Are you feeling worried, tense, irritable, sad, angry, fearful, powerless, lonely and hopeless right now? If so, you are not alone. Intense emotions like these make perfect sense during such uncertain times.
Our daily lives have been turned upside down. Schools are closed, people are suddenly working from home, friends and loved ones are losing jobs, and people we know and love are being infected with the coronavirus.
While we cannot control the course that the coronavirus will take, we can control how we respond to the situation.
We can learn how to better manage our feelings using a variety of coping skills geared toward self-care. We can practice self-compassion, accept uncertainty, embrace distraction, and help others within the rules of social distancing. We can maintain human connection in new and innovative ways, and we can come together as a community to support and encourage each other as we go through this difficult time.
Anxiety and fear alert us to potential danger so we can mobilize to find solutions to the problems we are facing. But the fear response, when triggered, can lead to a significant increase in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, releasing stress hormones and other chemicals responsible for the fight or flight response.
While the current crisis is frightening and overwhelming, the fight or flight response is counterproductive, and ultimately leaves us with heightened feelings of fear, and sometimes panic. When this happens, we may become “hijacked” by our intense feelings, which can cloud our ability to think clearly and impair our judgment.
A crisis can cause a total disconnect between thoughts and feelings, often leading to maladaptive behaviors, such as:
- an exclusive focus on perceived danger,
- incessant watching of the news,
- panicked purchasing of supplies that leave little to no resources for others,
- decreased concentration and focus,
- sleep and appetite disturbances, and
- increased isolation and feelings of loneliness.
While the COVID-19 virus is cause for great concern, and social distancing and contact precautions must be taken seriously, extreme anxiety and panic are counterproductive and actually disrupt our attempts to cope. But taking steps to calm the sympathetic nervous system will help us to engage our rational mind when thinking about and dealing with the stressors we are all currently facing.
The first step to combating the fear and anxiety triggered by the COVID-19 virus crisis is to learn ways to manage and regulate some of the intense emotions that we may be feeling right now. One of the main objectives is to use the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body and mind. Things like practicing breathing, relaxation, and meditation can flip the switch, turning off the danger signals and putting a stop to the fight or flight response. Some more general strategies to do this include the following:
Limit exposure to news
Constant exposure to a variety of sources of media triggers the fight or flight response and increases that overall sense of panic. Using the amount of time you spent engaging in the media prior to the coronavirus crisis as a gauge, try returning to this pattern again, rather than watching the coverage all throughout the day. Along these same lines, limit yourself to engaging with more credible sources of information such as information from the CDC. Bombardment by the media coverage, which is often inaccurate and very alarmist, can cause intense feelings of fear, which are often likely to be out of proportion to the situation. Above all else, when feeling panicked by the media coverage, try to remind yourself that feelings are not facts.
Create a structured routine each day
Structure can provide us with a sense of normalcy and enable us to feel some semblance of control over our days. With this said, remember that this is a time of great transition unlike anything we have ever experienced before. It is important to be patient and kind to yourself as you figure out the best ways to manage the many competing demands you will be facing. When possible, suspend self-judgment as you learn to do things such as work remotely while balancing the needs of family members and friends.
Recognize and focus on what you can control right now
Keep up with our daily routine, self-care, and following CDC guidelines such as hand-washing and social distancing. Above all, make sure to take care of your body by eating nutritious meals, getting sufficient sleep, and doing some form of physical activity each day. Sleep, proper nutrition, and physical activity can go a long way toward setting you up for the best days possible right now.
You can use apps like Insight Timer. Many people are also offering free online meditation groups. Keep an eye out for “pop up” meditations on Facebook.
Give yoga a try, whether individually or with your family. There are many YouTube channels that offer Yoga instruction. One of my colleagues highly recommends “Yoga with Adriene” on YouTube.
Get outside and walk—either alone, or with a family member and/or a pet, while practicing social distancing.
Participate in at-home workouts
Many people on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook offer free workouts. If you belong to a gym, find out if the gym is offering virtual classes that would offer you a chance to work out and to interact with your peers.
Read a new book
Read, or perhaps listen to a book on Audible. You may even want to start a book group with friends and/or family and then discuss them virtually using platforms like Zoom or Google Hangouts.
Binge-watch new shows on Netflix
Netflix is also offering Netflix Party, which allows you and others to watch together virtually.
Connect with friends and family on FaceTime, Zoom, Skype and WhatsApp
Some people find that planning a regularly scheduled virtual ‘date” with family and friends gives them something to look forward to
Resume old hobbies
Restart one that you stopped having time for, or take up a new hobby or two. There are several people providing free online instruction in things like knitting and crochet on youtube
Take on a cleaning or organizing project
Pick one that you have been putting off.
You can write in a journal, write poetry or stories. Starting a journaling club with friends and family where you write regularly about a specific topic can be fun. There are even some apps that allow you to create haikus with people all around the world.
When working from home, take breaks throughout the day and set a timer to mark the end of the workday.
Make an appreciation list
Write down and carry a list of the people and things that make you feel good so you can review it when you are feeling down and remember who to turn to and what to do to make yourself feel better.
Here is a list of even more activities that may provide distraction, comfort, and relief during these uncertain times:
- Watch Ted Talks
- Listen to podcasts
- Do a word search or a crossword puzzle
- Play Sudoku or Solitaire
- Play an instrument
- Watch funny YouTube videos
- Take a nap
- Take a hot shower or relaxing bubble bath
- Play with your pet
- Learn to knit, crochet or sew
- Listen to music
- Create a playlist of your favorite songs
- Paint, draw, or color
- Write a letter or send an email to someone you care about
- Plan your dream room
- Rearrange your furniture
- Have a family game night
- Make and play with some playdough
- Build a pillow fort
- Look up recipes and learn to cook new meals if you have the ingredients
- Have an indoor picnic
- Have an indoor scavenger hunt with your family
- Play fun games like duck duck goose, hide and seek, and steal the bacon
- Look at old photos
- Work on a puzzle
- Play a video game
- Make a vision board
- Create collages for friends and family members
- Write a gratitude list every day
- Write a list of things you have accomplished each day, no matter how simple
- Shop online, with or without actually purchasing
- Color coordinate your wardrobe
- Give yourself a facial
- Create TikToks
- Sing songs on Smule with other people around the world
- Have a family karaoke contest
- Experiment with your wardrobe
- Hunt for your perfect home or car online
- Text, call, or email an old friend
- Learn a new language
- Make a bucket list
- Join an online forum about a hobby or interest you have
- Take an online class
- Learn some dances by watching YouTube videos
- Become an online volunteer
- Play a multiplayer game like Words With Friends
- Go on a virtual museum or zoo tour
- Practice self-compassion
- Listen to Binaural Beats on YouTube
Remember that if you are struggling and want or need additional support, virtual therapy is a really helpful option. If you are in a crisis, please call a local hotline for immediate help.
Be safe and stay healthy.
Contribution from Dr. Elissa Gross, Lukin Center Senior Psychologist.