7 Keys to Making the Most of Lockdown

When life gives you lemons, kick some butt.

Posted Mar 23, 2020

This post was written by the Disaster, Trauma, and Global Health Committee of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry.

The current pandemic presents a never-before-encountered challenge. More dangerous than many common illnesses, the virus is nevertheless not so lethal to everyone who catches it. It is a "sleeper," spreading without the symptoms, which would make people more careful. 

COVID-19 is a test, a fire drill for the apocalypse. The world was caught flat-footed on this one and is facing a bracing wake-up call. We must prepare better.

Individuals and families face new and unprecedented challenges as the world emerges from denial and grapples with hysteria in efforts to mount a rational collective response. For many citizens, trust in government is deeply strained.

An ever-changing wave of psychological realization is infecting different geographical areas, depending on their own rising infected count. With awareness comes fear and anxiety, interfering with clear thinking, allowing emotional reactions to take over, and adding more fuel to the fire.

Thriving in a Virtual Community

Current best practices to contain infection leave people more vulnerable, emotionally and physiologically. Each person who does not transmit the virus prevents hundreds or even thousands from getting infected. Evolution also tells us to gather together physically to provide support and problem-solve. This social instinct usually would be advantageous, but here the instinct can make things worse. 

We must keep our distance while maintaining a connection. In times like these, the following guidelines may be helpful:

1. Social distancing does not mean emotional distancing.

Use technology to connect widely. Isolation has negative effects on psychological and physical well-being. When in survival mode, we think mainly of our immediate needs, and those closest to us. Our thoughts of the future narrow down to basic needs—hence people are hoarding supplies. However, we don't necessarily think of the bigger picture. A hiding mindset is the opposite of what is needed during a crisis.

Instead, telephone and virtual meeting technology can offset the negative effects. We don't need to be emotionally or psychologically distant to be physically distant in social interactions. Making a daily routine of speaking with close others not only maintains social connection but, for many, is an opportunity to become more connected if they've drifted apart. 

Remember people you haven't heard from in a while, and reach out. Use social media to deepen relationships with people you've wanted to befriend. Don't feel obligated to over-connect either. We all need some alone time, so make sure, especially if you are cooped up, to take time away from others to recharge and reflect.

2. Keep reasonable routines and schedule activities.

A balance of structure and flexibility is key. Schedule a regular framework for each day, while avoiding pinning your time down minute-to-minute. Identify projects to work on and pick things that are purposeful. Take the chance to pursue goals you have neglected or overlooked—reading more, starting a regular meditation practice, organizing that basement, and so on. Keep a calendar and follow it, seven days a week. Resist the urge to enter into a timeless void.

Plan projects out, so you don't finish them too fast, pacing yourself. If you are working from home, follow good work-from-home principles. Don't let work invade your personal life. Keep clear boundaries, take breaks, and turn your newly liberated commute time into "me" time.

3. Take care of your body.

Exercise daily, if you can. Be flexible with your routine. Look for gym alternatives: online classes, exercise at home, go out for a jog or walk, and avoid becoming a couch potato. Even if only a few minutes a day, develop a little habit and build on it. 

Maintain a regular sleep schedule, avoiding excessive daytime napping. Make healthy, sustainable food choices. Leave room for treats, but make the staple of your diet nutritious—include vegetables, fresh frozen if possible, whole grains, and healthy fats and proteins while avoiding excessive carbs. It's also a good time to limit unhealthy habits. Rather than drinking or smoking more, take this opportunity to reduce or eliminate.

Bathe daily and maintain grooming and hygiene. Whether working from home or not, keeping up basic practices of self-care has been proven to sustain resilience, providing a sense of self-efficacy, reenforcing self-respect, and serving as a good role model for others.

4. Cultivate learning and intellectual engagement—books, reading, limited internet.

Your mind also needs daily exercise. Avoid too much time on the internet or binge-watching shows. Follow the news and credible public health authorities without overdosing on distressing material. Focus on flourishing, but don't pressure yourself.

5. Make the most out of family time.

If you are bivouacked with family, include constructive time in your routine together. Bake, do puzzles, play games, make art, go outside together with safe practices, and grow closer. It is a time for couples to grow together, facing adversity and using some of that extra time for the relationship.

Parents plan their approach together before speaking with kids to make sure they have a unified voice. Look up and integrate useful resources (e.g., the National Child Traumatic Stress Network), focusing on self-efficacy and specific paths to overcome adversity. Plan and deliver accurate and targeted messaging, sharing quality information without excessively activating anxiety. Address emotions in an age-appropriate way.

6. Relax, turn off your mind, and float downstream.

Meditation has been shown to have numerous mental, emotional, and physical benefits, fundamentally improving brain function. Whether you are self-directed, work with a group or teacher, or follow a digital app, set aside a consistent time and place for your daily practice. 

Mindfulness-based approaches, and in particular compassion-based practice, can be especially helpful in learning to quell strong emotions without suppressing them too much, and self-compassion will help motivate people to strengthen self-care during a time when many find it easy to let it fall by the wayside.

7.  Remember the following to avoid common pitfalls:

  • Don't make mountains out molehills. Psychologists call this "catastrophizing." Pay attention to what is important, but use common sense in keeping things in perspective. The media highlights negative information and under-reports positives. Look for positive stories to offset the false perception that people are all bad. The rule of thumb is to have at least three positives for every negative.
  • People are resilient, more than we realize. Remember how you've gotten through past adversity, apply the lessons learned here, and research what works. Make it your goal to bring your "A" game.
  • Laughter is the best medicine. While too much dark humor can have a corrosive effect, a bit of gallows humor is healthy. Humor has been shown to be good for your health, and laughter is good physically and emotionally. Watch shows which make you laugh, listen to comedy, play amusing games together. You can even consider trying out laughter yoga.
  • Remind yourself that obsessing is a symptom related to anxiety. Direct yourself toward best practices—for example, washing your hands for 20 seconds as recommended—not out of excess anxiety. Resist the urge to wash your hands too much, and consider substituting hand-washing, if unnecessary, for another activity.
  • Focus on the day-to-day, planning for the future, and living in the moment. Thinking too much about the future takes us away from things we can have control over and can worsen anxiety by increasing uncertainty.
  • Keep up your health care. If you see a therapist or need medical care, don't let that slide. Clinicians and hospitals are offering telemedicine services. Reach out to your current care team to find out what is available before an issue arises. Of course, if you feel ill or are experiencing an emergency, seek help immediately.

This post was co-authored with guidelines from Giuseppe Raviola, M.D., MPH.


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