The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting us all, from people who have lost their jobs, to people worried about sick loved ones or who are ill themselves, to everyone staying home and practicing social distancing. Chances are, your life right now looks pretty different than it did a few weeks ago.
Making unexpected changes always comes with struggles, and when you throw a global outbreak into the mix, things can seem bleak. You may feel like everything is taking a toll on your mental health. And again, you’re not alone.
It’s common for people to have heightened feelings of stress or anxiety during a pandemic, psychiatry professor Anita DeLongisa told HuffPost Canada. This can be especially true for people with existing mental-health concerns. Here are some steps you can take to manage your mental health and take care of others. If you think you’re in a crisis, however, it’s important to seek professional support or care.
Filter your news consumption
It’s understandable to be glued to social media or the news, looking for updates on what’s happening. But, a constant stream of worrying news can weigh heavily. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests minimizing your consumption of news that makes you anxious or stressed. You can also check your social media at specific times of the day, instead of being constantly exposed.
Remember to take medication
As your routine may be disrupted, remember to take any medication you usually take.
If you take prescription medication for a mental health condition or for any other reason, make sure you have enough of it, the WHO recommends. If you’re in quarantine or self-isolation, ask someone in your network to pick it up for you.
WATCH: What Canadians need in a COVID-19 kit to self-isolate. Story continues below
People who respond empathetically to a health crisis are also more likely to increase other healthy behaviours, such as following recommendations to wash hands, or get a vaccine, if it is available, for that specific health issue, according to DeLongis, who teaches at the University of British Columbia.
“Empathic responding is taking the perspective of other people and being concerned about the well being of others and not just yourself,” said DeLongis. She has conducted several studies about mental health in times of health crises, including the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak.
Learning to take an empathetic approach can start with considering the perspective of others. She suggested asking yourself, “How might other people be feeling right now?” and then figuring out how you can offer support.
Helping others can increase your social connections, make you feel needed and useful, make you feel generous and add a sense of meaning to your life, according to Mental Health America.
Do something small
Taking action, no matter how small, can help you feel more in control, according to DeLongis. Check in on your neighbours or more vulnerable people, such as seniors in your community or people who live alone. While still adhering to social distancing, can you offer a listening ear over the phone, or drop off supplies at someone’s front door?
“These are small things that we can do that we see associated with people having less anxiety, taking control of the threat and the stress that we’re all experiencing,” DeLongis said.
You can also take small actions to help yourself; whether that’s practicing self care, taking a break from work, setting up a workspace at home or getting organized.
Understand where others are coming from
Everyone reacts differently to traumatic situations. “Anxiety, hostility, stress — these are all valid responses to this [crisis] that we’re going to see a lot of,” DeLongis said.
Instead of shaming or criticizing someone’s coping style, she suggested trying to understand where people are coming from and being prepared to offer support, if you are able to. This can help minimize negative interactions, and allow people to unite instead of divide.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s OK to limit the amount of time you spend supporting others. “It is OK to say that you also need a break from fear and anxiety,” The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health stated in its COVID-19 advice.
Schedule time for self-care
If you’re working from home, your calendar is likely full of video meetings and work deadlines. Don’t forget to allocate time to other parts of your daily routine, too.
Michalak said it’s important to schedule in self-care practices and strategies. “I’m literally putting them into my Google Calendar,” she said. “I’m committing to them.”
Self-care might look like taking breaks from your work or keeping a clean work environment. The WHO also recommends trying to keep your regular routines, like good sleeping patterns, exercise and healthy eating.
Reflect on your mood
As you take time to practice self-care, reflect or try to measure the impact of the activity on your mood and well-being. Michalak suggested “becoming a bit of a scientist,” where you study the connection between what you’re doing and how it affects your mood.
“That might be just as simple as, if you do an online yoga class or you go for a brisk walk outside for 20 minutes during your work-at-home day, stopping afterwards and just thinking, ‘On a scale from zero to 10, where’s my mood right now?’” she said.
Michalak added that this is especially useful data for people with depression, who might have negative thoughts telling them nothing will help them feel better.
You can make a mental note of your reflections, or take the extra step of writing them down. See if you can identify patterns of what affects your mood positively or negatively.
Be realistic with your goals
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to achieve big goals during this time.
“I think a lot of us set expectations in a way that’s not compassionate and realistic,” Michalak said, adding that some people working at home may be taking care of their kids throughout the day.
If you’re constantly prioritizing your work, then that can make it difficult to take care of yourself or others.
This also goes for parents — you don’t need to try to be a full-time homeschool teacher while you’re also doing your own job from home.
Michalak said employers should also be kind and compassionate when thinking about the type and quantity of work employees can take on right now.
“In any situation like this setting small, realistic goals is a good thing, full stop.”
WATCH: An update from Dr. Theresa Tam on efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.