How to Cope? Taking Care of our Mental Health during these Uncertain Times
In light of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), some tips on staying mentally strong and calm
By Leah Persky, PhD & CFLE • Family Life Education Manager
As my kids walked into the house after school, I direct them to wash their hands with soap and water first thing. They comply, although my 5-year-old takes some persuading and monitoring- 20 seconds is a LONG time for him to focus on this ordinary task. While my kids know what the Coronavirus is based on what they learned in school; their biggest take-away is that they need to wash their hands (ALL THE TIME), they must cover their cough, and should keep their hands away from their face and other people. Other than that, they are not very phased by it all, and I think this is a good thing. They aren’t in tune with the public anxiety, disruption to schedules, and illness that this pandemic is bringing to our world.
On the other hand, many adults now seem to be on constant news alert and sharing updates with colleagues, friends, and families. We have all received countless emails from stores and airlines and hotels and conferences and so many others about their response to the global pandemic. People are being urged to prepare, but not to over-prepare; this doesn’t seem to be a message that that media is catching on to. The media is keeping us all up to date, but for many people, this messaging often ignites or fuels their anxiety. The media’s penchant for the dramatic, the hype, the ratings and the 24 hour news cycle only contribute to the uncertainty and anxiousness that so many of us are feeling.
I appreciate up to the date accurate information, but isn’t there a threshold? When is enough information, enough? At what point in the day can we tune out? And really how can we listen to the messaging of staying calm, when at every turn we hear things about the deadly disease, the pandemic, and the stores running out of basics? There is some cognitive dissonance here and many of us are feeling this contradiction.
In addition to the COVID 19 pandemic updates, we also hear so much about the ever-changing and polarized political and economic environment in the US and around the world. So many friends and colleagues (in-person and virtually) seem to be worrying, unable to focus on daily work and activities, and waiting for the worst to happen.
The uncertainty is wearing on all of our nerves. This often means that many of us are constantly checking for news updates and looking at our phones to know what the most up-to-date information is. I have found myself staring at my phone and scrolling through the news and just waiting for and expecting more bad news and updates, much more often than I have in the past. I just stopped when I saw my most recent screen time report from last week. I won’t tell you how many hours each day I used my phone—but it did make me take stock. So, how can we as adults keep our selves mentally strong and reasonably calm? How can we worry less about ourselves and our loved ones?
There are so many articles and posts about keeping physically healthy during this time. I want to use this an opportunity to focus on taking care of our mental health, which unfortunately often takes a back seat. Here are a few suggestions:
- Put down that phone or tablet. I find it helpful to have a special box or drawer to place the phone or tablet for certain times each day. Along with this suggestion is to monitor the time your spend looking and news and related updates. If it is more than you would like, try to check just once per hour and put your phone away for the night in advance of going to sleep.
- Do what you need to do to make yourself feel prepared for the unknown, but don’t go overboard. This means different things to each of us, but here is a useful list to check in with the CDC for a household preparation checklist. The Department of Homeland Security recommends that Americans have a two-week supply of food as part of your preparations. Many other experts have said that anywhere from a few days to a week is plenty. Think about what makes sense for your family. Part of the preparations is to create a household plan if school and work are cancelled.
- Continue to engage in your wellness activities, taking small precautions as needed. For example, take your workout outside, bring wipes with you for public door handles or to wipe down the shopping cart or your workout space at the gym. Common sense is a good guide here.
- Don’t allow the news of the day to dominate all your discussions. Maintain a healthy media diet with limits for yourself and others in your care. Notice how you feel after engaging in social media or news updates and make needed changes.
- Share news and updates with your children as needed in age-appropriate way. It is generally best to first gauge what they know, allow them to ask you questions, and respond with direct and short answers- avoiding too much detail.
- Reach out for support from your community, your family, or professionals to support your mental health. To bring this full circle, check in with your friends and neighbors and others who may be isolated or very worried during this time. Picking up the phone for a quick check-in can goes a long way.
- Did I say, put down that phone or tablet? Just thought we would all benefit from another reminder about this point. It is hard to break habits, but the easiest way to do this is to put your phone out of your view and your reach.
In times like this we owe it to ourselves to keep up our self-care habits, to appreciate all that we have, and to bring mindfulness, some quiet space, and awareness into our lives each day. All these small things and our common sense will help to bring us through this time of uncertainty and lessen the anxiety and worry that so many of us are experiencing.
We are all part of families with loved ones we deeply care and worry about. It is natural to worry about the ones we hold dear. Worrying also serves a purpose (within limits). It can help us to prepare, to take action, and to alert us to situations we need to pay attention to and are important to us. Kate Sweeny, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside notes that worrying acts as an important emotional buffer which can prepare us for the worst (which rarely happens) and helps us be successful in the future. She notes that: “If we don’t ever worry about our future, we’re likely to put ourselves in some significant danger and risk.” But, be aware of your worrying behavior and see how you feel each day. If you worrying is taking up more of your time or disrupting your daily activities, that is sign that you should reach out for professional help.
At Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis, the health and wellbeing of those we serve, our volunteers and staff is our top priority. Our mission is to provide essential services to people of all ages and backgrounds to sustain healthy relationships, ease suffering and offer support in times of need. In light of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we are committed to doing our best to continue providing those programs and services that are most critical to our mission.
JFCS is here to provide hope, help and healing to all in our community. Today, as always, we remain that resource. If you are in need of support, just call JFCS and we can help: 952-546-0616 or www.jfcsmpls.org.
For more information, visit the links below:
Sweeny, K., & Dooley, M. D. (2017). The surprising upsides of worry. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(4), e12311.