As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and many of us are sheltering in place, there is a tremendous strain placed on both us as individuals and our relationships with family, roommates, colleagues, and neighbors. These tensions can have long-lasting effects on our mental health. The good news is that resilience is possible, but it requires more than just a positive mindset.
Building on my research from around the world with populations that have experienced the stress of social isolation, poverty, stigma, and violence, I have found that when people create environments for themselves that help them adapt, they do far better than relying on individual change alone.
This crisis is an opportunity for us to have a forthright conversation about our need to make our families, communities, workplaces, and government more resilient. Thinking about the many different systems we need for mental and physical health, from a positive attitude to social networks and health care, opens up possibilities to make us much more capable of withstanding long periods of forced isolation, financial stress, and even grief.
During this pandemic, we need to:
- Maintain structure in our lives, which means getting up in the morning at a regular time and keeping as many routines as possible.
- Find ways to be accountable to others, whether that is focusing on our role as a parent or helping to look after someone else’s pet if they can’t leave their home. The more accountable we feel, the easier it is to maintain our mental health.
- Invest energy in our most intimate relationships. We will need these more than ever. Take time each day to show others they matter, whether that person is a spouse, child, close friend, or roommate.
- Reach out and continue to nurture our social connections, whether online, or by checking in on friends and family (without getting too physically close). The more we contribute to maintaining and building connections with others, the more we will fight back against depression and anxiety.
- Take this opportunity to strengthen different parts of our identity, whether that is taking up a new hobby or simply showing others a different side of our personality. By broadening who you are, you are proving that even without your job or schooling, you still have value.
- Take control of whatever you can control. Whether that is limiting your television watching or exercising regularly, the experience of control gives you the strength to cope and to resist feelings of helplessness.
- Nurture a sense of belonging and maintain our spiritual path. Look for opportunities to express your life purpose. If you are spiritual or affiliated with a faith community, do whatever you can to continue your spiritual practices, especially if those practices remind you that you are not alone. This is also a time to celebrate your culture. Connecting with your past will help you predict a better future despite these uncertain times.
- Exercise our rights. Whether that means asking for help from your government or ensuring you are treated fairly by your employer or landlord, we are more resilient when we insist on fair treatment and take responsibility for ourselves and others.
- Look after our basic needs. Put your house in order. Rearrange the furniture. Clean out closets. Review your bank statements. Do your taxes. The more parts of your life you put in order, and the more your basic needs are taken care of, the more secure you will feel.
- Take care of our physical health. Stay as active as you can. This will lift your mood and prevent health problems that are unrelated to the pandemic.
- When possible, stabilize our finances. Make a plan for how you will get through this time of economic uncertainty. Reach out for help from your family, your bank, government, or local not-for-profit if you are financially in crisis.
- Think positive thoughts. Avoid catastrophic thinking by reading and watching things that lift your spirits. Talk to others about how you are feeling. Do whatever it takes to stay hopeful. Be grateful for anything that is going well, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
Over and over again, my work has shown that when individuals add these experiences to their lives, they are more likely to cope with the unrelenting stress associated with crises like a pandemic.