The National Association of Mental Health estimates that over 25% of the American population struggles with mental health. I am no exception. High functioning anxiety has long been a way of life for me, and it’s something that prompted me to pursue a career in mental health. As a therapist, I knew once the pandemic started having major impacts here in the US it would likely be a trigger for my own anxiety. And probably a lot of others, as well. So, I want to share my recommendations for staying mentally healthy during COVID-19.
Whether or not you are someone who typically has a hard time with mental health, Spring 2020 has been a difficult time to stay sane. Many people are worried or concerned about their health, the health of their loved ones, or their friends and family members in the health care industry. Job loss or insecurity can rock even the steadiest of constitutions. Toss in some loneliness, boredom, and loss of autonomy; no wonder we’re one Reese’s shortage shy of a mental break down.
And then, my friends, the gyms closed. Toilet paper was flying off the shelves for God knows what reason. OUR KIDS NEVER WENT BACK TO SCHOOL AFTER SPRING BREAK. We haven’t had haircuts in the last five months (that actually just might be own personal poor planning). And we’re supposed to deal with all of this with fewer distractions, because most of our distractions are closed.
Even as some states are beginning to reopen, there’s still widespread concern around the safety of these re-openings. And if they’re good for the economy, or might potentially cause a second wave of illness. Oh, and apparently there’s also aliens and murder hornets for us to all deal with. We are not well. But here’s what we can do.
Tips for Staying Mentally Healthy
Recognize this time as temporary
The first step here is to remember that all of this discord is temporary. Will there be long-term consequences and far reaching changes to our society and how it functions? Probably. But will we forever be confined to the company of only our nuclear families? Not highly likely. But the longer things go on, the harder it can be to remember that this is transient.
It’s frustrating. It’s upsetting. But anything that isn’t permanent can be survived. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed and frustrated and absolutely sure there’s no way your kid is ever going to learn how to do multiplication, remember that you’re not alone in these struggles. And these struggles will pass. We just have to allow ourselves to move through this difficult time.
Accept uncertainty & instability
One of the best ways we can allow ourselves to do just that is to accept the temporary uncertainty and instability. When events first started cancelling, I clung tightly to my previously planned race calendar. There was some sort of comfort in thinking that I knew what was coming. And in some ways, we all crave some amount of stability. And most of us would love to predict the future.
If you know what’s coming, it feels like you have just a little bit of control. But this isn’t true. As unsettling as it may be, the moment that we surrender to temporary uncertainty is the moment that we can stop exhausting ourselves trying to keep things under control. Things are not under control right now, and that’s ok. Letting go of the focus on control frees up a lot of mental ability to problem solve and manage what is actually going on. And that can be so much more empowering than a false sense of control.
Set some structure, but don’t be rigid
Accepting some temporary uncertainty doesn’t have to mean succumbing to pure chaos. It just means recognizing that things may not go exactly the way we had previously envisioned. There is definitely room to set some structure in your everyday life, which can be incredibly beneficial. Create a morning routine that helps you to feel calm and peaceful, but recognize that there’s a solid chance that your new coworkers might wake up earlier than normal and toss Cheerio’s all over those plans.
Even if your morning or day shakes out somewhat off schedule, having some simple structure can help you know what needs to happen and what can be let go. Some of my previous clients have found it helpful to have some hierarchy to their activities. For me, as long as my kid and husband are healthy, I am going to go for a morning run.
Related Post: The Perfect Morning Routine for Runners
There’s a few other non-negotiables like my coffee and my 7 minutes (yes, that’s all I can commit to) of meditation. But if my post-run stretching doesn’t happen immediately after my run, because a work crisis email appeared in my inbox, well I can manage. I know that the most important things have happened, and that allows me to shift gears. So try figuring out what you would like for your ideal quarantine day to look like, and then decide what’s most important. Map out the less important activities around the non-negotiables, and problem-solve when you need to.
Set aside time for self-care
And while we’re on the subject of non-negotiables, setting aside time for self-care should be on that list. You don’t need to have a two hour bedtime routine set out (no judgement if you do, though), but you do need to have some dedicated time to taking care of your mental health. This timeframe and the activity can shift from day to day, or week to week.
But the rule is that you need to make sure self-care is actually happening. 20 minutes of reading a book that you’ve been dying to crack open, planning a night to try out a new recipe, taking a few minutes in the morning to write a quick gratitude list. Whatever floats your boat and makes you feel good, make sure you are holding yourself accountable to prioritizing that activity. The dishes can wait, the work emails will still come in, and no one will perish if you set aside 10 minutes for yourself. I promise.
Spend some time outside
One of the healthiest and easiest ways to incorporate a little self-care into your day is to find some time to get outside, and just walk without distractions. You don’t need to get a 5k done (unless you want to), but just 10 minutes outside can do a world of good for your mental health.
Seeing the sunshine and spending some time outside is a good reminder that the world still turns, and we are not confined to the indoors. Get some fresh air, and take a few moments to enjoy the headspace that’s available when you aren’t listening to zoom meetings or kids learning to read. It’s also a great way to reset if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or burnt out.
Related Post: How We’re Keeping Our Kid Active During COVID-19
Take care of your body
Most of us probably have a lot more awareness around the importance of staying healthy right now. And if a viral pandemic isn’t a call to action to take care of your physical body, then I don’t know what is. Will eating healthy food and getting quality rest keep you from getting sick? Maybe not, but a healthier body just might have a better chance at fighting off anything communicable, or recovering more easily.
Also, prioritizing healthy food and rest can really support your mental health as well. Ever notice how you can think and reason a lot more clearly when you’ve been taking care of your physical needs? This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some treats here and there, but make sure you are getting in a good amount of nutrient dense food, and caring for your physical wellness.
Get Some Exercise
And since we’re talking about staying physically healthy, it makes sense that we’re going to talk about getting some form of physical exercise. There are an endless amount of reasons that I encourage people to engage in some sort of exercise routine. Working out is empowering, energizing, and it can have a significant impact on emotional wellbeing.
If you have a regular workout routine, making sure to find ways to continue to exercise can help you find a sense of normalcy in a chaotic time. I know that there have been days in the last month where it is only during my run that anything feels normal or routine to me. And there’s a comfort in that.
Working out can also impact your hormonal balance, release endorphins to help you feel more relaxed, and can make getting to sleep just a little easier. It’s also a practice that can help you feel like you accomplished something positive in a day that might otherwise be filled with frustrating situations.
It’s not necessary to decide to start training for your first marathon (though you certainly can if you feel so inclined!), but I do recommend that you carve out at least 30 minutes a day 4-5x a week to some form of exercise that you enjoy. And if you haven’t found a workout routine that you love, there just might not be a better time than now to explore. Sure, a lot of gyms are closed, but there are so many zoom and online classes for yoga, pilates, HIIT style bootcamps, and even CrossFit that are taking place.
If you’re looking for a little guidance on making home-based workouts happen, take a look at my resources on Staying Healthy During COVID-19. I’m also sharing lots of my own home workouts on my Workouts Page, as well as my Instagram and Facebook stories.
Stay Connected with Others
So many of my readers have shared that one of the biggest struggles they’ve experienced this Spring is feeling isolated and lonely. Many of us aren’t able to see friends as regularly as we would like, have missed out on birthday or wedding celebrations, and are getting a lot less social interaction than we’re used to.
Feeling disconnected can be a major mental health trigger for a lot of people; especially during stressful times. But we are so fortunate to live in a time where technology can really help us bridge the gap when we can’t be with our loved ones in person. Staying connected through regular text conversations, phone calls (so rare it’s almost exotic these days), facetime, and zoom/skype visits.
Even though I’m not a huge fan of video-chatting, I have found that setting aside time to just have a conversation with a friend can be really uplifting. And if you live with a partner or roommate, make sure you’re still planning out dates. Even if it’s just happy hour in the backyard or a designated movie night in the living room. Making time is what makes the event feel special, and helps us to stay more present and connected with one another.
Listen to intuition
And finally, my absolute favorite piece of advice for staying mentally healthy during shelter in place orders; listen to your intuition. So many times we know exactly what we need to feel better. A walk around the block, or listening to a specific song, or getting your living space a little neater. But knowing what we need and doing what we need are two different things.
And it’s easy to put off things that might not seem important, like lighting a candle or reading a book. But those little things that our intuition tells us to do, are usually the things that can make a huge difference in our mood. And the reality is that the more that we ignore that little voice, the quieter it becomes, and the harder it is to recognize.
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So the next time you feel yourself pulled to spend just a minute looking outside or to turn the tv off for a little while, make sure you follow through. These little acts of self-kindness will help you feel more positive, and will make it so much easier to recognize what you need moving forward.
Now, I can’t guarantee that you’ll instantly feel excited and optimistic if you start to work these recommendations into your everyday life. But I can guarantee that there’s at least one thing you can start doing to make your mental health more of a priority. And those little habits, over time, can make huge shifts in our day to day experience. There’s no better time to start taking care of your mental and emotional wellbeing. It’s not like you have anywhere to go 😉