Self-care, wellness, and emotional health in the age of coronavirus
We could all use a hug right now.
The coronavirus pandemic has not just put us into physical danger, it has played havoc with our mental and emotional health. Stress levels are through the roof. Some 36% of the public says the pandemic has had a “serious impact” on their mental health. Online therapy sites report jumps of 50% to 65% in the number of people using their services since mid-February 2020.1
So if you’re feeling anxious and stressed out these days, you’re in good company.
From our series Strategies for the New Normal
That doesn’t mean you should take it in stride, though. Instead of letting events overwhelm us, it’s better to develop healthy new habits that are good for our well-being. A regular routine filled with purposeful activities has been shown to offer some nice health benefits for us.
Below we offer advice from health experts on how to cope. But first, just how much anxiety are you experiencing?
Signs of high anxiety
The CDC said it’s common during infectious disease outbreak to experience the following:
• Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones
• Changes in sleep or eating patterns
• Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
• Worsening of chronic health problems
• Worsening of mental health conditions
• Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
With the current pandemic, you can also factor in people’s uncertainty about when this is going to end, said Dr. Sue Varma, a board-certified psychiatrist and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. “The fact that we are in this situation of social isolation, social distancing and not having a clear end point, I think is really hard for some people.”
The very uncertainty of whether we have the virus is another factor contributing to our anxiety.
The stress doesn’t end there, though. “The other part is that when we want to grieve our losses,” Dr. Varma told Doctor Radio, “the losses are multiple. They’re on a medical and health level, loss of life, injury. We’re also seeing financial losses, economic losses. But we don’t get the opportunity as a community to come together and grieve in this coronavirus situation. Typically a hug, a gathering, maybe a funeral — these things are not happening.”
Not only are those outlets closed off but typical coping mechanisms like going to the movies, a ballgame, a concert, or other healthy distraction has also been taken away.2
If you have children, that adds yet another level of anxiety. (See the top section of Chapter 7.)
So how should you manage your mental and emotional health?
Breaking the cycle of stress
First, understand that stress isn’t always a bad thing. It’s what makes us study for tests and stick to important tasks until they’re finished.
But when stress overwhelms our other senses and fear and panic sets in, it’s not healthy. A tense mental state can produce stress hormones. Fear and anxiety flood the brain. We become unable to think clearly and make poor decisions. Stress symptoms such as inability to focus, a racing heart, or churning stomach can compromise our physical and psychological well-being.
How do we cope and not get overwhelmed by all the onrushing new realities? Maybe it’s the loss of a job or income, a family member who falls ill, difficult interactions with friends and family members, or concern about an elderly parent or grandparent catching the virus.
You (along with the rest of us) won’t be rid of all the stress in your life anytime soon. But you can reduce it to manageable levels by breaking the cycle and resetting your brain.
Don’t forget the senses and the body, too
If you’re having panic attacks or suffering from high anxiety, you’re not powerless. Use your body. Stimulate your sense of sound, taste, smell, touch, sight. Listen to calming music, oldies, jazz, or classical music — whatever brings you joy. Bake cookies or apple pie and take in the sentimental smells. Try placing your hands or feet into a bowl of clean warm water. Find a local walking trail and look and listen for wildlife. Try a new experience.3
Eat well and mindfully. Eating junk food will cloud your mind and make you feel sluggish and gain weight, all counterproductive if you want to keep yourself healthy and be able to rise to the challenges of the day. Drink plenty of water to keep hydrated. If you’re getting less exercise than usual, curb your eating a little. Be creative with the food you have in your stash. There are resources online to help find recipes — plus plenty of engaging amateur chefs on YouTube.
Set aside a specific number of minutes per day for exercise. Dancing in the kitchen counts. So does vigorous housework. Keep moving — it’s good for your health and that big brain of yours.
There are endless videos online to help you come up with a home workout, even if you don’t have any equipment. Here’s a Latin Zumba, if that’s your thing. Or search on “Alo Moves yoga” or “cardio Udaya” on YouTube.
Don’t forget to get outside into the fresh air if you can — just keep your distance from others.
Take charge of your emotional health
Here are 10 ways to sustain yourself and your family during the difficult days ahead. These techniques should help you reduce your anxiety, balance yourself, and take control of your mental and emotional well-being for as long as the pandemic lasts.
1. Calm yourself with a breathing exercise
Medical students are jokingly reminded that in an emergency, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” — and that happens to be good advice for us all.
When you start feeling the urge to rush out to buy 100 rolls of toilet paper, take a moment to breathe, pause, and ask yourself, “Do I really need to do this?” It feels good to leap into action, but taking a few minutes to take stock of your situation will serve you better in the long run.
Here’s a breathing exercise that’s calming and easy to do:
• Get into a comfortable position. Lie down on the bed, your sofa, or your floor.
• Place a pillow under your head and knees.
• Close your eyes.
• Take a deep breath through your nose. Let your lungs fill with air.
• Breathe out through your nose.
• Place one hand on your stomach. Breathe in and feel your stomach rise.
• Take three more deep, cleansing breaths.
2. Talk with a close friend, sibling, or relative
Reach out to someone you trust about your anxiety. You can make this a phone call, but it’s even better if you make it a video chat so you can see each other’s expressions. Good free video chat services or apps include Apple’s FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber, and Google Meet. If you do video, put on a nice shirt; it’ll make you feel better.
Don’t unload a stress bomb on your pal. Instead, mention how you’re feeling and see if you can swap stories about calmer, happier times. Think of mutual friends who are upbeat and supportive. Make a vow to visit someplace fun together after this is all over — think of some of the places you love and haven’t been to in a while.
During the call, stay focused on calming down and don’t wander into stressful topics like politics or how the virus is impacting your life. (Panic is infectious — don’t infect others!) Stay positive. Stay aware of how that person makes you feel during and after the conversation. If they make you feel worse, find someone else! Don’t limit yourself to one person if you need a booster shot of calmness in a day or two.
3. Avoid triggering situations
Are you watching the news nonstop or getting into flame wars on Facebook? You may not even be fully aware of the triggers that set you off emotionally. Try to identify which apps, online interactions, podcasts, or television programs evoke worry and concern.
Our advice: Wean yourself from the latest news. Step away from the computer or your smartphone and immerse yourself in more positive pursuits that deserve your energy and attention. Try something analog or old-fashioned — garden, read a book, sharpen your photography skills. Once you avoid your triggers, you’re ready for Tip №4.
4. Practice progressive muscle relaxation
Are you tensed up? Pandemics will do that. If you’re carrying tension somewhere in your body, try progressive muscle relaxation, a physician-approved technique that’s been around since the 1930s. It’s based on the simple practice of tensing, or tightening, one muscle group at a time followed by a relaxation phase with release of the tension. People with insomnia have reported that practicing progressive muscle relaxation at night helps them fall asleep.
Which muscle groups to focus on? It could be the neck and shoulders, legs, knees, forehead, jaw, arms and hands, buttocks, feet.
Set aside 10 to 20 minutes a day. Choose a place where you won’t be interrupted. Lie on the floor or recline in a chair, loosen any tight clothing, and remove glasses or contacts. Rest your hands in your lap or on the arms of the chair. Here are the simple steps:
• Breathe in and hold it. Tense or contract one muscle group (not to the point of pain) for 5 to 10 seconds.
• Exhale and completely relax the muscle group all at once (do not relax it gradually).
• Relax for 10 to 20 seconds. Then move on to the next muscle group.
• Gradually work your way up the body contracting and relaxing various muscle groups. Each time you release the tension, focus on the changes you feel when the muscle group is relaxed. Imagery or soothing music may be helpful in conjunction with release of the tension.
5. Carve out some alone time
Finding work-life balance in the time of coronavirus is no easy task. Compounding that challenge is when there’s a new dynamic in the household, such as both partners now being home together.
Discuss with your partner or spouse the benefits of you both having some dedicated alone time or “me time.” Give yourself permission to bring up the subject — it’s vital for every one of us, in order to function as humans, to have time to ourselves. Whether it’s an hour a day to focus on a hobby or new skill or just to relax, have a positive conversation with your partner, not as an ask or a demand but as a constructive way to support each other. If you’re a mom or dad who’s now taking care of the kids’ schooling needs on top of everything else, that can be overwhelming. Be sure to trade off with your partner and then go off and do your own thing without feeling guilty.
6. Explore the mind-body connection
There’s a well-established connection between the physical body and your mental well-being. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, stretching exercises, and listening to music or guided imagery tracks are all proven methods for achieving emotional wellness and attaining a sense of balance and harmony. So is mindfulness — don’t scoff! Without getting all crunchy granola on you, mindfulness is available to us in every moment, and it has changed lives. To get started, check out the mindfulness app Headspace.
Here’s another idea: When was the last time you gave your partner a back rub or massage? You don’t need to be a master masseuse or Masseur to relieve the stress knots in your partner’s upper back and neck muscles. Chances are, your partner will return the favor.
In this time of physical distancing, we miss the power of human touch. Revel in it with someone you care about.
7. Find meaning in what you’re doing
Look for the good around you. Although our lives have been turned upside down, there may be some positive aspects to your situation, whether it’s getting to play or talk more with family members or getting to wear PJs or a bathrobe to work.
8. Don’t dwell on what you can’t control
Focus on things you can control, such as your thoughts, behaviors, and actions. If you’re having financial difficulties and don’t think you can pay your rent, mortgage, or a utility bill, be sure to contact your landlord, bank, or utility company to let them know. They can set up an alternative payment plan with you and it will prevent you from getting into trouble with them down the road. Some, like credit card companies, are waiving late-payment penalties for three months under the stimulus bill passed by Congress; take advantage and request a deferral.
9. Cut yourself some slack
It’s okay to be stressed right now. No one expects you to be invincible. Whether you’re a parent trying to hold it all together in front of your kids or a single person stuck in your apartment being besieged by online meetings, or you’re someone dealing with loss of income or being laid off, sometimes it’s good to just let go and sob. You don’t have to be in control 100% of the time. We’re only human, and this is a rough patch we’re going through.
If you have the fortitude, be there to support others, too. These are scary times. We’re being cooped up with our families and being asked to deal with new technology, new schedules, and new challenges at the same time. Realize that you aren’t the only one who feels vulnerable, even if others you love seem to have it all together. Check in with them to show that you’re concerned with how they’re coping. Give them a chance to let down their guard. Play therapist. (Don’t worry, you won’t get busted for practicing without a license.)
10. Ask for help
Ask for help from others if your stress levels continue to rise. Don’t underestimate its effects. Stress has been linked to such health conditions as heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and more. Reducing stress can make you feel better not only mentally, but also physically.
Remote therapy services like Talkspace and Brightside are seeing record traffic levels. Don’t hesitate to consult an online therapist — many have volunteered their services at no cost during this national crisis. If at any point the pressure and anxiety feel unbearable, get professional help. There are psychologists available to talk with you by phone or online.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness released an extensive list of affordable and free coronavirus pandemic support options, such as 7cups.com and warmlines (emotional support hotlines) nationwide. You can also call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1–800–985–5990, or text TalkWithUs to 66746.
If you live in New York, more than 6,000 therapists volunteered to offer free mental health counseling4 as part of the COVID-19 Emotional Support Hotline at 1–844–863–9314.
If you feel suicidal or threatened or are concerned about a friend or loved one:
• Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273-TALK (8255). It’s a free, confidential, always-open service for people experiencing a suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
• Text 741–741 anytime to reach crisis counselors (for free) at Crisis Text Line.
• LGBQT+ people may be feeling especially marginalized right now. A valuable service, Trans Lifeline, has just opened at translifeline.org.
We are finding that those at risk of family violence, whether it is intimate partner violence, or child or elder abuse or neglect, are particularly at risk during this pandemic. Most family courts are shut down, but judges are still executing restraint orders. In addition, most family violence service agencies are offering their services in a remote manner and report they are hearing from many more people who are volunteering to help assist survivors of family violence.
And finally, before we end this chapter, don’t forget to nurture your soul. Feed the spirit as well as the body. Meditate or say a prayer or celebrate the beauty of the world in your own way.
We hope these suggestions help you in your fight against the coronavirus!
1 Carlie Porterfield. “Coronavirus: 36% of Americans say pandemic has made a ‘serious impact’ on their mental health,” Forbes, April 2, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/carlieporterfield/2020/04/02/coronavirus-36-of-americans-say-pandemic-has-made-a-serious-impact-on-their-mental-health/#23c8373f6c8e
2 “Coping with COVID stress and concerns about getting sick,” Doctor Radio, Sirius XM, April 8, 2020, https://www.siriusxm.com/doctorradio
3 Amy Hunt. “Using the five senses for anxiety relief,” PsychCentral, Oct. 8, 2018, https://psychcentral.com/lib/using-the-five-senses-for-anxiety-relief/
4 “Governor Cuomo commends mental health professionals,” New York state governor’s site, https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/video-audio-photos-rush-transcript-governor-cuomo-commends-mental-health-professionals-working