A Healthy Distance?

Caring for your whole self while social distancing.

Posted Mar 26, 2020

Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash

Though necessary to preserve physical health (both ours and those around us), social distancing takes a toll on our emotional health. And if you are already struggling with depression, anxiety, addiction, or other mental health concerns, then social distancing itself may cause a threat to your personal health.

Social distancing inherently makes it harder to access needed support (like close relationships, support meetings, going to the gym, maintaining a structured work/life schedule, financial stability, etc.), and it makes it easier to rely on short-term coping skills (e.g., binging on Netflix) that are less effective and sustainable in the long-term. It may even invite people to neglect self-care altogether (e.g., staying in bed, not showering, sedentary living, relapse “without consequence” or accountability, etc.). Precisely because emotional difficulties tend to thrive in social isolation, it is all the more important that we intentionally care for ourselves.

Here are a few tips on how to do so:

1. Don’t give up on yourself or those who matter to you: As humans, we long for close relationships. We need at least one person who will extend truly unconditional love, and we need to be able to return that love to others. Don’t abandon yourself. Instead, faithfully support yourself, and when you have an opportunity, care for those around you.

  • Though you may be interacting with fewer people, continue to maintain your basic self-care practices (showering, getting dressed, etc.). Taking care of ourselves is an important way to reinforce the belief that we are worthwhile.
  • Create a daily routine that will provide structure and include healthy activities/habits. If you have trouble sticking to routines, try an app like Habitica, Fabulous: MotivateMe, or Pact (three of the best motivational apps available).
  • Talk to people (in person, by video, or by phone if necessary) who care about you, and intentionally connect with people you care about. If you often distract yourself while chatting, enhance your connection by not multi-tasking and focusing your attention on the conversation.
  • Find life-giving outlets. Social distancing means more time at home. Whether it’s exercising with light weights, going for a walk, practicing an instrument, writing, or picking a new hobby, spend your time on something energizing.
  • For people who follow a religious faith or practice spirituality, community and solitude can both be beneficial. The spiritual practice of solitude can offer a sense of meaning and divine connection amidst loneliness while maintaining a connection with members of religious communities (e.g., small groups, religious leaders, peers, etc.) can reduce loneliness.
  • Pursue counseling and/or psychiatric help if needed. Most insurance companies have approved teletherapy due to this crisis, and many therapists now offer distance therapy

2. Empower yourself: For decades, psychologists have examined ways that self-efficacy (a sense of personal agency and capability) may improve mental health (cf. Bandura, 1977; Cutler, 2005; Reed-Fitzke, 2020). Yet, in situations like this, it is easy to fixate on the future and feel like a victim of uncontrollable circumstances. Doing so can be disempowering and discouraging. Instead, focus on what is controllable today.

  • Try answering questions like, “What can I control?”, “How am I responding?”, and “How can I improve my current situation?”
  • Research has repeatedly demonstrated that faith and spirituality can be a source of resilience in the face of stress (Ano & Vasconcelles, 2005; Krumrei & Rosmarin, 2012), including in situations that are outside our control (such as COVID-19). Many people may find it helpful to lean on faith for a sense of trust and comfort that God (or another Higher Power) is in control and will provide.

3. Connect with others via social networking: Whether you need to talk with friends or to find support for depression, anxiety, self-harm, addiction, or other challenges, technology has made a way.

  • For addictions, most 12-step communities and SMART recovery groups have phone, video, and/or online meetings.
  • For depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, and other challenges, consider NAMI, Recovery International, or other groups. Options for video, audio, and/or web-based connection are almost always available.
  • Connect with friends. As people begin to “shelter in place,” their schedules become increasingly flexible and open. Checking in with someone in the midst of COVID-19 can be a good opportunity to reconnect with an old friend.

4. Practice self-compassion: Self-compassion is practicing non-judgmental, kind, humanizing responses to ourselves, particularly in challenging circumstances or when experiencing difficult emotions. It has numerous benefits including increased motivation and improved mental and emotional health (Germer & Neff, 2013).

  • Remind yourself that you are not alone. COVID-19, social distancing, and other challenges are human problems faced by people all over the world. You are one of us, and we are dealing with it together.
  • Accept the difficulties (loneliness, anxieties, other triggers, etc.) you are facing, acknowledging their hardship.
  • Extend kindness to yourself, and offer yourself the same hopes, wishes, and advice you would offer to someone else you care about. Then patiently act on it, lovingly working towards your own well-being.

5. Find hope and cling to it: Hope is essential to the pursuit of mental wellness. Hope includes a sense of purpose (or goals) along with the willingness to pursue them and the belief that we might succeed (Worthington, 2020). Conversely, as psychologist Jenn Charles has said, “Hopelessness is the absence of options.” Maintaining a connection to hope is a life-preserving buoy amidst the storm.

  • Consider this question from psychologist and author Kelly Flanagan (2020): “If this crisis is inviting you to grow as a person and you accepted the invitation, what would we be celebrating about your growth when the pandemic is over?”
  • Each day, take the next right step toward your goal, however small that step may be.
  • Read books, watch movies, or listen to music that reinforce your hopeful sense of possibility.
  • Create a daily gratitude list, identifying the five smallest, specific things you appreciated in the past 24 hours. The smaller they are, the better.
  • For people who make spirituality and faith a part of their lives, belief in a benevolent God or Higher Power can sustain hope. When we feel hopeless or despairing, we can find an ally in a God who empowers us to accomplish things we think otherwise impossible.

This is a guest post by Benjamin Andrews, PsyD, a Post-Doctoral Resident at Artisan Clinical Associates.

References

Ano, G. G., & Vasconcelles, E. B. (2005). Religious coping and psychological adjustment to stress: A meta-analysis. Journal of Counseling Psychology 52(4), 602-614.

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review 84(2), 191-215. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.84.2.191

Charles, J. (2019, March). Victim, Survivor. [Lecture]. AMITA Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital, Hoffman Estates, IL, United States.

Cutler, C. G. (2005). Self-efficacy and social adjustment of patients with mood disorder. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association 11(5), 283-289.

Flanagan, K. (2020). Unpublished personal communication.

Krumrei, E. J., & Rosmarin, D. H. (2012). Processes of religious and spiritual coping. In Jamie Aten, Kari O’Grady, and Everett L. Worthington (Eds.), The Psychology of Religion and Spirituality for Clinicians: Using Research in Your Practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Germer,  C. K., & Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-compassion in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 69(8), 856-867. doi: 10.1002/jclp.22021.

Reed-Fitzke, K. (2020). The role of self-concepts in emerging adult depression: A systematic research synthesis. Journal of Adult Development 27, 36-48.

Worthington, E. (2020, March 18). How hope can keep you healthier and happier. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/how-hope-can-keep-you-healthier-and-happier-132507?fbclid=IwAR1-ZL13TbHaZwf7J65rnBW-TDzuuGoRnptrHQvNHS_qrOaUyXTL27Uj7bA.