Saving Your Sanity During a Crisis

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NEW YORK—For many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic means we’re spending more time at home than we’re probably used to. We all know that this, fundamentally, is an act of love—we’re staying home so that hospitals don’t get overwhelmed, so that we don’t accidentally get our friends, family, and strangers sick, and so healthcare professionals can do their jobs with as little interference as possible. We all know we’re making a sacrifice to do a good thing—but, honestly, that doesn’t really make it any less of a difficult, unhappy situation.

Self-isolation and a global pandemic can be anxiety inducing for anyone. We’re enduring a collective trauma in real-time, and it’s really hard to find respite anywhere in that. But, as impossible as it may feel, we have to find moments of safety and serenity right now, because those moments will help us get through to the other side of this.

So how can we make sure that we’re staying as mentally healthy as possible, in the face of all of this? The truth is, it’s tough. It would be unfair (and dangerous) to act like it’s not—but it is possible. Here, VMail Weekend has sourced a range of professional and mental health advice for tackling this situation, as well as some of my own views and tips that have worked.

One of the first things to do is recognize how you’re feeling. The Centers for Disease Control have put together a great list of the ways anxiety can manifest itself in both adults and children, as well as in responders, who may have to grapple with Secondary Traumatic Stress, or STS, as they are working to save lives.

But once you know how you feel, what is there to do about it? The most common piece of advice across the board has been pretty simple: take breaks. There’s no need to watch the news twenty four seven, even though the situation is changing constantly, and, realistically, it’s not going to make you feel any better. Instead, turn the TV off for a bit, and stop the scroll. (I’ve deleted the Twitter app off my phone and used the Chrome extension BlockSite to block Facebook from my computer, as I realized scrolling through everyone I’ve ever known’s hot take on this situation was really making me spiral. It’s helped a lot—I really recommend it.)

Then, you can use the time you would’ve spent reading the news doing something that makes you feel better. You don’t have to discover a new hobby during this time—although it’s as good a time as any—but you can spend your time doing things you know you enjoy, like going for walks (while staying at least six feet away from others and washing your hands afterward), dancing in your living room, baking cookies, pulling out that 4,000 piece puzzle on your bookshelf, or rewatching every single episode of The Sopranos. Doing things you like is not just passing the time apathetically—it really is good for your brain. Speaking to Health, Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist, addiction psychiatrist, and associate professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University School of Public Health said, “Staying engaged in the world allows us to use the newer, more logical parts of our brain, making it less likely we will dwell on what's out of our control.”

You can also work out, which will release endorphins and likely lift your mood. Many gyms and studios are pivoting to online classes now, and YouTube is chock full of fantastic free workouts (I enjoy Yoga with Adrienne, PopSugar Fitness and Blogilates). Many streaming services are also offering distraction content right now: Scribd is offering 30 days of completely free access to its library of ebook, audiobooks, sheet music and magazines; Shudder (a streaming service dedicated to horror movies, if that’s what you’re into) is offering 30 free days with the code Shutin; and your local library is likely ramping up their virtual offerings, too. Celebrities are putting on virtual concerts, and some of the world's most famous museums have brought their collections online for virtual visits as well .

When you do watch the news, make sure you’re getting facts, not conjecture. Speaking to the New York Times, psychologist Harriet Lerner, Ph.D, said, “Under stress, people are unlikely to rethink the filters through which they see reality. It’s our responsibility to pay attention to our own most valued sources of information and to follow up-to-date instructions to the letter.” Stick to websites like the CDC, the WHO, and your local (state, county, town) health departments.

One of the biggest anxiety-inducers is feeling a lack of control. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommends focusing on things we can control when we feel anxious. Doreen Marshall, Ph.D, writes “A large part of anxiety comes from a sense of what we think we should be able to control, but can’t… There are things you can do, and it’s helpful to focus on those. Wash your hands. Remind others to wash theirs. Take your vitamins. Limit your consumption of news.” The AFSP also has incredibly helpful resources for if you feel yourself panicking or spiraling.

And, of course, don’t forget to connect. Social distance doesn’t have to mean being emotionally alone. Reach out to your friends and family (they’re just as bored and anxious as you are) via phone calls, text messages, or video chatting. Dr. Lerner said, “It’s essential to stay in communication with family, friends, neighbors and other resources and find ways to keep calm… People need to hear your voice—and vice versa.” No, a Zoom chat with your family isn’t the same as an actual family gathering—but it really will make you feel better.

Finally, for businesses, navigating communication during this crisis can be tricky. The Harvard Business Review has put together a comprehensive article that can help with internal and external communication. Paul A. Argenti writes, “When dealing with uncertainty, leaders need to look at communication from the perspective of your audience and have empathy for them rather than fear of doing the wrong thing.”

There’s no two ways around it: things are weird, and scary, and sad, and all sorts of unhappy adjectives right now. And, at the same time, I’m personally already a little tired of hearing people say how weird things are. For me, it just reinforces something I already know and doesn’t really help me figure out how to cope with how weird, and scary, and sad, and all sorts of unhappy adjectives, things actually are. Instead, I think it’s more useful for us to focus on what we can control, how we can get through what we’re experiencing (even if that means taking it, literally, second by second), and—most importantly—how we can support those around us.

Last week, someone said something to me that I hadn’t considered before: accepting the fact that this is happening doesn’t have to mean you’re okay with it. I’m not okay with this—none of us are—but it is happening. Now it’s up to us to adapt. Letting that go felt a little better, at least for me.