I write to you as a social worker with a private clinical practice outside of Boston, and a mom to three kids. I work with 20+ patients every week to help guide them with their mental health. This week, I had to diligently remind myself — sometimes out loud, and many times per day — to “take my own advice!”
Like many of us, my parents and extended relatives are in the high risk group for contracting and suffering the worst of the COVID-19 virus. In particular, my mom has a chronic lung disease that makes this super scary for me. By now, most of us live in an area that is encouraging social distancing and working from home, and that can be hard on us as we are social creatures.
So I’d like to offer you some ideas based on what I’m doing. I hope these might make this time less stressful for you, and for all of us…
1. Limit your Exposure to Information.
One of the biggest challenges of our time is the constant barrage of “breaking news” that is available to us 24/7. We want to stay informed and know what’s going on, especially if our schools, churches and events are closing and being cancelled by the minute. We want to support the movements like #flattenthecurve that might help spread out the impact of this virus and decrease the risks of overloading regional hospital systems. We have a natural curiosity as humans that sometimes makes it hard to “turn away.”
And yet, that drive for being constantly plugged in to every moment of this global pandemic is not helping our ability to stay calm. So, my advice is to turn off the TV/radio for a while, put your phone in a different room, and give yourself actual time limits to activities related to reading articles and scrolling social media (and when you do those things please look for and stick to reputable sources). My microwave timer is sometimes my best friend.
2. Increase your Tolerance to Uncertainty.
My clients — and my children as they get older — would tell you that I believe tolerating the uncertainty of life is one of the hardest parts of being human. We simply cannot know what is going to happen next month, next week or even in the next hour. When scary things are happening around us, that feeling of not being able to control our environment can increase exponentially. You may feel on edge right now and wonder if that’s normal. I can promise you that it makes a lot of sense. Being around (or even hearing about) people who are understandably worried about their health, their jobs, their ability to pay their rent or mortgage, etc. is impacting your own mental health, even if you aren’t worried about those things for yourself right now. And the reality is that life as we know it is going to be different for a while. There is going to be disappointment and social isolation and illness, and we need to help each other get through this time together — virtually, of course.
The good news is that there are a number of things you can do to work on your ability to manage anxiety and decrease stress. The first, if you are actively in a state of distress, is to help your nervous system get out of fight, flight or freeze mode. When your brain responds to stress it sends hormones to your nervous system alerting that there is danger present and it urges you to fight the danger, run from it, or freeze. For right now there actually isn’t a deadly immediate threat (as if a tiger were chasing a caveman) like your brain wants you to believe. That being said, you may be taking care of someone who is ill or is facing a serious threat, and these will ideas will be helpful for you too.
3. Learn and Practice Stress Management Skills and Strategies.
One of the best ways to increase our tolerance to uncertainty and get out of that fight, flight or freeze mode is the Relaxing Breath that follows this 4–7–8 technique:
If your distress is more severe and/or you have more time, the following is a great series to learn and practice. It takes about 45 minutes to do all the skills, but holy moly, it works to get your nervous system back into balance! It’s called the TIPP skill, from a form of therapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (or DBT) and it goes like this:
Some tried-and-true ways to manage stress include prayer, meditation, and yoga. More novel methods involve healthy distraction techniques, gratitude practices, daily affirmations, and challenging one’s irrational thoughts.
My good friend and clinical psychologist, Lindsey Overstreet, PsyD says, “I like The Five Minute Journal. I leave it on my nightstand, and each morning, it prompts for gratitude and affirmations. Then at night, you write three good things from your day. I notice a huge difference in my outlook when I fill it out versus not, and it really only takes 5 minutes a day. There’s also an app, if you’re more inclined to do it on your phone.”
Also, don’t forget to laugh! My grandmother used to say that laughter is the best medicine and in times like this, I know she was right. Give yourself permission to binge-watch those comedies right now to get your daily dose of laughter.
Some of my favorite bumper sticker phrases that I use and teach frequently are: Don’t believe everything you think and Where is the evidence for that? And, if you need medication or want to try CBD oil — like I did this week with incredible results — don’t hesitate to ask for help. Check with your physician about dosing, but the benefits are real and important. Now is not the time to be a martyr.
My good friend and spiritual healer, Astrid, reminds me to make a cup of tea, or better yet, an appointment with myself for a regular tea break. Get comfy in your favorite chair, look out the window and daydream. Join the Slow Food movement. Take the time to make things by hand you don’t normally have time for. Savor the experience as much as the meal.
Free and discounted apps and memberships are being made available to us right now, from wonderfully generous organizations. Check these out:
When we feel out of control, and perhaps have a little more time on our hands than we’re used to, spending excessive time in our heads isn’t always pretty. However, when we are able to focus our mental energy elsewhere, it can really help our mental health. It’s a great time to tackle that deep cleaning project you’ve been wanting to get to; clean out the kids closets and get bags ready for donating; or buy some extra groceries the next time you go to the store and make a drop off at your local food pantry. Do try to resist buying more toilet paper than you need — your neighbors will thank you! When you go on your daily walks, bring along a trash bag and some gloves and pick up along your way.
Doing things for others can also make us feel really good. Think about the local shops and eateries you love that need your business right now and buy a gift card online that you can use (not my original idea, but a good one!). Write an article or blog post, or shoot a video of yourself doing something that could be helpful to your friends or family. You have skills and gifts to offer — don’t be afraid to share them with people! Find ways to engage your kids in understanding what it means to take care of other people and do what’s right, even if that means your Disney vacation in April was cancelled!
5. Find Structure and Routine, but Be Flexible.
We are creatures of habit: going to work, getting a coffee on the way, listening to our favorite radio station and chatting with our colleagues all before 9:00 a.m. These might be a part of your day that you really miss, now that you are working from home. And that’s only a fraction of it! To create some normalcy, try to find a new rhythm to your day. Take some of the ideas from #2; add some yoga poses into the beginning of your day or some meditation before bedtime. Stick to regular bedtimes and wake times, and take a shower and get dressed before going to login at work. Being in your PJ’s might feel good for the first day or two but it may not help your mood if you let that habit take hold.
If you are home with your kids, I would like to pass along some advice from my good friend Lauren Bellon, who calls herself an accidental homeschooler:
“Don’t try to recreate school. Won’t work. Go to the beach. Walk in the woods. Ride bikes. Look at the stars. Breathe together. Facilitate learning, sure. Have a rhythm and routine to your days, sure. But I promise that if you try to make your living room over into your kid’s classroom… it’s not gonna go the way you hope it will. Spend some time getting into their interests with them. Research the things they want to know about together. Build stuff in Minecraft alongside them. Watch news coverage that is age appropriate. CNN10 is bite-sized and made for kids. Read out loud. Have a family book club. But really, for your sanity and theirs, don’t pretend to be their teacher or feel like you are supposed to be.”
6. Don’t Forget the Basics.
My social work interns years ago nicknamed me the Ambassador of Self Care. It’s a title I have been proud to carry in my practice and my life for the last twelve years. Self care helps us be the best version of ourselves and to show up in the world in the best ways we know how. We won’t be any good to anyone else if our cups are empty and our reserves are drained. We need physical activity every day. Go for daily walks, or do more intense exercise if you’re up for it, but make sure to get out in the fresh air at least once or twice a day. Find ways to connect to nature. Take some of that commuting time you’ve shaved off and take a drive to a wooded trail. We need good quality sleep and enough of it — aim for at least 7 to 8 hours per night. We need to eat healthy, nutritious foods and drink lots of water. Please don’t forget these simple things you can do for yourself right now. Even if this is the only Do Something you can manage, it’s enough.
7. Embrace the Stillness.
This one isn’t easy. I get that. You may not be there yet, and that is okay. But life is slowing down in a collective way most of us haven’t seen in our lifetimes before. We can choose to see the gift and the opportunity of that if we let ourselves. I would say we have to get really good at #1 and #2 before we can access this one, though. So work on those and get to a place where you are doing okay, and then come back and read this poem.
And don’t forget to wash your hands.
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath —
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love —
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
~ Lynn Ungar