I was inspired to write this piece by the number of people reaching out to me who have developed mental health issues while under quarantine. As a survivor of clinical depression and intense suicidal ideation, I have developed some habits that allow me to weather these unprecedented times with relative equanimity, and I would like to share them with you. Please note that I have titled this piece “Five Tips for Maintaining Your Mental Health,” and that these are not tips for becoming mentally healthy. If you are suffering from serious depression or anxiety, I encourage you to reach out to a mental health professional. But if you’re just looking for some support around maintaining your well-being in the face of so much uncertainty and fear, I have some ideas for you.
Turn off the news: There is absolutely no reason to be plugged into the 24-hour news cycle. Real, quality “news” does not change by the minute. I receive emails from the mayor of my city so that I can keep abreast of policy changes and other vital information in my community, but beyond that it’s not necessary for me to become an infectious disease expert. Snooze your friends on social media who are constantly gloom-mongering or posting hyperbolic click-bait about the spread of the virus. I check in on the national news when I’m feeling mentally healthy enough to handle it, which these days winds up being only once or twice a week.
When even the CDC is recommending regular breaks from the news to manage the insane stress we’re all under in a pandemic, it’s definitely time to unplug!
Do something you enjoy every day: This is a key practice for maintaining mental health. Life’s simple pleasures are more important than ever at this time — we depend on them to balance the constant nervous system freak-outs we’re having in the face of so much fear. I have been re-reading all my favorite books and re-watching all my favorite films. I find that I take the most joy in artistic activities, even though I’m no artist. Watching colors appear in my “magic painting” books calms my nerves, and I’ve gone through a couple “paint by sticker” books too. Putting all my focus into creating something beautiful has a corresponding effect on my mood.
Keep in mind, everyone takes joy in different activities, so do the thing that feels authentically joyful to you. A fellow harried Mom explained to me how the best moment of her day is going through the Starbuck’s drive-through for that fancy frappe drink she doesn’t really need, because her two kids are strapped into their car seats and that’s the most mental space she gets all day. Don’t judge yourself — take your pleasures where you can, and savor them.
Go outside: I realize that this advice may not be appropriate for those with compromised immune systems, or for those who live in highly urban areas. But as much as you can safely do so, go outside. Both the Vitamin D you absorb from the sun and the endorphins released by mild exercise have proven benefits for your mood. Literally any change of scene will create a change of perspective, and a perspective shift is one of the primary tools for combating depression. I find that when I’m in my garden noticing the bees nose their way into the flowers, my anxiety melts away. Nature is great medicine for mental health, because it encourages us to forget our self-focus and come into awareness of the life all around us. It’s soothing to feel that we are part of a larger network and interconnected web, and the visual effect of the sun shining on nature in bloom should not be under-estimated. Even though nothing is normal right now, the natural world appearing more or less the same can trick your nervous system into feeling that everything is, in fact, OK.
Cultivate love for the present moment: So often, people say “live in the moment” but don’t explain the work that entails. For me, being in the moment has been a necessary daily discipline for managing depression, not an overnight transformation. In other words, it’s work, and continues to be. Before the shelter-in-place order went through in California, I had no desire or inclination to be an elementary school teacher. But now I find myself in that precise position since the governor closed the schools; my young son has been at home with me for seven weeks. Because of long practice living in the moment, I didn’t waste any energy being in resistance to this new situation, I simply showed up for what was next. Approaching this unexpected turn of events with neutrality instead of resistance has allowed me to see that — it’s actually kind of fun! I can appreciate both the extra time with my kid, and the satisfaction of watching him absorb new information, even though my own business is tanking and my work hours are down 75%.
The thing with the present moment is that it’s not always going to be to your liking. It’s also famously difficult to orchestrate the moments you think you are going to like — ever been on a vacation you didn’t enjoy, or had a bad time at your own birthday party? Me too. By approaching each moment with neutrality and acceptance instead of expectations and judgement, you actually increase the odds of finding something to love about it. Almost all of us are facing situations we’d prefer not to be in right now, but we can increase our daily happiness by cultivating peaceful acceptance of these changed times.
Use your reason, focus on facts: This one might seem surprising, given that we’re drowning in so much data about Covid-19 that many of us are becoming paranoid about the world beyond our own homes. But facts can be your ally if you use them appropriately. How about this one: statistically, you are extremely unlikely to contract the coronavirus and die from it. While it serves the agenda of public health for you to have a healthy fear of this virus so that you take appropriate social distancing measures and help curb its spread, it’s not useful to anyone if you’re so terrified of illness that you can’t function. Paradoxically, it has been comforting for me to research other common causes of death in the United States, so that I can put the numbers in perspective. I risk my life every day by driving a car, but I don’t go into worst-case-scenario panic mode every time I’m behind the wheel. Rather, I do my best to drive cautiously and respectfully, and accept the risk of accident as a matter of course.
A lot of media content lately has been devoted to the logistics of how the virus spreads, and I’ve seen my friends mobilize these provisional “facts” to become terrified of the behavior of their fellow citizens. Here’s a fact for you, one that’s not going to change as our knowledge of Covid-19 evolves: unless you’re a law enforcement officer, you have very little control over the behavior of other people. While this fact has the potential to trigger an anxiety attack, you can also use it strategically to protect your nervous system. It is 100% a waste of your energy to spin out over whether other people are following pandemic protocols or not. Strive to become aware of what you can control and what you can’t, and do your level best within your own small sphere of influence.
Reason tells me that the best and brightest in science and medicine around the globe are toiling ceaselessly to alleviate the toll of Covid-19. While we don’t yet have a timeline for when life can get back to normal, you can take some solace in the fact that we are literally all in this together.