Social distance and food storage are occupying much of our headspace these days, but it is just as important to prepare for the mental health challenges that are likely to arise in the coming weeks.
The way I see it, we have no choice but to allocate some of our inner resources toward making smart mental adjustments that complement temporary but necessary lifestyle changes.
In this post, I will cover a few essential, actionable steps you can take to bolster your emotional well-being. These tips represent a starting point for managing your mental health during this strange chapter in our lives.
You Need A Strong Emotional Immune System
First, consider that you have an emotional immune system designed to help you deal with emotional distress, including anxiety, stress and depression.
What is an emotional immune system? It is the part of you that manages your mental response when when potential threat is introduced. Currently, the most common threat to our mind is the fear of us or the people we care about contracting COVID-19. I will assume that you are taking the appropriate preventative steps.
The next threat would be your news consumption. Constant exposure to breaking news about COVID-19 will overwork your emotional immune system, leaving you anxious, even panicked, at random moments. You may justify your constant news exposure by thinking that being informed gives you a greater sense of control, but this is simply untrue.
My concern is that the constant flow of troubling information available on our screens functions like a virus of the mind.
Your cortisol levels are likely to skyrocket, and this is not healthy. Your body does what the mind tells it to do. Sounding the alarm in your body with messages of fear and helplessness may impact your body’s immune system.
This is why it is so important to restrict your exposure to social media and news sites since they bombard you with mostly bad news.
Chatrooms are the less obvious offender. I recommend that you propose to a ban on introducing any breaking news while you are supporting one another in chatrooms and group messages. Any emotional gains from virtual support usually get cancelled out when one of your introduces more bad news.
Consider the following: Most self-care activities, including meditation, journaling, sitting with feelings and other behaviors meant to give you the feeling of control will be less effective if do not reduce your intake of news that usually tells you what to worry about.
Life is harder to manage with so many cues to worry and this is just not healthy for you. I recommend limiting social media and news intake to 2-3 times a day at most, and none before bed.
Cognitive Strategies Go Nicely with Less News Consumption
Once the news floodgates are well managed, you can do more effective inner work. This brings us to a cognitive strategy that can strengthen your emotional immune system. It all comes down to what you tell yourself. As I said, your body is listening very carefully to the messages.
Start paying greater attention to how you talk to yourself when you think about the virus. If you find that you are frequently telling yourself sound something like, “I can’t handle this,” or “this is too much,” then you need to adjust this self-talk.
When you are tell yourself that you cannot handle something, you are telling your body what to do. Sound the alarm! Fire up the fight-or-flight response.
The good news is that your mental habits can be altered by actively substituting alarming messages with self-talk that promotes resilience and hardiness.
Even if you first feel anxious and tell yourself you cannot handle something, you still have the opportunity to say to yourself, “That reminds me of the opposite….” and then state something positive.
I like to say to myself, “No matter what happens I will be ok.”
A variation on this is “I can handle this” or “we will get though this” or “this this hard but we can do it.” Come up with affirmations that work for you. It might sound simplistic but it can be very effective over time. Just stick with it.
Say these messages to yourself at least 50 times a day, including in response to noticing negativity.
Take this self-soothing method seriously even if you only connect with the messages on an intellectual level. Over time your emotional side will join the resistance.
You have the power to alter your mind and body’s response to new information. Use that power and you will increase your faith in your ability to cope, which reduces the frequency of anxious moments.
Refuse to be a passive recipient of bad news. Fight any helpless state with this mental exercise. If you need to vent your anxiety, which is a valid reaction to some of the news we are learning, then call a friend or chat with another adult at home. In addition, you can do things that make you feel in control. Worry about any new onset of OCD later.
It must be said that sometimes the feeling may be so strong that all you can do is sit with it, engage in distracting behaviors or find a way to self-express.
In addition, try one or more meditative approach, even if it means enlisting one of the meditation apps like Calm or Headspace, the latter of which is free right now. Of course, it is normal to feel nervous. We all do to some extent, but you have a choice to turn states of helplessness and stress into empowerment and strength.
Get used to conducting check-ins with your body as you read the news when disturbing thoughts pop into mind. Look for bodily signs of tenseness, stress and anxiety. If you they are present, begin to parent yourself through negative mental states with messages of being able to handle this temporary phase in life. The more you experience yourself bringing negative states into the positive range, the more prepared you’ll be for life’s challenges.
Journaling can also be quite helpful when you are feeling nervous. Write down everything that you are worried about in a given moment. It truly helps you to gain perspective and calmness. One further journaling option is to keep rereading your entry containing all of your worries until the words have less emotional power over you.
And remember, do not underestimate your mind’s contribution to your body’s ability to fend off foreign germs.
Check in soon for more tips on managing your anxiety in the time of adjustment.
(Disclaimer: The information shared in this blog post is for informational and educational purposes only. Reading this post does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with the author.)