Coronavirus Tips from a Therapist

Here's what I've been telling my own patients.

Posted Mar 31, 2020

Perhaps the most important thing to appreciate about the ongoing coronavirus situation is that this is not normal. We have to confront our own normalcy bias. We must not pretend that everything is the same as it was before, except that now we are homeschooling and working from home and carefully planning grocery trips so that they are only weekly or biweekly.

Lower your expectations, and then lower them some more. You are not going to get through the same curriculum, you're not going to be as productive, you're not going to perfectly clean and organize your house and plant a high-yield Victory Garden. It's okay. Do your best. But don't expect your best to be all that great.

Most people are having a hard time concentrating these days. A lot of planned Netflix binges are being derailed or don't seem as satisfying because it's harder to follow the story when there's a massive cognitive load constantly eating up mental energy in the back of your mind. So expect mistakes and forgetfulness and to feel drained after making a sustained mental effort. If it's really important, write it down. Don't count on your prospective memory to remind you to do that task in the near future.

Go to bed early and get up late, if you can. Take naps, if you can. Get more sleep than you have in years. Try your hand at preparing nutritious and tasty meals. Go very easy on the alcohol. The trouble with alcohol is that it works too well as a fast-acting but short-lived tension reducer. There are going to be a lot of people who walk out of this crisis period with a dependence on alcohol. If you can, get outside and breathe fresh air and move your body. A 20-minute walk each day is a good target. 

Reach out to people you haven't heard from in a while. Stay in touch with people close to you. I haven't heard from anyone recently who reports feeling annoyed or bothered by old friends and relations contacting them by phone, text, or email. You don't have to talk about how you each are handling social distancing. Talk about that prom 20 years ago or that wedding 10 years ago. Don't pretend to be an expert on infectious diseases. If they want to share their newfound alleged expertise with you, let them, but realize that this is how they are coping with their anxieties. Be compassionate, not annoyed. 

Keep a Journal of the Plague Year. Things are a lot different now and it will be difficult to remember just how different they are. There are a lot of little details that will be interesting to read about 5 or 10 years from now. Focus mostly on the practical issues and a record of everyday events. Goings on in the news should be just background, not the focus. What was it like for you to go through this time? And speaking of news, limit your consumption to no more than one hour a day, from any source. That's more than enough time to stay up to date. Avoid television news as much as possible, especially when they focus on stories of personal tragedy. 

Things have changed quite a lot in just a few weeks. They will change even more a few weeks from now. Our brains can't handle too much change at once. We need to be careful about our time perspective. Don't try to think about what things are going to be like in a month or two. Don't think too much further than a week from now. When you make plans for a week from now, realize that they are tentative, "crisis permitting." Focus on today. Imagine a scale from +3 to -3, where +3 is a rare but amazing joy and -3 is an equally rare but horrible despair. Try to spend most of your time hovering somewhere around -1 to +1. Appreciate those +1 moments (and those +0.5 moments, too). Note those +1 moments and try to replicate them the next day. If you get a few of them each day, you're doing great.