It has now been over 12 weeks that Illinois has had a shelter-in-place order, and although some of the restrictions are easing, life is not back to normal. Also, COVID-19 is still a threat. This dynamic duo has impacted us on many levels, ranging from economic to physical well-being to emotional health. It is this latter point that I would like to address today.
As a psychiatrist, I worked to explore ways to reduce the emotional impact of this crisis on my family and me. That is not to say that the pandemic has not impacted me. On a personal level, I have noticed a higher amount of irritability and sensitivity. Although I’m usually an optimistic person, I have had a few more down days. Most significantly, I’m experiencing more nightmares. This latter fact is an expression of anxiety that I’m effectively masking during waking hours, but seeps out when I’m sleeping. As Illinois restrictions have lightened, new challenges have emerged. Toilet paper scarcity is no longer an issue, but now I have to decide how much social interaction is safe.
I’m not psychologically perfect, but I do believe that I have done well by utilizing a variety of psychological techniques.
Here are some of the coping tools that I have used. You may find them helpful when dealing with your social isolation.
Accept your feelings
It is normal not to feel normal during a crisis. This is an unprecedented time in world history. You may find yourself more irritable, slightly more depressed, or a bit more anxious. These feelings are not failings; you are reacting to a difficult time. With that said, if these emotions are pulling you down, it is essential to try to control them. Many of the suggestions below can help you feel healthier. However, if your emotional state is severely compromised, you must seek help.
Maintain a routine.
Over the last 12 weeks, have you had times when you weren’t sure what day of the week it was? I have. We are creatures of habit, and most of us do well when we follow a routine. A routine not only gives us structure, but it also frees up psychological energy. We don’t have to think and plan mundane activities when we follow a pattern of behavior. There are many ways to develop a routine. An excellent place to start is to mimic your regular wakeup time and bedtime. Another easy routine activity is to make sure that you get dressed in street clothes as soon as you get up.
Keep up with hygiene.
Shelter-in-place rules have made it more challenging to keep up with traditional grooming, such as getting a haircut. As rules relax, it is essential to assess your particular needs and risks when deciding to return to a barber or stylist. However, hygiene issues have a more basic side. When you are isolating alone, it is easy to put off washing your hair, taking a shower, or even brushing your teeth. However, it is critical to do these activities just as you would if you were out-and-about.
Even during the height of restrictions, it was OK to leave your house for a little fresh air. The risk of getting COVID-19 during a socially distant walk is extremely low, but the benefits to your emotional state are significant. I try to go on a walk by myself or with family members every day.
Reach out to others.
One way to feel less socially isolated is to be less socially isolated. But how can you do that when you are required to have limited contact with others? Facebook is OK, but my feed has turned mostly into ads and memes. The more connected that you can make any communication, the better. A text conversation is preferred to reading your Facebook feed; a phone call is better than a text message; a video call is better than a phone call. There are some individuals in my life who I have made of point of calling every day. My goal is to show them that they are important enough for me to reach out to them regularly. Some of my contacts are video calls; some are voice calls. I try to augment my voice calls with photos sent as text messages or email attachments. Regular calls to people who you love is a win/win way to spend your time.
Find your own space.
If you are sharing your living space with someone, it is not only important to share time; it is also important to have alone time. Find a place in your home where you can be alone. I go to my study and my wife “chills” in our sunroom. We have five adults living together, and we are fortunate that our residence has enough space for each of us to have a private spot. I understand that not everyone is as lucky as we are. However, even claiming a comfy chair can give you a place to get away.
I isolate myself in a chair in my study. To the right of the chair is a window where I can explore what is happening on the street. To my left is a small table with a lamp. At the moment the table is holding a cup of coffee and my phone. On my lap are a lap table and the MacBook that I’m typing this post on. It is a simple set up that allows me to have some private time where I can be as productive or unproductive as I choose.
Limit the news.
News in the US tends to be sensational. “If it bleeds, it leads.” Too much news can be agitating and does little to enhance or inform. Try to limit your news to known reliable sources and “ingest” it no more than twice a day. Having a cable news service on 24/7 will likely make you feel more agitated and depressed.
Learn new skills, revisit old ones.
I have a friend who is spending some of her isolation time learning about house plants. I know others who are tackling simple home projects.
Before the pandemic, my wife and I were empty nesters. We have had to readjust to having a full house with the return of three of our children. When it was just the two of us, it didn’t make much difference if we cooked or went out to dinner. However, with the return of the kids came daily meal preparation. I am a competent cook, but coming up with a regular meal has been a drag. With that said, the thought of an exclusive diet of microwave meals or fast food burgers turns my stomach. I have returned to alternating cooking meals with my wife. When I cook, I involve my kids in meal preparation. Their participation makes the task more enjoyable. I have also resorted to conjuring memories of my mother’s weekday cooking. She was an excellent cook, but many of her meals were simple or one dish concoctions. Cooking for my family has made me feel productive, and I’m glad that I can provide them with something that they can look forward to.
Institute conversations at home.
Although there are periods where I need my alone times, there are other times where I want to connect with my immediate family. We try to eat dinner together, and we do this at the dinner table. We limit electronics during dinner, and we often use “conversation starters.” One of our favorites is “rose and thorn.” Each family member talks about something good and something bad from the day. Rose and thorn helps us know what is going on in each of our lives and serves as a springboard for additional conversation.
Institute activities at home.
There are many options here, and it is crucial to find an activity that everyone enjoys. A family movie, family game night, family craft night… the list goes on. Structured activities allow for easy interactions.
Redefine holidays and important events.
There have been several important events that have happened during our shelter-in-place time. In our case, we celebrated Easter, several birthdays, and Mother’s Day, but we modified the events to fit our new restrictions. We have made an effort to extract those traditions that are important and changed them to fit our current situation.
In our neighborhood, I have seen an explosion of lawn signs celebrating everything from birthdays to graduations. Our neighbors are tackling the same issues that we are. Do what you can to keep special events special.
Be kind to yourself.
You would think that shelter-in-place would be a perfect time for me to tackle all of the household projects that I never seem to have time to do. However, I can tell you that I have been less likely to do heinous projects during COVID-19. I simply don’t have the desire or energy to do repetitive or borning tasks. Why? I believe that it is partly due to the fact that I’m expending a lot of energy coping with life in a pandemic.
By all means, clean out a closet or organize a spice rack if you have the desire to do so. However, be kind to yourself and back off the guilt if you don’t want to. That stuff will be waiting for you.
Expand your social circle responsibly.
Most things that we do have both risks and benefits. The secret to success is to balance these two oppositional forces. During the first few weeks of isolation, I found myself feeling more irritable and somewhat depressed. I was missing the daily contact that I had with a friend. He was also socially isolating and was at low risk for being a coronavirus carrier. I started to visit him in his backyard for short chats, which made a world of difference in how I felt.
As restrictions ease, it may seem like the battle is over, and life is returning to normal. That is not the case. It is important to connect socially, but it is also essential to weigh the risks and benefits of any social interaction. Remember, it is about both the viral load and the length of exposure. Places that maximize both of these factors are the most dangerous to be in, places that minimize them are safer. Do get out and enjoy life, but do so in a responsible way. Naturally, common sense activities like wearing a mask and handwashing are critical musts. Remember that the ultimate loss of freedom is death.
Reach out for help if needed.
The above tips can help you deal with the COVID blues. However, some individuals will experience depression and anxiety that goes well beyond the typical. If you are experiencing significant depression, debilitating anxiety, or thoughts of harm, it is imperative that you seek professional help. Contact your doctor, hotlines, or your local hospital if needed.
I hope you have found these mental health suggestions helpful in dealing with the stress and anxiety that this global disaster has brought us. We will get through this; tomorrow is another day.