Every Saturday is my “self-care Saturday.” As a psychiatrist, I believe that self-care is critical to good mental health. However, as I started my long run on an empty University trail where college students typically abound, my motivation for running lessened. I did not feel like I had the energy for a run. It was at that moment that I realized that the coronavirus, while not affecting me physically, was, in fact, affecting me mentally.
Our TVs, radios, and social media are being flooded with guidelines and precautions about the coronavirus as they should be. But there is no talk about mental health care during this chaotic time. And that is not OK. The entire world is suffering from an adjustment disorder of some sort. We are faced with adapting to what is being called the “new normal,” and that is causing anxiety and depression. So, what can be done about it?
First, communication is key. We all need to talk about our feelings, worries, and concerns. We are all anxious, and that is OK! We need to acknowledge that these feelings are normal and talk about them. And let us not assume that kids are just excited to be out of school and are merely seeing this as an “extended snow day.” They sense the fear their parents are feeling and are likely anxious as well. Do not hide from them what is going on. Communicate to them in a loving, gentle way that there is an illness going around that is making people very sick but that there are very smart people doing everything to keep us all safe. Express to them what you as a family can do to keep yourself healthy and keep others healthy as well. Explain to them why social distancing is necessary but also how the family is going to make the best of it.
Secondly, self-care is what will get us all through this “new normal.” Social isolation is deep, dark, and depressing. But there are ways to care for yourself even in times when social distancing is critical to flattening the curve in this pandemic. Social isolation does not mean that you cannot communicate with others. We live in a time with amazing technology that allows us to stay connected even if it is not a physical connection. Take the time to call friends and family that you normally see. Facetiming friends and family is a great way to see them and talk with them.
In addition to social connections, exercise is critical not only for mental health but also physical health. Reconnect with nature. Go for walks, hikes, and run outside while maintaining social distancing. And while out in nature, breathe. Take a moment to enjoy the calm and fresh air. Endorphins are real, and they are great, but they are not limited to just physical exercise. Go outside and work in the yard, fly kites. Listen to music and dance. There are no better dance parties that what I have in the kitchen with my kids. This often leads to an overload of laughter, and we all know that “laughter is the best medicine.”
With the constant barrage of Coronavirus news, it is hard to think about anything else. It can be all-consuming. Distraction is a great way to reduce anxiety. There are several ways to distract from the negative thoughts while social distancing. Read a book, paint, color, cook/bake, take a nap, practice mediation or yoga to keep the negative thoughts, the anxiety-provoking thoughts at bay.
Lastly, be present in the moment and stay present. Try not to worry about what “could” happen. Focus on what you have direct control over. Focusing on things out of our control only increases anxiety and keeps us from enjoying the moment. This pandemic will not last forever. Social distancing, while difficult, will also not last forever. But it is a necessary practice that we all must take to #flattenthecurve and protect ourselves and others.
But if, despite implementing good self-care, you are unable to cope and are suffering, do not hesitate to reach out for professional help. Contact the National Alliance of Mental Illness Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI.
Katherine Gantz Pannel is a psychiatrist.
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