Six Ways to Protect Your Psychological Health During a Pandemic
If I’d have asked you in December what you were going to be doing in April, what are the odds you’d have said “making masks, washing off my groceries and Googling DIY haircuts”?
And yet, here we are.
While some are faring better than others, regardless of our circumstances, COVID-19 has impacted all of us in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few short months ago.
Even though most of us are in survival mode — just doing what we need to do to get through the day—we’re probably not necessarily thinking of this as a traumatic event. Trauma is life and death, right? Exposure to violence, living in a war-torn country, impending physical danger.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent quarantine has threatened our physical safety, economic well-being and psychological health. And according to experts, these are exactly the conditions needed for an event to be considered traumatic.*
Just as we are doing what we can to mitigate the physical danger (wearing masks, washing hands and staying home); and (hopefully) getting the help we need to avoid economic catastrophe, we also need to take active steps to protect our psychological health.
Traumatic reactions may not surface right away. They can linger after the danger is over and may be manifested by fear — avoiding public places, excessive worry or anxiety about getting sick; emotional shut-down—the inability to show feelings or connect with others or the tendency to numb-out; and physiological and psychological symptoms — recurring nightmares, difficulty sleeping, panic attacks and other stress-related symptoms such as trouble breathing, racing thoughts and increased heart rate.
Fortunately, there are things we can do now to protect ourselves and our families from having traumatic reactions down the road.
These suggestions will be familiar, as experts have recommended them from the start. But they can take on a whole new meaning as we understand how far they will go in protecting our emotional and psychological health in the months and years to come.
Create predictable schedules and routines. These don’t have to be complicated, but try to create a schedule for each day. If you have children, get their input. This will give you and them a sense of agency and control in what is a very unpredictable situation. Why it’s important - a lack of predictability makes us feel worried and insecure and is part of what makes an event traumatic. A regular schedule can help us anticipate and prepare for what’s coming next. It also gives us something to look forward to. This schedule becomes an anchor and help us feel more secure in troubled times.
Move around! Make time in your schedule, every day, for physical activity. Walks, bike rides and runs-around-the block, when appropriate, can let off much-accumulated steam. Dance parties, exercise videos and running in place are good indoor activities. Why it’s important - When we are stressed and anxious, our brains often move into a state of fight-or-flight. In short, the brain produces chemicals designed to help us fight hard or run fast. There’s nothing like a quarantine to make us feel like we can’t do either. Physical activity helps burn off these chemicals and restores a sense of calm.
Stay connected. Make time every day to connect with people you love. FaceTime calls, virtual coffee dates and online support groups are more than just checking in. We need to look at the faces and into the eyes of the people we care about, now more than ever. Why it’s important - Connecting with others reminds us we are not alone in our suffering. We give and receive validation — an affirmation of our very real feelings. A strong support system is essential in helping us weather life’s storms, and people with more support tend to fare better than those who have less.
Practice gratitude. Despite our difficult circumstances, there is always something to be grateful for. Try to make a list each day of 2-3 things you are thankful for. Start a gratitude journal, or make a bulletin board in your home where every family member can add things. Why it’s important - The benefits of gratitude are enormous. Gratitude gives us a stronger sense of well-being, can help us feel less lonely, can provide meaning in our lives and remind us of our priorities. Changing our perspective can help us see our circumstances differently and foster a sense of hopefulness and optimism.
Find purpose and meaning. Despite all the dismal news coming our way, we have seen so many examples of humans being kind and giving to one another. Use this time to find your purpose. Whether it is asking a neighbor if they need groceries, or leaving a teddy bear in your window for a child to find, look for opportunities to find meaning in the pain you are experiencing. Why it’s important - In one of my all-time favorite books, Man’s Search for Meaning, author and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl identifies finding meaning as the essential component of surviving even the most horrific circumstances. David Kessler, grief expert and author, recently added this as a “sixth” stage of grief. Finding meaning and purpose helps us make sense of confusing circumstances, and can help pave the way for future growth and resilience.
Ask for help when you need it. Even if you are physically alone, you don't have to do the emotional work alone. We all need help from time to time. At the least, let your friends and family know your needs. Don't be afraid to call a professional -- it could help a lot more than you realize.
No matter what happens in the days and weeks to come, know that we will get through this. This crisis will end. In the meantime, we want to help you in any way we can. We are available for video sessions for people in Indiana and Illinois, and most insurances are covering these sessions, even if you don’t normally have teletherapy benefits. You can reach us via phone at 317-743-8202 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This information came from a video presentation by Bessel van der Kolk, retrieved from www.pesi.com and viewed on 4/3/20.
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