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Managing Your Mental Health While Practicing Social Distancing

By Debra Kissen

It’s no news that the coronavirus pandemic is drastically changing our lifestyles. Schools, restaurants, theaters, gyms, and many offices are closing; the CDC is recommending social distancing and encouraging all to stay home as much as possible. With new developments changing things seemingly by the day, there is a cloud of uncertainty over all of us. Social isolation and uncertainty about the future is a potent combination that can cultivate serious psychological distress. It seems that now more than ever, many of us need to be extra careful about looking after our mental health. Here are some tips for managing your mental health while practicing social distancing:

Maintain a Routine

Many of our routines are totally disrupted by social distancing, but routines are important for our mental health. Since many of us no longer have our routines imposed upon us by our jobs and other responsibilities, we must now make routines for ourselves. Try to keep as much of your routine intact as possible – maintain your sleep/wake schedule, grooming and self-care regimen, meal schedule, etc. When our lives are unstructured, it’s easy to fall into a slump and for things to feel pointless. Plus, maintaining a schedule now will help reduce any shock when our routines eventually return to normal.

Limit Your Couch Time

With many of us working from home or not working at all, it’s easy to spend the entire day on the couch. Make sure that you’re up and moving and not staying in the same place for too long. Do your work at a table or desk instead of on the couch to draw a clear boundary between work and rest. Take breaks from work to move around if you can, or even stand up while taking a work call. Try to find things to pass your time that don’t involve the television or video games.

Get Exercise and Fresh Air

Being confined to our homes limits physical and mental stimulation, which certainly does not help our moods. If you are able, try to get outside at least once a day. It is safe to go outside for a walk or run, and doing so is a good way to refresh your brain and provide a change of scenery. Most of us are getting much less physical activity now than we normally would. Try and incorporate some physical activity into your daily routine to make up for that loss. There are lots of great home workout videos on Youtube to take advantage of; many gyms are offering virtual workout classes to their members; even doing standard jumping jacks, push-ups and sit-ups is sufficient. Just get your body moving!

Catch Up With Loved Ones

During social distancing, it’s more important than ever to keep up with our friends and family because social isolation has a major negative impact on our moods. When feeling down, depressed, or hopeless, our minds can trick us into thinking we’re a burden on others. If this is the case for you, remind yourself that this is not true. Nearly all of us are in the same situation – stuck at home and feeling lonely. Your loved ones will probably be glad that you reached out to chat. Set up times with everyone close to you to have regular phone or video calls. This is where we can get creative with how we interact with others by sharing a meal together remotely or doing hobbies together like making art.

Use Social Support Effectively

Many of us are scared or just plain sad right now. Whatever you’re feeling about the present or future is completely valid. It’s important for us to lean on each other for support during this time, but we also need to be careful about how we do it. While it’s perfectly acceptable and healthy to discuss with our loved ones how social distancing is affecting our lives, doing it too much can put a serious damper on our moods. There are benefits to venting to others about the things that worry us or cause stress, but those benefits are short-lived. Spending too much time on the negative can actually start to bring our moods down and undermine any relief we got from seeking validation from others in the first place. It may be a good idea to limit your time venting to others by literally setting a 5- or 10-minute timer and committing to changing the subject once the time is up. That way, you’ll have gotten all your feelings out, but you won’t have dwelled on them.

“Quarantine” the News

It seems there is a surplus of negative messages in the news these days, and right now most of those messages are about the coronavirus. While keeping up with world events is good and can help us prepare for possible new safety recommendations, too much news can be a bad thing for our mental health. News outlets capitalize on anxiety because headlines that elicit anxiety are more likely to get “clicks.” If the news is causing you emotional distress, it might be a good idea to treat the news the same way we are treating COVID-19 – like a dangerous virus. Right now we cannot stop the coronavirus, so we are doing our best to contain it through quarantining and social distancing. Consider adopting the same approach to the news. It’s difficult and frankly inadvisable to stop paying attention to the news altogether, but we also can’t let continuous news consumption take over our lives. Therefore, we must keep it in a confined section of our day. Try setting a specified time frame in which you catch up on the news, and limit your news consumption during other times. This might protect you from being constantly bombarded with stories and updates that are designed to scare you.

Change Your Social Media Presence

With many of us now having more time on our hands, we may be turning to social media more than usual to pass the time. Social media is a platform in which many are sharing their opinions on not just the coronavirus, but on the political, economic, and social implications of the pandemic. Regardless of your views on any of these topics, social media may be a source of overwhelmingly negative content and arguments. Consider making temporary changes to the way you use social media in order to protect your mental health. Perhaps you can take a social media fast (for even just a day or two), temporarily unfollow certain people or pages that share unsettling content, or go specifically to pages with funny or light-hearted content and only browse their posts.

Create a Family Schedule

If you’re cooped up at home with one or more family members, you will have to share space and resources effectively. Non-stop family contact can very quickly lead to arguments and resentment. Sit down with your family members and agree on a schedule that lays out where everyone will be spending their time. Decide when everyone gets alone time and when you’ll have together time as a family. Designate certain times each person has “control” over a certain room such as the living room or kitchen. This might mitigate the opportunity for one family member to monopolize what’s on television, and will accommodate the desires of both the introverted and extroverted family members without relegating the introverts to their bedrooms as their only place of solitude.

Slow Down and Focus on the Little Things

Think about how many times before this pandemic you have complained about how hectic life is. In our day-to-day rush we often overlook some of life’s simple pleasures. Look at social distancing as an opportunity to start appreciating the things you may have in the past taken for granted. If you are home with your family, savor the time you have with them now. Try to get lost in a book that you just couldn’t commit the time to before. Slow yourself down and really look at all the things you have lost sight of. Do some personal reflections. Meditate.

Consider Fostering a Pet

Animal shelters across the country are seeking out more foster families for their animals due to reductions in adoptions and the need for staff safety. If you are able to care for an animal, reach out to your local shelter and see if you can help. Pets are proven to boost their owners’ moods and relieve stress and anxiety!

Social distancing is creating circumstances which most of us have never been through before. Our efforts to keep ourselves and others healthy from COVID-19 present unique challenges to maintaining our mental health. Now is an important time that we ensure that our minds stay healthy by being careful about how we manage our time at home. Implementing one or more of these tips is a good way to be proactive about your psychological well-being.

Dr. Debra Kissen is CEO of Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment Center. Dr. Kissen specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)...

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