Behavioral health professionals like myself are helping people adjust to spending so much time at home. Human beings are great at adapting to changing circumstances. But a lot of us are experiencing sustained stress, which can cause mental health issues to arise.
The good news is we can take simple, daily steps to help reduce the worry caused by this pandemic — and improve our overall health.
Q: I seem to be feeling more anxious as time goes on. I thought I would adapt better to staying at home. What’s wrong with me?
A: Most of us are doing a good job at social distancing, washing our hands frequently and minimizing our trips to the supermarket. But we also thrive on predictability and consistency. During this COVID-19 crisis, the rules of engagement keep changing, and nothing seems certain. Every day we learn new information — some of it grimmer than the day before. The news reports the daily number of infections and deaths. It can be overwhelming.
The net effect can be a slow, but continual ramp-up of worry, even for us non-worriers. I found myself the other day reflecting on some of my worst fears — and started to feel my telltale signs of tension, such as headache, backache, tight jaw, painful shoulders, tight chest and rapid breaths. Fortunately, after many years of meditation practice, I’m pretty good at righting my own ship. Here’s what you can do when you feel that sense of worry coming on:
Normalize your experience. The good news: There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re simply responding to what’s happening around you and your body is reacting to your perception of increased threat. The bad news: It’s uncomfortable.
Right your ship. This is the time to use whatever relaxation skills you have. Take long, slow, deep breaths. Stretch. Download a meditation app on your phone. Breathe.
Exercise. Moving your body releases some of the tension that is building up over time.
Share your feelings. I called my best friend and shared my deepest fears with him. Just getting it out of my head, into the sunshine of our friendship, made me feel better.
Limit watching television news. It’s hard to do — we want to know what’s going on, what we should and shouldn’t do, and we hope for good news. Better to watch earlier in the day rather than near bedtime.
Q: I’m more tired than usual, even though I’m getting enough rest. How come?
A: While we can struggle to adapt, these unusual circumstances make greater demands on our body and on our mind. Social distancing, our extraordinary focus on staying clear of COVID-19, disinfecting, and hand-washing is exhausting. We are using more physical and mental energy than we normally expend. Try these tips:
Take more breaks. I just need more time to restore my energy. I must move a little slower and get a little less done, both at work and at home.
Give yourself a break. Come on — this is not the time to be the perfect parent. Your youngster is not going to come to a bad end because they’re watching more “Paw Patrol” on TV or playing more video games.
Eat well. Comfort food is good — but limit sugar and alcohol. Both can deplete your energy stores.
Drink water. Stay hydrated. It will give you more energy.
Sleep more. I find that I need more sleep than usual — it’s my body’s way of telling me I need more winks to recharge my batteries.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog. Do you have a behavioral-health question related to COVID-19? Sending your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.