Jessica Harvath, Ph.D.

Our Better Selves

Mental Health Survival Tips

How to weather the pandemic without panic.

Posted Mar 15, 2020

1. Avoid the internet rabbit hole. Limit the amount of time you spend watching the news and the frequency of times you check for updates. Limit social media in particular.

Yes, you need to be informed of broad CDC recommendations as well as any specific guidelines for where you live, if any arise. But spending hours scouring news websites, setting your phone for COVID-19 news notifications, and scrolling a social media feed is not doing your anxiety any good. This recommendation goes double for you if you tend toward obsessive-compulsive thinking and behavior.

2. Keep your therapy appointments, but don’t go into the office if you’re sick.

If you are under quarantine or if you are medically vulnerable to coronavirus (or if you are too anxious to leave home), call your therapist’s office and ask whether telehealth is an option. Many insurance providers cover teletherapy, and more are making special exceptions to ensure care is available during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you’re sick but still feel up to a session, teletherapy is definitely the way to go. If you’re showing symptoms and teletherapy is not an option, talk to your therapist. Many therapists are waiving late-cancellation fees related to illness to protect other clients and office staff. Don’t go into your therapist’s office (or anywhere else) if you’re showing symptoms.

If you don’t currently have a therapist but want to get started, you can look for providers who are able to offer a telehealth intake.

3. Take reasonable precautions, but don’t go overboard.

This one is probably the hardest to follow. What is a reasonable precaution when your social media is bombarded with images of bare store shelves or overrun hospitals in Italy? (Hint: Following step one makes it easier to avoid overreacting.) On the other hand, maybe your depression is telling you that washing your hands carefully won’t help much anyway, or maybe you are the guy who has never used a sick day in his life and you don’t plan on starting now.

It might be helpful to remind yourself that you are a part of your community and that your actions affect people around you. Just like it was meaningful for our grandparents to start victory gardens during World War II, it can be meaningful to remember we are all in this together, and yes, small acts like washing your hands and avoiding close contact with others can slow the spread of illness. Halting coronavirus entirely may not be possible, but slowing it down can save lives.

Panic and overreaction, however, may be just as harmful as neglecting basic hygiene. Medical workers need access to face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer, and—for goodness’ sake—we all need toilet paper. Experts seem to agree that you don’t need a fallout bunker to get through a quarantine with a reasonable amount of comfort. Plus, if you hoard medical supplies for yourself (or worse, snap up supplies to profiteer), local hospitals and medical offices may not have what they need on hand to help you or loved ones. In short, whether you visit the art museum while sick or buy a pallet of face masks and dry goods, you’re not doing your part.

Deciding how much to change your typical behavior on account of coronavirus—whether to go on a restaurant date or take your kids to the neighborhood playground—might be a bit trickier. And, depending on who you talk to or which expert the news media consults, determining a “reasonable” course of action can feel like a coin toss.

In addition to staying up-to-date on CDC recommendations, I’d like to propose a goal of a balanced response, or—to borrow a term from astronomy—a goal of living and acting in the Goldilocks Zone. In addition to considering your age, health status, and what coronavirus risk looks like in your area, it may be helpful to consider whether you have a tendency to over- or underreact.

If you tend to feel anxious and have a habit of avoiding situations that are likely safe but may feel threatening, a balanced response for you may be “leaning in” to discomfort and going to the grocery store for necessities with hand sanitizer in tow. If you are known among your friends as the risk-taker or you’ve been voted Most Likely to Ignore an Evacuation Order by your high school class, you may want to challenge yourself to stick to CDC recommendations even if your gut reaction to guidelines is more relaxed.

4. When in doubt, take care of your body.

Self-care is hard for many of us under the best of circumstances, but it can be doubly difficult if going to your regular yoga is not currently an option. If you are stuck at home, open blinds and (weather permitting) windows to let in light and fresh air. If appropriate, sitting on a front porch or in a backyard garden can help regulate your circadian rhythm when housebound.

Instead of binging television shows all day, set a schedule that includes bathing, changing out of pajamas, calling friends and family, and doing some form of exercise. We live in an age of free exercise apps and videos, and finding movement that feels good is a necessary ingredient of mental health.

This may be a good time to try mindfulness and meditation. Guided meditation apps can help you whether you are a novice or trying to get back to a regular practice. Fun fact: research suggests even ten minutes of meditation per day can help reduce the distress associated with anxiety, depression, or thinking about COVID-19.

And limit use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. If you’re already jittery, consider swapping out your regular cup of coffee for some herbal tea.

5. Reach out for support and to support others (from a distance).

Technology can help you to stay in touch with friends and family. Try to set up a Skype date with an old friend or an out-of-town family member. Schedule a teletherapy session. National and local support lines are great resources if you’re upset and don’t know who to call. If COVID-19 is causing you significant distress, SAMHSA has a Disaster Distress Hotline. To get support, call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746.

References

Xu, M., Purdon, C., Seli, P., & Smilek, D. (2017). Mindfulness and mind wandering: The protective effects of brief meditation in anxious individuals. Consciousness and cognition, 51, 157-165.