Photo: Cathy Zuraw / Hearst Connecticut Media File Photo
As the coronavirus forces self-isolation, turns daily routines upside-down and creates an unsettling air of uncertainty, happiness and mental well-being can seem elusive.
But whether you suffer from a diagnosed mental illness or are facing general stress and low spirits, there are steps you can take to improve your mental well-being, experts say.
We spoke to two top psychologists to bring you the best advice for how to take care of your mental health.
Dr. Sarah Lowe is both a clinical psychologist and a professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Yale School of Public Health. Her work has focused on mental health after disasters and other traumatic events, she said.
Lowe pointed out that the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a disaster, and that it makes an impact on both individuals and communities.
Using three main categories, she broke down the risks that disasters pose to mental health.
For one, disasters are associated with trauma-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress-disorder, Lowe said.
But “other mental health conditions tend to be exacerbated by exposure to mass trauma, including major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and substance use disorder,” Lowe said.
Lastly, there will be those who suffer from distressing and troubling conditions that may not meet the criteria of a mental health disorder, such as general perceived stress, Lowe said.
Dr. Arielle Baskin-Sommers, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology and psychiatry at Yale University, emphasized that the pandemic impacts both those who are psychologically healthy and those with diagnosed disorders.
The professor researches various clinical disorders and supervises students in clinical training, she said.
“I think it’s important to establish that this crisis is really affecting everyone,” Baskin-Sommers said, noting that it can both exacerbate existing mental health issues and cause stress among those who have long been psychologically healthy.
Baskin-Sommers advocated a focus on basic well-being for all, coupled with a focus on those already vulnerable.
Here are some of the suggestions the experts had.
1. Plan ahead to maintain a routine.
Amid the disruption of the pandemic, it’s crucial to establish a routine, Lowe said, advising that people sit down and make daily schedules to ensure they have some structure.
For activities that are no longer possible because of COVID-19, Lowe suggested finding other outlets to fill the time, whether via an online Zumba class or arts and crafts.
2. Make sure your schedule incorporates a variety of activities.
Whatever your routine, it should incorporate a balance of activities, Baskin-Sommers said. She laid out four different categories:
1. Self-care: Activities like showering, eating, sleeping and even getting dressed. “The act of getting dressed can be a really important signal for transitioning to different activities in your day,” the professor said.
2. Mastery: These are“activities that give you a sense of accomplishment or completion,” such as cleaning a room, answering a work email or finishing a puzzle, the professor said.
3. Pleasure: A pleasure activity is “something you find rewarding,” Baskin-Sommers said, adding that it could be anything from watching TV to reading a book.
4. Social: These activities connect you with others. Given the physical distancing measures that are in place, “this is where people have to do their best to get creative,” Baskin-Sommers said.
Each day, you should try to incorporate activities that fall into each of the above categories into your schedule, Baskin-Sommers said, adding that it might be helpful to block off time in your calendar for each one.
Without a routine, “it’s really easy to forget to do these things,” she said.
3. Check in with people
Since isolation can exacerbate depression and anxiety, it’s vital for folks to stay connected with the people in their lives in an intentional manner, Lowe said.
She advised people to think about who they want to stay in touch with and when they want to check in with each individual.
In the face of physical distancing, she suggested identifying creative ways to do so, such as through video chats, Zoom happy hour or virtual game nights.
Staying connected is helpful whether you suffer from a mental illness or not, Lowe said.
“Even though we are physically distant, it doesn’t mean we have to be socially distant,” Lowe said.
And if you know someone who struggles with a mental health disorder, it’s especially important to check in with them on a regular basis, Lowe said.
3. In times of extreme emotion, don’t problem solve. Instead, buy yourself some time to calm down.
In moments of extreme fear, panic or sadness, it might be tempting to try to immediately come up with a solution.
But Baskin-Sommers says you shouldn’t.
Instead, “you just have to give yourself a little distance from it,” she said. In other words, buy yourself some time to calm down.
Baskin-Sommers shared a helpful acronym that sums up a variety of tools you can use to give yourself this distance: ACCEPTS. She broke it down in a tips sheet she made for her students, a copy of which she showed a reporter.
The sheet describes “ACCEPTS” as follows:
“A” stands for activities. You could, for example, watch TV or clean a room to distract yourself.
The first “C” is for contributing — finding ways to help others, like making a card for someone or sending an encouraging text.
The second “C” is for “comparisons.” Compare how you’re feeling to a time you felt differently to remind yourself that emotions are temporary, or compare yourself to those who are less fortunate.
“E” is for different “emotions”—getting your mind off of your own feelings by immersing yourself in emotional music or a scary movie, for example.
“P” is for “pushing away,” or leaving the situation mentally. “Build an imaginary wall between yourself and the situation,” Baskin-Sommers wrote.
“T” is for other “thoughts,” or occupying yourself with mental activities. You could do a puzzle, or just count to ten in your head.
Finally, “S” stands for “sensations” that take your mind away from the distress. You might turn on loud music or squeeze a rubber ball.
Once you calm down from the extreme emotion, you can go back to problem-solving, Baskin-Sommers said.
It’s part of a method called dialectical behavior therapy, according to the professor.
4. Know how to support your loved ones, but don’t forget to take care of yourself.
It can be hard to know how to best support loved ones who are struggling with mental illness.
“You never want to be the therapist for your loved one,” Baskin-Sommers stressed.
Instead, she suggested being a friend — watch a TV show or play a game, for example. You can also point your loved one to resources that will help, she continued.
Lowe pointed to validation as another important tool.
Don’t tell someone to get over an issue or suggest steps to make it better, she said.
Instead, just “[sit] with someone in their pain,” listen to them and let them know that what they are feeling is valid, Lowe suggested. Then, she continued, work with your loved one “to decide what they can do to help cope with their symptoms,” whether that mechanism is reaching out to a professional or incorporating certain daily activities.
Finally, make sure you seek support for yourself, Lowe suggested. You can do so by connecting with friends or asking a professional for help, she said.
5. Try to focus on the positive, without denying the reality of the pandemic.
In times like these, the sheer amount of bad news that’s out there can feel overwhelming.
Staying positive can be a helpful tool, as long as you don’t deny the reality of the situation, which can counter-productive and invalidate others’ feelings, Baskin-Sommers noted.
“Of course, we don’t want to have positivity that is associated with denial of the severity of the virus or avoidance of negative feelings,” Lowe said. “I do think that looking to community action and staying engaged oneself can instill a sense of hope for everyone.”
It might also help to look at the crisis with a longer-term perspective, Lowe said.
“There’s very good reason to believe that we will all get through this, it’s just going to take time,” she said. “Humans have recovered from other major mass trauma.”
6. Know what resources are out there, and take advantage of them.
Both psychologists were able to list a multitude of resources available for those struggling with mental health and those looking to practice mindfulness more generally.
And when it comes to connecting with a therapist, a pandemic shouldn’t discourage you.
“It’s as good a time as any,” Lowe said. She suggested folks start by asking for a referral from their primary-care physician, or going to their insurance company’s website to see which therapists are in-network.
Fortunately, there have already been significant advances in telemedicine, and providers are ramping up virtual services in the face of COVID-19, Lowe said.