Helpful Hints for Coping With the COVID-19 Pandemic

Several common factors are associated with successful coping.

Posted Jul 31, 2020

Not surprisingly, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic a great deal of my therapy time has focused on the sudden, dramatic and at times traumatic dislocation from our pre-pandemic lives. Since all people are unique individuals, and no “cookie cutter” or formulaic approach to therapy is valid for everyone (e.g., C. Lazarus, 2017), there is no single best way to psychologically help someone during this very challenging and unprecedented global health emergency.

What’s more, there is a significant range of impact the pandemic has had on people from mildly inconvenient (i.e., not being able to engage in certain outlets and activities like going to the gym or movies) to totally devastating (i.e., losing employment, contracting the virus and/or losing loved ones to the illness). Obviously, depending on the magnitude of its effect on a given person, an equally wide range of individually tailored therapeutic interventions will be required to best help any given person (C. Lazarus, 1991).

Nevertheless, during the past four to five months, I have found several factors that have been consistently associated with impact mitigation and positive coping. Keep in mind that these ideas are strictly anecdotal, based on my personal clinical experience as well as that of some of my colleagues, and are not to be taken as scientifically verified. Still, they do seem very helpful in most cases.

First, please note that these general factors are mostly appropriate for people who have not lost a close family member to COVID-19. These poor souls have much bigger challenges to contend with than the majority of the pandemic’s casualties who have not suffered such devastating impacts.

Also, to state the obvious, it is imperative that people feel they have safe places where they live and work. Without feeling safe from infection in their homes and at places of work (if working remotely is not an option), the following “hints” will be minimally helpful. But for those who feel they have such “safe bubbles,” these factors seem to be quite insulating from the pandemic’s psychological impact.

Employment: If one has remained employed it is a hugely mitigating factor. Even given the shift to working remotely from a “brick and mortar” venue, being able to remain in the workforce is a major factor that’s associated with successful coping. If one has lost their job, however, the subsequent elements still seem to be very helpful.

Routine: Sticking to a consistent routine provides some structure, consistency, predictability and a sense of control that are all helpful in managing acute and chronic stress. So, maintaining regular sleep and wake times, meal times and daily activities provides a degree of direction and familiar action patterns that most people find comforting.

Family time: If one has a family with whom one lives, establishing consistent family activities can be very positive. For instance, having meals together, especially supper; watching movies or TV as a family; playing board games; and even doing chores in a collaborative manner helps refocus people on what’s truly important -namely, the health, safety and love of one’s family. Naturally, family time is not always fun and games because being cooped up in close quarters often sparks off conflict. This can be particularly difficult for young adults who have been living relatively independently (e.g., at college) who need to return home. Even more challenging are cases of LGBT people who are required to return to their families of origin wherein their parents, or other family members, do not accept who they fundamentally are as human beings. Nevertheless, as a general principle, focusing on nourishing family love and cohesion is beneficial. In more complicated cases, the hope is that conflicted families will seek therapy or counseling to resolve some of their difficulties.      

Staying socially connected: Keeping up with one’s social circle and faith-based practices is very important for most people. For the time being, most social interaction beyond the people one is living or sheltering with is best done virtually through social media, telephone and video platforms. But with appropriate precautions (e.g., very small outdoor gatherings with presumably healthy people who will all respect physical distancing and all other CDC recommendations) actual get togethers appear to be safe and very rewarding.    

Exercise: It is hard to overstate the importance of regular exercise. Indeed, the manifold advantages of cultivating a routine of consistent exercise can fill an entire book. But suffice it to say that mind, body and mood all benefit greatly from effortful and sustained physical movement. In fact, for decades studies have shown that moderately vigorous exercise (cardio and resistance) produces the same changes in brain activity as those brought about by antidepressants (e.g., Baxter, 1992). Hence one of the best ways we can insulate ourselves from the psychologically stressful and mood eroding effects of the pandemic life-style is with regular exercise. Even with gyms closed it is possible to derive significant benefits from brisk walking, jogging, biking, swimming, push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, crunches and any other safe, resistance exercise one can think of.

Mindfulness: In essence, mindfulness is the psychological process of purposely bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment. In other words, connecting with the immediacy of one’s experience without attaching any particular significance or importance to whatever one might become aware of or notice. At its deepest level, mindfulness is simply living in the present as fully as possible with an overarching mindset of “radical acceptance.” The core idea being to cultivate an ability to experience things as fully as possible in the here-and-now without attaching any value judgments to them, and without analyzing, interpreting or evaluating them. Thus, nonjudgmental experience is the foundation of mindfulness. The other central aspect of mindfulness, to be fully present in the now, is because all of our actual experience always and only occurs in the now. So by dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, all we do is remove ourselves from the potential pleasures of the present moment.

Hobbies: Having enjoyable or creative outlets seems very helpful. People who delve into meaningful and pleasurable activities on a regular basis seem to be weathering the COVID-19 crisis better than people who lack such outlets. Thus trying to connect with a specific hobby like baking, gardening, doing home repairs, wood working, painting, drawing, photography, writing, hiking, etc. is strongly recommended. 

Eating clean: Healthy eating is another trait associated with stressing less during the pandemic. Sadly many people are eating poorly and gaining weight during the crisis that often leads to more unhappiness and personal dissatisfaction. What’s worse, a strong correlation has emerged between obesity and the severity of COVID-19. So try to follow the sage advice of Michael Pollan (a renowned author, professor, journalist, and activist) who famously said, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. Moreover, my observations that most of these hints, suggestions and ideas are associated with better coping is strictly correlational. I cannot say that because of following some or most of them people are faring better than those who don’t. It is entirely possible that people who naturally gravitate to some or most of these behaviors are simply more resilient and/or less vulnerable to stressors in general.

Nevertheless, the upshot is simply it is likely that the more of these hints one follows, the softer the pandemic will land on them.

Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well!

Copyright 2020 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified health professional. The advertisements in this post do not necessarily reflect my opinions nor are they endorsed by me.

References

Baxter, L. R., et al. (1992).  Caudate glucose metabolic rate changes with both drug and behavior therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Archives of General Psychiatry, 49, 681 -689.

Lazarus, C. N. (2017). Multimodal Therapy. In A. Wenzel (ED.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Abnormal and Clinical Psychology (Volume 4, pp. 2163-2166). Los Angeles: CA.

Lazarus, C.N. (1991). Conventional diagnostic nomenclature versus multimodal assessment. Psychological Reports, Vol. 68: 1363-1367.