outside and enjoying the fresh air. (Obviously, if you are actually sick, it's probably best to rest up inside.) But if you are not showing symptoms, going outside should be fine, especially if you can stay the recommended physical distance from others. Feeling like you’re cooped up can increase a sense of panic or anxiety, so taking a solo walk or walking with those you live with is important for your mental health. Additionally, going outside forces you to get away from the news and look up from social media, which is a necessary reprieve when trying to keep a calm perspective. It certainly doesn’t hurt that natural sunlight provides immune-boosting vitamin D and fresh air is good for your physical and mental health, too.
Taking a walk, going for a jog, or even doing some bodyweight exercises or yoga right in your living room can help alleviate stress, lift your mood (hello endorphins!), and improve sleep, among other benefits. Additionally, Dr. Elisa Song, MD, states that “Moderate exercise can boost the production of macrophages, the kind of white blood cells that “eat” bacteria and viruses. However, intense exercise can actually temporarily decrease immune function.” So make sure to keep exercise moderate if you’re feeling stressed already, but getting that heart rate up and flexing those muscles can do a lot for your mental health.
06. Prioritize sleep
We all know sleep is good for our physical health (and who isn’t all about that right now), but sleep is also essential for our mental health. Consolidated sleep allows us to enter REM sleep, which aids our emotional health, while sleep disruption or deprivation wreaks havoc on emotional regulation. Most of us don’t need studies to tell us this. Life experience has provided most of us enough anecdotal evidence to know how much more emotionally stable and able to tolerate emotional discomfort we are when we are well rested, versus how easily we may become emotionally dysregulated when sleep deprived. So at a time when anxiety is running high, make sure to get plenty of sleep to help manage stress.
07. Practice self-care and boundaries by limiting what you consume
The sensationalism around coronavirus in the media and the experience of going to the store (and seeing panicked shoppers or empty store shelves) can cause even the calmest person to panic. But the truth is that stressing over the coronavirus is more likely to weaken your immune system—and who needs that right now? Although it’s easier said than done, reduce stress around the subject by limiting your intake of news and social media, which have an instant, constant, and never-ending amount of fear-inducing information on the topic. Rather, stick to the facts and what is known for sure about COVID-19 (as opposed to speculations, projections, or opinions). And do something other than read the news.
Self care might include reading a book, enjoying an at-home date with your spouse after the kids go to bed, or splitting a bottle of wine with your roommates. Often, though, self-care looks less Instagrammable and more like putting up boundaries and validating your emotions.
Acknowledge your anxious thoughts and emotions by sharing them with a friend or writing them in a journal. Put up boundaries for how much you will watch the news or go on Twitter, or for conversations with that overly-anxious relative. Setting boundaries with an anxious loved one or co-worker may seem awkward or difficult, but it can be as simple as saying, “Bob, I know you’re nervous about the coronavirus, and so am I. I’m trying to manage my stress about it though, so can we talk about something else?” Or, simply try, “Mom, I’m getting uncomfortable discussing this so much. Do you mind if we take a break?” If you’re getting an onslaught of texts from a friend or family member, texting back “Thanks for the info, Susie. I have what I need to know right now, but I appreciate your concern for me. I will reach out if I have any questions.” Most people will respect your request for reasonable boundaries.
Certainly, we’re dealing with uncharted waters with the coronavirus pandemic, with measures being taken that we may have never witnessed before. However, it is within our power to manage stress and anxiety as, clearly, there are many things we can do. Start with one of them today, and be the force of calm in a world of unknown chaos.