While the spread of COVID-19 has become a threat to the physical and financial health of the world, the increasing disruption to daily life is exacting another toll, this one on our collective mental health. To stave off transmission, citizens are being urged to keep their physical distance from one another, leading to protracted time either alone or with members of the household. Coupled with unending media coverage of the virus and accompanying worst-case scenarios, anxiety in communities has become palpable.
If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the risk of illness or the reality of limited activity, it’s important to reach out to local mental health professionals for guidance. In many cases, telemedicine appointments will be available. For more general tips on coping with feelings of unease during this period of uncertainty, Mental Floss spoke with David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., the founder and director of the Center for Anxiety in New York and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. Here’s what he had to say about staying balanced in these tumultuous times.
1. Remember that social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation.
Leading health experts from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have made it clear that minimizing the impact of coronavirus means lessening transmission by staying home. For people who thrive off social interaction, the practice can be troubling. But Rosmarin says a lack of physical proximity shouldn’t mean a lack of socializing.
“Social distancing does not mean social isolation,” he says. “We can use electronic means to connect to each other.”
Rosmarin says phoning friends and staying in touch can allow us to maintain our connections, though he cautions that social media doesn’t provide the same benefits. “Social media and news might make you feel connected, but it creates distance,” Dr. Rosmarin says. Instead, call or conference people you know personally, one-on-one. Playing online games or other virtual activities can also help you maintain feelings of remaining connected when avoiding in-person visits.
2. Don’t let the news cycle dictate your emotions.
The coronavirus situation is dynamic and seems to change by the hour, resulting in a number of people feeling compelled to stay on top of updates by constantly checking their phones for new information. While that can be stressful at any time, it can affect your ability to relax if you surf news outlets just before going to sleep. “People need to be shutting off information an hour before they go to bed,” Dr. Rosmarin says. “It’s not a good time to be watching the news.” It’s very unlikely an update will be so urgent or pressing it would lose relevance by morning. Sleep is critical to a healthy immune system, and giving yourself an opportunity to unwind is important.
Rosmarin also recommends avoiding scrolling during mealtimes for the same reason. In some cases, it may be best to avoid news or news outlets that make you feel particularly stressed. WHO recommends [PDF] checking in on the news once or twice a day at specific times, and getting information from reliable sources like local health authorities to avoid rumors and misinformation.
3. Don’t argue with people who seem unconcerned about the crisis.
One major source of stress for people right now is the fact that they might face peer pressure from friends or family to attend gatherings when they aren’t comfortable being in groups—even small groups. Others may be upset people aren’t following federal or state guidelines to stay home.
Arguing about it isn’t productive. “This comes up a lot,” Dr. Rosmarin says. “In-laws may feel rejected, or a friend may want to come over. I would suggest a technique called ‘validation.’ You convey to a person that their feelings are reasonable. If someone wants to come over, you can say you’re sorry but that you’re practicing social distancing. You can say, ‘You might feel I’m rejecting you, but I’m not. I want to see you.’ As opposed to, ‘You’re crazy and you’re not paying attention.’ That conversation will always go south.”
4. Ask family members to respect your boundaries.
For many households, school cancellations and shifting to a work-from-home arrangement means couples and children are spending a lot more time together. People who previously had time and space now have neither. Boundaries need to be established. “People need to have a set-up for work,” Dr. Rosmarin says, whether that’s literal (a desk) or figurative (an armchair). Whatever that area is, other family members need to respect that when you’re there, you’re trying to be productive or recharging. “You need to have a certain area of the house where you can go without judgment, a place to either decompress or get things done.”
If you feel a fight coming on, remember you’re in this together—sparring with someone you love and need isn’t going to solve much.
5. Practice a certain amount of acceptance.
In many ways, people are able to exert a significant degree of control over a pandemic. Social distancing, hygiene, and other precautions can make a tremendous impact on the seriousness of the situation. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed by possibilities, Dr. Rosmarin says it’s important to acknowledge our control has limitations. “It’s rare these kinds of things happen, but if you look throughout human history, they do happen,” he says. “We need to respect and appreciate that there’s only so much we can do.” It’s good to pause, step back, and realize you’re doing what you can given the circumstances.
You can also try a technique known as temporal distancing, which imagines how you’ll look back at the present. Thinking about how you’ll remember or regard these events helps remind you they’ll be exactly that one day—a memory.
6. Give yourself a few minutes to think the worst, then move on.
Whether you’re fearing becoming ill or stressing about the overall consequences of coronavirus—and for many, it’s often both—there may be value in giving yourself some time to let your imagination take off. “For a couple of minutes a day, it’s acceptable to think the worst and then move on with your life,” Dr. Rosmarin says. Imagining what you might do if you or a loved one falls ill allows for a degree of emotional preparedness, so long as you confine it to a limited amount of time.
7. Don’t ignore your regular routine.
Do laundry on Sundays? Keep doing it on Sunday. Not going to work? Get dressed anyway. Maintaining a semblance of a regular routine will go a long way toward helping you avoid feelings of disorganization and unpredictability.
“Anxiety is just the beginning,” Rosmarin says. “Within a week or two, people are probably going to start feeling depressed, sad, and lethargic, especially since we are distancing from one another. That’s really where the benefits of scheduling come in.”
Sticking to your normal sleep and wake times, your exercise routine, and other practices will maintain feelings of familiarity. It will also help you adjust when the world returns—as it inevitably will—to normalcy.
8. Don’t hesitate to seek help if you need it.
For people already struggling with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or depression, fears over coronavirus can be especially disruptive. Always seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed. Currently, the Center for Anxiety is offering one free virtual consultation no matter where you are in the country. Dial their office at (646) 837-5557 during normal business hours for more information.