Whatever your reaction to Coronavirus has been so far, you most likely have experienced that weird gut reaction that something is just different in the world right now. Schools have been closing, people are working from home, and grocery stores seem to run out of basic necessities.
What is all this doing to your mental health and sense of well-being?
In general, transitions are the very worst times for humans, as far as mental health goes. In fact, the psychology world recently created another diagnosis for humans going through big changes, called Adjustment Disorder for the (usually) temporary distress that comes from adjusting to new circumstances. So, obviously, Coronavirus is providing plenty of change.
(In reality, the reactions our bodies and minds have to change aren't "disorders" and are really normal, but most of the health world is still operating from a position of pathology instead of health, so... you know how it goes.)
What can you do for your mental health?
There are four big things:
1. Maintain meaningful connections
2. Create or maintain a routine
3. Work on your big 3: food, exercise, rest
4. Reframe your condition
1. Maintain meaningful connections
As far as stress and identity go, the heart of being a human is tribe, family, and community. We aren’t lone polar bears who roam the tundra in isolation most of their lives. Some of us prefer more or less social interaction, but think of the last time you were with “safe people,” whatever that means to you—family, work buddies, military family, faith group, safe space, etc.
If you have the chance to be in a setting where none of you has to hide or be filtered, you begin to really relax. Your body shuts off many of its alert systems and you can actually rest.
When medieval peasants fled to a secure fortress or castle, the warm hearth, bread, soup, and company were all signals that they could finally put their stress at bay, talk about what they experienced, and safely rest that night.
Your body can't rest through a conscious choice—it needs all the right pieces before it will automatically de-stress and rest.
Security reduces our perception of threat, which is a vital ingredient to the automatic physiological processes that precede rest.
In modern science, the way they’ve tested this idea is through the experience of pain with and without the presence of a safe, secure person in the room. It turns out that people that are put through the same scary or painful experiences in a lab will report the actual pain or fear they experience much lower if a safe, secure person is with them.
It’s just how we’re built—human brains will treat threats as less significant if another safe human is with them. So do yourself a favor and get some good humans around you consistently!
By “meaningful connection,” I don’t mean liking their memes or following their Instagram stories. We’re talking about honest, vulnerable, quality moments with someone where you can really be seen in what you’re feeling and going through at a time like this.
I’m pretty sure we’ve all had the experience of being constantly surrounded by people while feeling completely alone. It’s not the actual physical proximity that matters, but the emotional proximity. So get close, whether that’s in person or through a video chat. Let yourself be seen and comforted. (By humans too.)
2. Create or maintain a routine
We are creatures of habit. One of the reasons is so that we can divert more brain power to the things that actually matter in the moment. And the more tasks and movements we can assign to habit or automatic muscle memory, the more active brain space we have to focus on other things.
Remember what it’s like to watch a toddler learning to walk? Every single ounce of focus is on the simple action of lifting a foot and leg, and then placing it down again. It takes 100% of their focus to make it work. Over time, though, the body memorizes it and frees up a bunch of brain space for other things.
Nowadays, you can probably walk, chew gum, hold your phone to your face, talk to someone, find your car keys, start your car, and drive home, all while still engaging in a conversation. Your body has done the FindKeys-PutInCar-DriveHome routine so many times that it memorized it, and freed up your mind to take care of more important things.
During times like these, there is already so much new and unknown that your brain is getting filled quickly with new things that will inevitably require energy from other parts. Getting into a routine ensures you’re getting the necessary healthy things as well as letting your brain shut off the “New Place/Activity” Alarm System that always kicks on when you’re in an unknown place or doing something for the first time.
Routines can feel very comforting to your nervous system. So give it a shot.
It can be as simple as:
-Every day I wake up at the same time and do the same thing for 30 min
-I walk the same trail each day for 30 min
-I watch the same TV show during lunch as a reset from my morning
Let yourself entertain a few good options, then pick one and stick with it for at least a week, hopefully longer. The longer it goes, the more familiar your body will be with it, and the more quickly and easily it will find comfort.
3. Work on your Big 3: food, exercise, rest
The hardware for your mental health is housed in this thing we call your body. And it impacts your mental health in huge ways. So, getting the big 3 taken care of each day can do wonders for you. Some people can run okay with only one or two of the Big 3 going well, but most people do their best when all three are in good shape.
There are plenty of things said about what’s good to eat right now, and of course you can pick something that lines up with your values. But know that food can play a big part in how you feel and think. So if things start to really get crazy in your life, look at how, what, when, and why you eat and change it up if you need to.
So much has also been said about the benefit of good exercise, with some people saying it’s one of the single most useful things to improve health. For example, the Mayo Clinic says it
-combats health conditions and diseases
-promotes better sleep
-puts the spark back into your sex life
-can be fun and social
Self quarantine can be a great time to start a daily walking habit, a High-Intensity Interval Training program, or any other form of movement. Give it a try and see! And if you’re really invested in a life-changing program, check out Wim Hof’s stuff.
Good exercise is also one of the best ways to do the next part—rest.
This section is entitled Rest—not Sleep—for a reason, because it seems that we humans don’t so much need actual sleep as we need rest. Strangely enough, some people only know how to rest when they’re sleeping, while others can sleep for 9 hours and not feel “rested.” So the goal here is actual rest, not sleep, although sleep is an obvious place to find that rest.
Many of the automatic restorative and healing programs in our system can only run when we are relaxed, calm, and undistracted.
This principle saved my life when our twins were born. Twins hit us pretty hard as new parents in Grad School, for a lot of reasons. In short, we decided that getting real solid rest was essential for our survival. So, each night we took 6-hr sleeping shifts in a separate room with white noise, one of us from 8PM-2AM and the other from 2AM-8AM. In addition to the 6 hours of straight rest, we got to rest for several hours while we were on duty because the kids slept decently, waking to eat pumped milk every few hours.
Those 6 hours of solid rest, where our minds knew that our partner was in charge and would handle anything, completely relieved us of that inner nagging feeling that keeps so many people from truly resting. And we got true rest and survived. Hallelujah.
Googling sleep hygiene can really help anyone who has trouble with sleep, although the issue may be more about getting you to truly rest instead of just sleep. Try to remember a time in your life when you felt you could truly rest, and replicate the ingredients that made those moments possible. You may also consider something like meditation to achieve true rest. Here’s a great listen for stuff like that.
4. Reframe your condition
First, I do NOT recommend doing this step if you haven’t gotten a handle on the others. More specifically, I do not recommend reframing as a way to get out of or deny what emotions are really coming up during times like these.
If, however, you’ve had time to really feel what’s happening for you and have had time to process and share with someone, reframing can be a great way to make it through something.
Simply put, reframing puts a new spin on what’s going on:
+We’re all stuck at home and this sucks… becomes
+Wow, I get to be home with loved ones so much more than usual.
+I’m so scared about my family and health… becomes
+It’s nice to be forced to really reckon with what I value in life. And I’m going to make some changes.
And so on…
A real life example given in the conversation I linked above is that there is currently a large group of people that paid a lot of money to go on a silent, self-quarantined retreat for meditation. So this quarantine is basically that same thing, but just cheaper! Way to go, you!
What are the worst things in this situation?
How can these circumstances provide you with experiences and moments that you would never have otherwise?
Let these answers take you to more meaningful engagement with the circumstances instead of continual despair and victimhood—again, not to deny what’s going on inside you, but to have something meaningful to do moving forward.
Take it home
If this all seems overwhelming, you’re not alone. Find someone you can talk to, schedule a session with me or someone who does this for a living, and thrive! This doesn’t have to be a time of stagnation or decay for your mind, body, or relationships.
The state of Arkansas just authorized all mental health professionals to provide counseling services via phone or the internet for the next few months as the virus affects all of us. Please also take advantage of good articles, podcasts, and resources to stay healthy and happy through this time.