We know that the current state of the world can worsen underlying anxieties that many of us have. This may be particularly difficult for people who already have health anxiety and/or have other conditions. Disruptions to our routine, large or small, can also be hard to manage at a time when we are feeling vulnerable. Life is always uncertain, and we never know the future, but that feels so much more true right now.
Here are some ideas about coping with the mental health impact of this pandemic:
Be disciplined about your contact with the news. We all have the option of 24/7 news coverage, but that does not mean we should use it. Think ahead about how much exposure to the news you need to stay informed. Is it watching the TV news once per day? Or reading the paper for 20 minutes in the morning? For most people, exposure to the news once per day is probably sufficient to understand what is happening and to follow any directives from public health officials. Once you make a plan, try to stick to it. Reading more and more about this pandemic will probably NOT decrease your anxiety, even though it may feel that way.
Look for other things to focus your attention on. The key here is to be deliberate. If you are working from home or going to work, or doing schoolwork at home, focus on your work during those times. When your attention wanders, bring it back to your work, over and over. When not working, take care of your loved ones, and choose absorbing or meaningful activities. This could include physical activity, gardening as the weather gets better, reading books or listening to audiobooks, playing board games or video games, watching favorite TV shows, doing crafts, engaging in home improvement projects, cooking or baking, or listening to or making music.
Follow directions from public health officials. Peoples sometimes dismiss behavioral interventions, focusing instead on the need for new medications and ultimately a vaccine. However, we won’t have a vaccine for this disease for a while. In the meantime, there is evidence from previous outbreaks that public health interventions including hand washing, social distancing, and quarantine can effectively slow the spread of a disease like this. So follow the directions of public health authorities, and know that you are doing the right thing to protect the health of our entire community.
Practice kindness and compassion. Think about people in your community who may be isolated. Maybe they are older and/or have underlying health conditions so they need to stay home. Channel nervous energy toward reaching out to them via phone or email. Talk about things other than the pandemic.
Practice more kindness and compassion. This pandemic shows how interconnected human beings are throughout the world. There are reports of increasing racist sentiments directed toward people of Asian descent in this country. Stand up against racism and do what you can to lessen, not increase, the suffering of others.
Express gratitude to our healthcare workers. They go to work everyday and are on the front lines of coping with this disease. They are human too, and stress takes a toll on them. Others in the community can help by expressing appreciation and providing practical support to them.
More than anything, be brave. Bravery is not the absence of fear, and it certainly is not about doing foolish or risky things. Bravery is a decision, in the face of fear, sadness, or other distress, to continually orient one’s attention to what is right and just. Bravery includes following public health guidelines, making thoughtful decisions about your own behavior, reaching out to others, and doing what is in your power to ease the suffering of others.
To borrow from 12-step programs, take this one day (or one hour, or one minute) at a time. If today feels hard, just focus on getting through today.