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Mental Health

These Unprecedented Times: Protecting Your Mental Health In the Midst of Collective Uncertainty & Fear

May 5, 2020


The COVID-19 crisis hit us like a bomb & devastated all of our routines, many of our mundane tasks, & the processes & circumstances within which we have lived our daily lives. Rapidly changing recommendations & directives altered our lives moment-by-moment & made impossible many of the activities we used to take for granted & enjoy, from sitting in a coffee shop to getting our hair cut. Many of us found our children suddenly without a place to go during the day.  Many of us found ourselves furloughed & without the paychecks that support our families. In the midst of it all, we are surrounded by a constant barrage of faulty information that we have struggled to rely on to tell us how to safely conduct our lives to protect ourselves & our loved ones.  Repeatedly, the directives & recommendations have been conflicting, & they have changed at a dizzying pace as the crisis has unfolded. On a daily basis, we interact with women who have told us how sick they are of living their lives in COVID-mode & how they just need things to get back to normal so they can go on with their lives. 


Women are going stir crazy at home, are increasingly anxious as a result of the inundation with information from social media & the news, & are developing COVID-fatigue, all in the midst of feeling unmotivated & fairly hopeless about the state of the world at large. It is Mental Health Awareness month, which is incredibly appropriate for these times when we are all in a state, regardless of our privilege, that threatens our mental health. If we had mental health concerns (e.g., stressors, illnesses, anxieties, sadness) prior to the turmoil this pandemic has inflected on our lives, we are worse for wear. It is difficult now to know where to turn for help or how to help ourselves, especially in the throes of what feels like overwhelming catastrophe. The following are five surefire ways to get yourself back on track:


1. Breathe. No, seriously. Take a deep breath, focus on the air that fills your lungs & then on the way it leaves your body as you exhale. Slow your breathing. Intentionally focus on the way that you are breathing & on the otherwise involuntary task of filling your body with oxygen. Deep, mindful breathing is not just instantaneously relaxing, it also has the power to positively impact your physical health. Breathing exercises can alter the pH of the blood, the oxygen content that is delivered to our brains & even our blood pressure. Mindfully controlling our breathing has demonstrated consistently positive effects for our hearts, our lungs, our brains, our digestive systems (see previous article about the connection between our guts & our brains) & our immune responses. If you’re feeling stressed & overwhelmed, panicky or depressed, take a moment out of your day to just sit & breathe. Observe your breath & try to regulate its rate, its rhythm, & its depth. This is a practice that can be undertaken in any setting, at any time, without prior planning. The ingredients, after all, are right under your nose.


2. Limit your social media consumption. We know: it’s connection. We know: it’s information. We know: it’s distraction. We also know it’s fodder for anxiety. Social media is a terrible source for accurate information & can provide you with an overload of seemingly valid news that can actually be quite destructive. From the circulation of unverified conspiracy theories that can keep you awake at night & cause you to question your own sense of reality to the unintentional boarding of the emotional rollercoasters all Facebook users are currently riding, social media can provide you with a black hole of information that is potentially triggering & incredibly difficult to parse. It’s hard to know what to heed. It’s difficult to determine which conflicting pieces of information you can believe. It’s a whole host of new uncertainties you had not previously considered. And that’s a recipe for panic. If you are finding yourself increasingly anxious after scrolling through your social media feed or going down rabbit holes you didn’t know existed before you found them on Facebook, set strict boundaries for yourself around your social media use, including time limits, clicking limits, & attention limits. Choose what you consume wisely in order to limit the barrage of “data” in your head.


3. Get back to basics. There are many things we can worry about right now. The sky absolutely feels like it is falling. It is hard to not be caught up in concern about the economy, our public health, politics, the future at large. Each of these topics, while important, is enormous & is not likely to be something we can control. Feeling out of control is detrimental to our mental health. In our current settings, life feels terribly out of control such that even our most routine activities (going to the grocery store, getting gas) are now unpredictable & scary. Having an enduring sense of control has been consistently associated with lower levels of psychological distress. The reality is that we cannot control what is happening in the world right now. The reality is that we cannot control Governor Inslee’s decisions. For many, the reality is that we do not know when we will be able to return to work. Instead of compiling mental lists of things that you cannot control & worrying about outcomes you can’t personally manage, realign your focus to those things you can control. Focus on what is immediately before you & the things that you can directly influence, like what you will make for dinner, when you will go to bed, whether you will do your laundry. Simple tasks that afford you a sense of immediate accomplishment & control are tremendously important right now. Feeling overwhelmed? Clean the toilet. Crawling with unmanageable anxiety? Start (& finish) an art project. Despondent about the state of the stock market? Weed the garden. Ground down into those things you can control &, as much as possible, release pre-occupations with the things that make you feel out of control.


4. Connect with others. Yes, social distance. Absolutely keep following the directives to prevent the asymptomatic or presymptomatic spread of the virus. But, don’t socially isolate. You may be spending all day with your children (whom you love, yes, but who are still children) in ways you weren’t before. You may be unable to enjoy activities that afforded you a sense of connection before: yoga class, book club, church. You may find yourself isolated from friends with whom you used to regularly visit or text (they may not be texting as much now because they are also home with their children & trying to balance their work with concurrent parenting demands). Reach out to your community of humans. Create intentional encounters that honor social distancing parameters: Zoom with your girlfriends, join an online themed support group, share highlights of your daily experiences with others who can relate, call your sister, Skype your mom. As humans, we are social animals. Even if we are introverted, we crave connection, validation & support. And, getting these things is medicinal for our bodies & our minds. Research consistently demonstrates higher rates of happiness among people who report having good relationships & sources of external emotional support. This might mean that you have a heart-to-heart to vent & release all your anxieties & fears, or it might mean that you share an absurd meme that has all your friends laughing aloud on your Zoom encounter. Reach out. It matters for you, & it matters for them.


5. Lighten up! We know it’s hard to feel light-hearted when we are mired in the stark realities of current affairs. Still, we also strongly believe that laughter is the best medicine & that distraction can be a treatment. If you’re feeling bogged down in negativity, seek ways to purposefully infuse your life with sources of humor & heart-warming content. Think of those things that bring your spirit the most joy: watching baby pandas tumble down slides, sitting on your porch with the hummingbirds flitting around you, reading trashy romance novels, watching Comedy Central, tickling your kids, busting out old board games, or playing Frisbee with your puppy. Whatever makes you happy & is accessible to you in these restricted moments: do that. A lot. Disconnect & disengage deliberately with an intent both to escape the incessant direness & to spark genuine happiness. If you can’t muster the spirit to engage in frivolity, fake it till you make it. Plan your fun & force yourself to do it, starting with enjoying the laughter or hilarity offered by others & progressing to intentional activities, from doing something you loved to do as a kid (drawing with chalk, challenging yourself with your Skip-It, finger painting, catching frogs) to embarking on a new leisure activity you’ve always wanted to explore. Finding the fun & the funny moments in between reruns of serious, disconcerting updates will make bad news that much easier to bear.


Sometimes, however, despite intentional activities designed to heighten your mood & diminish your anxiety & pessimism, it persists. Sometimes, we can’t get ourselves off the couch to engage in these activities. Sometimes, we are so overwhelmed that we get stuck & feel frozen, as if there is nothing that we can actually do to effect change in our moods or our mindsets. Sometimes, the emotional roller coaster is too far gone for us to climb off whenever we desire.  If you are finding yourself there, let us know. We have a host of resources to assist you, & we truly understand the depth of the impact that this crisis is having on your entire life, your being, & your mental & physical health.