The United States is now beginning its third wave of the pandemic. As I look at the graphs in The New York Times, I am not even sure that the wave metaphor holds. I am afraid they look more like stair steps than waves, with an increase followed by a plateau. Or maybe I am looking at a mountain range, with foothills followed by jagged peaks. The virus is even resurging in Europe and around the world, even though other countries handled the response far better.
The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be with us for an indefinite period of time, months on the low end. That presents a huge problem for society as a whole on many fronts: physical health, mental health, and economic fallout.
The physical health responsibilities that we all have been quite clear: wear a mask when going out in public, practice social distancing, and wash hands frequently. Get tested if you feel sick, and stay home as much as possible. With the political leadership often lacking, much of the burden is left on individuals and communities to keep one another safe. We have heard a lot about this, but less attention has been given to how to keep ourselves sane while staying home. All indications are that alcoholism and depression are spiking, as is domestic violence.
We all need effective regimens to maintain our mental health while social distancing and looking at the same four walls for months on end. Here are a few things that you can do to not necessarily pandemic-proof your life, that would be almost impossible, but to mitigate the worst of the damage to your mental and physical health during this difficult time. Taking these steps will not be a panacea, but you will experience mood lightening if you follow them. These simple steps will help you to like being around yourself, which will help you to better cooperate with your family or roommates.
1. Seek professional help and support. Getting therapy by teleconference is not quite the same as being in a cozy little office for a face-to-face conversation. There are distractions and connection problems. It is hard to find peace and quiet. But dealing with your problems with the help of a trained professional is far easier than going it alone. If you don’t have insurance or can’t afford therapy, look for an online support group or call a crisis support line. Anything that keeps you connected is better than going in circles inside your own head.
2. Get exercise. If you have sufficient space, try some outdoor exercise, like walking, cycling, or running. Establish routes that feel safe and relaxing. Try to avoid areas where you might be tempted to go shopping or do something indoors. If you have a disability or chronic pain, try an adaptive regimen that meets you where you are. If you are not able to get outdoors, take an online fitness class that fits with your needs. With so many options out there: be picky. A good class will not make you feel bad for not having a certain body type or not meeting elite standards.
3. Keep a journal. Writing in a journal daily can help you to view your thoughts and emotions from the perspective of an observer. As you get these interior states down on paper, you begin to see them more clearly. You understand your life and relationships better. Take a little bit of time at the end of your session to set your intentions for the day and to focus on positivity. This doesn’t have to take a long time, anything from 20 to 60 minutes is good. You also don’t need an elaborate method, start with just writing off the top of your head.
4. Try your hand at art or creative writing. Draw a picture or make a painting. Write a short story, a poem, or a novel. Play with pipe cleaners and glitter. Take up knitting or crocheting. Give yourself the freedom to not be good at something. Avoid harsh judgment and just focus on self-expression. Look online for sources of inspiration. This month, Inktober is now finishing, and next month will be National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). You don’t have to be a professional to participate in artistic endeavors, as they belong to all people. We are naturally expressive creatures, and these pursuits help us to get in touch with ourselves and others.
5. Establish a meditative practice. Anyone can practice mindfulness meditation. You don’t have to believe in God or gods. You can be Christian, pagan, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or agnostic. The point is to find the stillness within yourself, despite all of the noise in the world. Something will always be going wrong in society, but, deep inside your heart, you can cultivate peace and love. You can deliberately shift away from harmful mental states and put yourself into a more constructive frame of mind. Learning how to do this takes practice: Indeed, it is the labor of a lifetime. Find a style of meditation that works for you, and get started today.
6. Create a schedule and stick to it. I am a college professor, currently teaching entirely online. This is not something that I have done before, and I have found that routine is very important while staying home with my kids. Having online office hours helps me to set aside certain times for my students. Even if no one comes onto the stream to ask for help, I can use that time to grade papers or create a new lesson. There will be some inevitable blurring between work and home, but designating certain times for chores, for emails, for writing, etc. can really help. Try to put your whole household on a schedule, since kids really need the structure, too.
7. Look for live online events. One of the things that gets us down during the pandemic is that all of the fun activities that we used to enjoy are mostly gone. The street festivals, concerts, sporting events, and art shows are mostly not happening. But a lot of artists are turning to the Internet and posting live streams that can be reasonably close to the real thing. Apps like Bandsintown, Twitch, and Livestream have active communities and a lot of content, sometimes paid and sometimes free. Also, look for silliness and cute animals on Reddit and Tiktok.
8. Have celebrations at home. Go ahead and get out those holiday decorations. Make the foods that make you feel connected to your family. Celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Get on Minecraft or Zoom with your family and friends. Play Jackbox Games and Among Us. You might not be able to gather around the table with your loved ones, but the Internet is an important substitute. Even if you consider yourself an introvert, you still need some social connection. If that comes from video games or role-playing games, then great.
9. Give yourself love. Be gracious with yourself during this time. Be understanding with yourself if your emotions are brittle. Practice positive self-talk, and give yourself credit when you get things right. Every time you look in the mirror, say some nice things to yourself, like, "I love you," or, "you look great today." The foundation of self-love extends outward into all aspects of your life. When you show up for yourself, you are better able to show up for all of the people in your life.
This is not an exhaustive list, but I hope you see the point that I am trying to make. Obviously, you need to have your material needs met. There are community organizations like food banks and relief organizations that can help with food and shelter. But our mental well-being is important as well; we need to find creative ways to feel supported so that we can thrive and not just survive. I could have a stockpile of a year’s worth of food, but it will not help if I am unhappy. I can have a roof over my head but still be miserable. I hope that this list helps you to derive a bit more joy out of this pandemic and that you are able to find some peace and goodwill in this difficult time.