by Erin Fitzpatrick
Edited by: Jeanie Hartranft
21 March 2020
Seven Critical Tips for Maintaining Mental Health Through Our Current Crisis
As the effects of the international pandemic of COVID-19 continue to spread, it’s safe to say that March of 2020 hasn’t exactly gone as expected. With our plans for Spring (and probably Summer) mostly off the rails, many of us are experiencing new levels of anxiety as we watch supplies disappear from grocery stores and hear sobering news reports of the spreading disease. Let’s not forget about the disappointment over the cancellation of planned events and the additional stress of kids (who were supposed to be in school) eating through the aforementioned supplies and the need of us as parents to become their teachers.
However, in times like this, it is important to remember that the only thing most of us can control is how we respond to the situation. We must realize that we will be much more likely to respond in a constructive way, be better able to perform our own duties and effectively take care of others if we are well taken care of. While there is an abundance of information available on self-care, I’ve put together a list of tactics specifically for this crisis situation. It is my hope that this information can assist as we weather this storm together.
1. Be Kind to Yourself--Adjust Your Standards
In a situation like this one, where the rhythm of life has completely changed tempo for many of us, it can be helpful to re-evaluate and adjust your standards. What is most important to you? What NEEDS to happen? In what areas can you be a little more lax than usual? First, identify those areas where you just can’t compromise. Communicate those things to the people in your household and explain when necessary. Set boundaries and expectations around those standards.
In some areas, standards may need to be lowered. Adjusting your standards for a tidy living room and accepting that it just might stay messy until the kids are back at school is important. Maybe you might not be able to get your work done as quickly from home as you could in the office. You can help keep from beating yourself up about these things and instead come up with a more constructive response. Set new, realistic goals and again set boundaries and limitations.
In other contexts, setting standards a little higher may help you to love yourself a little more and make this uncertain time a little easier. For some of us, a messy living room increases anxiety, and as we are spending so much more time in our living rooms these days as it doubles as our home office, making the effort to keep it tidy can be a big win for our mental health. But if you just can’t seem to keep up with the clutter of your new normal, give yourself a break. Forgive yourself. It’s okay. This is temporary. You can do this.
Everyone has different needs, limits, and resource levels, so this process will look different for each household. The Important thing is that re-evaluating our standards to make sure they are realistic and helpful for meeting our needs during this time can go a long way.
2. Practice Mindfulness + Boost Immunity
Feeling like things are moving around you too quickly? Practicing mindfulness is just a good tip for health in everyday life, but it is especially helpful in times of crisis. Numerous studies prove the effectiveness of mindfulness in reducing anxiety and depression, and the results show that it even rewires your brain to make you better able to respond to life’s difficulties. One study from 2003 even found that mindfulness meditation can increase immune function! (Davidson et. al.).
Currently there are many apps and online resources for mindfulness meditations and strategies available for free or for a very low cost (Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer, etc.). I know it can be difficult for some of us to find time for ourselves with everyone at home, however giving yourself 10 minutes a day to complete a mindfulness exercise may help you to cope with the stress of the current situation. It may even give your immune system a little boost as a bonus!
3. Be Real--Recognize your Strengths, Weaknesses and Needs
How is your new normal going? With everyone in your home likely off their normal routine, you might find yourself getting more agitated or irritated and not be able to put a finger on why.
One reason could be that needs you have that were being met before this crisis are no longer being met. An obvious one is the difficulty many extroverts who are practicing social distancing or quarantine measures are experiencing. I can also give you a not-so-obvious example from my own life. I was fortunate enough to take the CliftonStrengthsFinder assessment and learn that my top themes include Intellection, Learner, Achiever, and Input. Normally, I am able to use these strengths both at work and in my academic pursuits, however the Coronavirus turned me from student/career woman to homeschooling mom of preschoolers pretty much overnight.
With my kids at home all day and my work schedule shifted, I am not able to spend the same amount of time deeply examining problems and in introspection, and I am definitely not able to get as much done. This has been very frustrating for me, but once I realized that much of my agitation came from not being able to meet my intellectual and achievement needs, I was able to shift my approach. I still cannot spend as much time as I would like to on my own pursuits, but I carve out time every day to make sure I have time for them.
It might be helpful to take a good, hard look at your own needs and strengths and examine whether some of them are not being met or used during this time. If so, coming up with a creative way to use your strengths and meet your needs will probably help you to feel less unsettled and more at ease in your new lifestyle.
4. Reach Out--Stay in Touch at a Social Distance
People are made for connection, exchanging ideas, stories, heartache, fear, joy and love. Therefore, one of the most painful experiences many of us can have is isolation. Finding ways to stay connected while you’re at home helping to fight this pandemic can go a long way. This is especially important if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, as it is much easier to sink deeper into isolation when you’re depressed, even though it is a time when you need others the most. Try to reach out to others. Take a group walk (using social distancing, of course), send a text, call a friend, or maybe even set up a daily or weekly FaceTime date.
Social media can be great, but scrolling through a feed is not a substitute for contact with others, and some studies even show a correlation between social media and anxiety and depression (Keles, B., McCrae, N, & Grealish, A. (2019). Knowing when to sign off of social media and reach out to a friend or family member is an important part of taking care of yourself in high-stress situations. We are all grappling with this situation, and sharing this experience with others will make it much easier to face.
5. Let Go--Connect with Something Bigger
As you try to do it all and be everything to everyone, stop for a moment and allow yourself to let something go. While you may feel out of control during a crisis, you can’t remain in control of things beyond your real scope of influence. You can’t control this pandemic, but you can do your part and encourage those around you to do theirs.
The world is changing every minute and your new normal is just not comfortable. Try to connect with something greater than yourself. It might be God, or the Universe, or nature. It might be humanity as a whole and the knowledge that your ancestors have faced challenges, survived, and thrived for thousands of years on this planet. It might even just be the sense of community in your town or apartment complex. Whatever it is for you, taking a step back and remembering that there is something bigger than your own experience is helpful for putting this in context. It is incredibly difficult, especially for some of us, but it will not last forever. This new normal is temporary.
6. Embrace the New Normal--Create a New Routine
Frustrated because you can’t do the things you used to right now? How about creating rituals and routines that help you maximize your limited time and energy. In a time when so many things are unpredictable and out of our control, specifically implementing rituals and routines can help life to feel a little more manageable.
These don't have to be sweeping changes to your life. Maybe you add a mindfulness meditation at the beginning of every day, a cup of tea while the kids nap or watch a show, or just making the commitment to shower and get dressed every morning! Whatever you do, implementing these little, predictable rituals of self-care can go a long way towards helping you to feel a bit more at home in your new normal and more in control of your immediate surroundings, even if you cannot control anything else.
7. You Are Not Alone--It’s Okay to Ask for Help
Anxiety levels through the roof? Join the club. Many of us are experiencing elevated levels of stress right now, however for some of us, our experience goes beyond a little extra anxiety. Pay attention to what you are experiencing, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Telehealth mental health options are expanding in many states due to the current situation, and crisis hotlines exist for those who feel they are at risk for self- harm or other-harm. Pick up the phone, text, message.
If you feel that your emotions or mental health challenges are making it difficult to get through the day and you are finding it difficult to perform basic tasks, like feeding yourself three square meals or concentrating on work for a normal period, you do not have to suffer alone. Reach out to your doctor or therapist who will help you gain perspective. Even if you just need someone to help you process what is going on, consider seeking professional help. Many of us need a little extra support during this time; don’t be afraid to go looking for it.
We are all together in this fight and yet many of us feel like we are fighting it alone. Whether you are now in lockdown, still traveling to work everyday, or on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, it is a battle that can only be won if we do our part. To the new professionals-turned-full-time-homeschool-teachers, I see you (and you should check out the links here). To those still working essential jobs, I see you. To the healthcare and other front-line workers, I see you. Thank you all for doing your part in saving so many lives at this time. Be kind to one another. Be well.
About the author:
Erin Fitzpatrick is an events director for a small nonprofit and a mom of two preschoolers. She is wrapping up her Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and currently works at a substance abuse center, where she runs a group for recovering addicts, covering topics including boundaries, self-care, impulse control, trauma, depression, and anxiety. She can be reached at Success@FindingStrengths.com.
About the artist:
Drawings about life, mental health, yoga, and other stuff in my brain.
Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S.F., … Sheridan, J.F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564-570.
Keles, B., McCrae, N, & Grealish, A. (2019). A systematic review: The influence of social media on depression, anxiety and psychological distress in adolescents. International Journal of Adolescents and Youth, 25(1), 79-93.