Have you been feeling anxious? Frustrated? Scared? Depressed? Angry? If so, I have some good news.
You are not alone! Not in the slightest. The pandemic has upended millions of lives. It’s easy to believe that anger, anxiety, or depression mean something is wrong with us. Or that we’re not coping as well as we should be. But, as Viktor Frankl has said, “an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
First, know that however you feel amid this pandemic is valid and normal. Give yourself permission to feel the way you do at any given moment. The emotions we try to fight only come back stronger. If you need to cry, allow yourself space to do so. If you need to scream, find a pillow. If you need fresh air, get outside. Listen to your body’s cues and honor them.
Second, there are scientifically supported strategies to help you cope. Below are seven evidence-based practices to improve your overall mental health and well-being. I know firsthand the benefits of each one.
We’re living in times of great uncertainty and fear. Unanswered questions about the state of our country, our health, and our future can lead us to imagine the worst. Catastrophic thinking refers to a downward spiral of thinking in which one negative thought leads to predicting worst-case scenarios. We are all susceptible to this from time to time; I’ve certainly catastrophized things long before the pandemic!
It’s helpful to be cautious and prepared, but this mode of thinking is maladaptive and faulty. It is not based on logic or factual evidence. Catastrophizing creates panic and fear rather than reassurance. Mental health professionals often use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) strategies to assist clients in overcoming catastrophic thoughts.
The first step is awareness. Start by catching yourself in the downward spiral. Notice which negative thoughts appear the most and when they occur (e.g., when you wake up, before you go to sleep, after watching the news).
Second, consider the likelihood of the negative event you’re imagining. Is this belief based on evidence or simply fear of the unknown? Does this belief mitigate your worries? Or does it simply make you more anxious? Asking these questions is a strategy clinical psychologists call cognitive reappraisal.
Another helpful CBT technique is to “play the script until the end”. In other words, let the imagined scenario play out fully in your mind rather than pushing it away. Consider what might happen and how you might respond if this catastrophe really occurred. Although this approach may seem counterintuitive to lessening anxiety, that’s precisely why it’s effective.
Allowing yourself to imagine the worst-case scenario instead of avoiding it helps you realize that (1) this outcome is not likely, and it’s based on little to no evidence, (2) I have no control over this outcome and entertaining it is unhelpful or (3) even if my greatest fear comes true, the outcome is still manageable.
Sometimes this practice can even introduce humor into the situation. Playing the script until the end allows you to see just how far the mind can go with unlikely or impossible scenarios. Put some distance between you and your thoughts, and don’t be afraid to laugh at whatever comes up.
You don’t need to enjoy writing to reap the benefits of this practice. Expressive writing involves writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings for 15–20 minutes over the course of several days. You might decide to write about a past traumatic event, fears about the future, or how you’re feeling in the moment.
Don’t be alarmed if your writing takes you to emotionally unpredictable places. This is normal. You’re not simply journaling about things that have happened; you’re writing down your raw feelings and responses to challenging life events. Momentary discomfort is fleeting, but the health benefits of expressive writing are long-lasting.
In fact, those who practiced expressive writing for at least 15 minutes on four consecutive days experienced stronger immune health, better sleep, improved mental health, and reduced chronic pain compared to those who didn’t write.
Some longitudinal studies have found that expressive writing even helps create distance from oneself and a distressing situation. This led to less emotional reactivity and thus fewer physical symptoms.
This practice is especially beneficial for dealing with unresolved trauma or unexpected events. Dr. James Pennebaker argues that writing allows us to organize our thoughts, gain a new perspective, and create a narrative that helps us make sense of current or past circumstances.
Writing topics don’t always have about difficult life events either. Although the process may begin this way, you might find yourself expressing gratitude, experiencing joy, or learning something new.
Although staying informed is crucial, it is very possible to overconsume the news. With a smartphone by our side nearly 24/7, it’s almost inevitable we find ourselves scrolling through posts or articles for far longer than intended.
A constant news cycle can leave us feeling anxious, depressed, or helpless. In fact, seven in 10 Americans reported needing breaks from coronavirus news. It’s no longer just traditional news sources anymore. It’s social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. It’s constant alerts on our phones.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to stay informed while lessening your news intake. First, determine specific times of day (no more than 2–3 times daily) for news consumption. Maybe mid-morning, lunchtime, or early evening. Avoid checking the news right before bed if this impairs your ability to fall asleep.
Second, set a timer for about 15–20 minutes each time you sit down to read or watch the news. This helps you avoid going down a rabbit-hole and losing track of time.
Finally, keep your smartphone at a distance whenever possible. Remove it from your nightstand when you sleep and your desk when you work. If you can’t do this, silence news alerts on your phone.
Not only can limiting your news intake improve your mental health, but these strategies can increase your productivity levels and save hours of your day.
It’s safe to say many of us have lost the daily routines we had before the pandemic began. Maybe you’re now working from home, unemployed, not traveling as often, or have kids at home instead of school. Any combination of changes to our routine can cause bad habits to emerge or return.
When it comes to making a routine, little things go a long way. Even waking up at the same time and making your bed each morning can help set you up on the right foot.
Create a step-by-step process for getting ready. For example, when my alarm goes off, first I take my dog outside and feed him. Then I brew coffee, make the bed, change clothes (even if it’s still loungewear!), wash my face, brush my teeth, and sit down to write for a couple of hours. Always in that order.
The psychological benefits of following a morning routine are enhanced self-efficacy, increased productivity, and decreased stress levels. Accomplishing even the smallest of goals/tasks reinforces feelings of competence and autonomy. The key is consistency.
Side note: research shows that cortisol (stress) levels are highest between 8–9 am for most people. This means that the optimal timing for caffeine consumption is actually between 9:30–11:30 am. Even waiting just an hour after waking for that cup of tea or coffee can enhance its effects and prevent that dreadful mid-afternoon crash.
Exercise is arguably the most important you can do for your physical and mental health. Decades of research show that just two and half hours of moderate exercise each week can improve mood and sleep, reduce stress, boost confidence, and lower anxiety.
An additional benefit during the coronavirus pandemic? It gets you out of the house! No problem if you’re not yet comfortable hitting the gym. Just put a yoga mat on the porch or go for a walk in the neighborhood. There is an endless variety of free workouts to fit your preferences offered on smartphone apps, YouTube, and social media platforms like Instagram.
On the days when you can’t find the time for a workout, don’t underestimate the power of a good stretch. Sitting in a chair all day can cause our hamstrings and lower back to tighten. The most important areas to focus on for relieving tension are the calves, hamstrings, and hip flexors. Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds.
Feelings of isolation have increased for many since the pandemic began. Instead of being out and about, plenty of us are stuck inside for most hours of the day. But we all know the importance of social connectedness during difficult times.
Quality relationships are crucial to well-being, but you might not have considered how offering support can benefit you more than receiving it.
One study found neurobiological differences in giving versus receiving support. That is, people who gave the most support to others had reduced activity in brain areas related to stress responses and increased activity in the reward systems of the brain.
Be sure to clarify with your loved ones what type of support both of you need. Sometimes support looks like active and empathetic listening, while other times it might be more solution-focused. Have you ever just wanted to share your struggles with a friend but all they do is try to give advice rather than listen? Or vice-versa? Avoid this mistake by asking what others need from you and sharing your own needs.
If a friend, family member, or colleague makes it clear they want advice, doing this can be beneficial to both of you. Not only will it enhance feelings of social connectedness (which we ALL need), but you might discover the advice you’re giving can be applied to your own life.
For example, someone close to me recently shared some struggles with insomnia. I suggested avoiding alcohol at least 4 nights a week. Only after saying this out loud did I realize I hadn’t been following my own advice! We decided to hold each other accountable.
There are plenty of ways to reach out to others. Send a text message, make a phone call, plan a Zoom call, send an email, write a letter. You’ll be surprised at how much better equipped you’ll be to cope with stress.
I believe therapy can be a supplemental aspect of a healthy lifestyle, not just a last resort. However, if you feel like you’ve tried everything and your symptoms of anxiety and/or depression aren’t improving, professional counseling is a great next step.
Counseling is designed to be a collaborative effort between you and your therapist. Through open dialogue, your therapist will be an empathetic, objective, and non-judgmental listener. They will also help you identify unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors and find solutions that work for you through evidence-based treatment.
The effectiveness of therapy is extremely high. Studies show that those who engage in therapy show better psychological outcomes than those who do not.
The search for a therapist can feel overwhelming at first; there are many different approaches to treatment and areas of expertise (e.g., grief/loss, anxiety, depression, marriage). Finding the right fit for you is important. Here are some tips on getting started.
Whether you try one or all seven of these coping strategies, I hope you remember you’re not alone. We are all navigating through unprecedented times and doing the best we can to adjust. Give yourself and those around you compassion.
Lastly, never underestimate the power of a few deep breaths. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and exhale for 4 seconds several times. You can always return to your breathing for a momentary release of stress and invitation for calm.