All of us are feeling the stress of the COVID-19 Crisis in different ways. Often, we recognize signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety in others long before we ever recognize or admit seeing them in ourselves. We hear so much about self-care that we can sometimes, in a way, get desensitized to the importance. There is a dark part of us that still holds onto the stigma that taking care of our own mental health is somehow selfish. We are compassionate with others and critical with ourselves.
One of the most important things we can do is give ourselves grace and mercy. Just like any other struggle or crisis, we will all respond to this stressor in our own ways and at our own pace. However we are feeling on any given day is ok. We should pay attention when the negative feelings (pressure, negativity, catastrophic thinking, hopelessness, fear, helplessness) go on for a long period of time and begin to consistently impact our ability to work, carry out daily activities, and maintain healthy relationships. That’s when we should think about reaching out and getting some help.
There are a number of things that you can do to manage day to day stress and anxiety. Some of my favorites include box breathing, managing runaway thoughts, and practicing intentional gratitude. Here is a brief description of each:
- Box breathing is a deep breathing technique that involves breathing in a series of 4 counts, like a box. Breathe in for 4 counts, hold it for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, and pause for 4 counts. Repeat a few times. The benefits of intentional breathing can be amplified when closing your eyes, visualizing something that brings you peace, and focusing on the positive emotions you wish to feel instead of the stressful ones you may actually be feeling.
- Sometimes, even when practicing deep breathing techniques, our minds can wander and our thoughts can focus on the very fears and concerns we are trying to take a break from. When that happens you can interrupt those thoughts by making up games inside of your head. By doing this, your mind has a task to preform and cannot run away. Simple examples include reciting song lyrics backwards or naming as many green fruits and vegetables as you can. This is akin to counting sheep, and can be a powerful tool to give yourself a mental break.
- Gratitude is a powerful emotion, and keeping a written gratitude journal can help us savor the good stuff the same way we automatically savor the bad stuff. Doing this allows our brain and our emotions to feel more balanced. It can help prevent the feeling and thought that “everything is bad.” To start your gratitude journal, write down 3 things (big or small) every day that you are grateful for or that made you happy. Some days I am grateful for big things like my health and my home, but other days I am just really grateful for a good cup of coffee! Try to reflect on them for a bit, since doing so can really help us savor the good moments. Studies have shown that people who keep written gratitude journals are happier, healthier, sleep better, are more productive, and have better relationships.
Another important thing to remember is that there are always going to be things you can control and things that you can’t. When you are feeling especially stressed, force yourself get specific. Ask yourself “What, specifically, has me stressed in this moment?” Then ask the critical question “What about this can I control?” and focus your energy on impacting the part you can control, if there is one, no matter how small. It can also be helpful to challenge yourself by asking what you might be missing. If you start to feel overwhelmed with the feeling that “everything has changed” make a list of things that HAVEN’T changed. If you start to feel like “no one cares”, make a list of people who do (even if you haven’t seen or heard from them in a while). If you start to feel like you “can’t get anything right” ask yourself to name one or two things you DID get right.
One of the cool things happening right now is that there are more free virtual resources available than ever before. Look for resources online, either on social media or in a quick google search. There is everything from concerts, to play readings, to meditation groups, to online yoga, dance, AA meetings, and of course telehealth. If you are feeling an emptiness, look for something productive and healthy to fill it. You deserve that. Entertain the idea that you don’t have to just survive this, perhaps you could thrive!
My colleague Mallory and I have noticed that there is a lot of pressure out there right now to be overly productive. To learn new skills, take classes, organize your house, cook Instagram-worthy meals every night, and general speaking be a superhero while quarantined. We like to jokingly remind each other that no one is going to “win” the Pandemic. It’s not a competition, so give yourself a huge break and just focus on making the healthiest choices you can for yourself and your family, both physically and emotionally. Some days you are going to do really well. Some days you aren’t. And that’s perfectly ok. Be as kind to yourself as you are to others.
Written by: Laura Holley, MA – Director of Prevention