By: Bonnie Brown, PsyD
The world has learned a lot about itself in the past several weeks. We, as individuals, have learned a lot about ourselves in the past several weeks. “Social distancing” and “quarantine” are becoming a normal part of our vocabulary. While these can be scary, and getting lost in the thoughts about what happens next can be enveloping, it’s important to remember that you are not alone. You do not have to go through this alone. You can take steps to minimize the difficulties that lie ahead.
Humans are such social beings, and now more than ever we are realizing that concept. A quarantine can mean working from home, not working at all, not going to a favorite restaurant or brewery, skipping that sports practice, not attending that play that you bought tickets for, not going to the park with your kids, skipping the play-dates that gave you some relief, and not attending church. Instead, only leaving the house for essentials (i.e., food, water, medications). That means no social interaction, doesn’t it? Definitely not. It’s incredibly important to maintain as close to the same level of social interaction as you were used to by other means. Options include: Face Time calls, virtual brunches or happy hours, texting friends and family members, watching Netflix “together”, sending emails, sending snail-mail letters, having kids decorate cards to send to others, and maybe even interacting with your neighbors from your back or front lawn. Another option to get connected is the NextDoor website/app that connects you to your neighbors. I have personally seen my own neighbors post about virtual gatherings, ways to help those in need (whether it be household items or child care), and resources for those struggling with the pandemic. Limiting social contact, insofar as isolating in your home, can be detrimental to your health and well-being. Now, more than ever, is the time to pay attention to your health.
My gym is closed, now what? How am I supposed to maintain my physical health while staying home? I promise, you can. Many household and furniture items can be substituted for weights, benches, and obstacles (use caution when utilizing heavy or big objects). There are also virtual options for all types of exercise that you can do right in your home with a virtual personal trainer. Apps on our phones or tablets can also help keep us on track when establishing a new routine. They can even help us feel connected if we’re joining an online community of others being active. If the weather is nice enough, the outdoors can play a major role in physical health. Hiking, running, biking, walking, yard work, and outside home maintenance can all be options. It’s important to recognize that if you are going outside, you’re sharing the beautiful outdoors with others, and to practice appropriate social distancing for yourself and the respect of others.
But my anxiety…
So you’re experiencing anxiety, frustration, and irritability? Yep. A lot of people are struggling with scary thoughts. This is all new for a lot of people. This is the time to learn about mindfulness. Mindfulness is being in the present moment, without judgment, without attachment to that moment. Mindfulness can be meditating, but it is so much more. You can be mindful when washing the dishes, doing yard work, cooking, or walking your dog. To be mindful is to attend to whatever thoughts, emotions, and sensations you are experiencing in a way that allows them to exist without judging the content. While washing the dishes, you might think to yourself, “The water is soapy, soft, and warm. The sponge feels rough and squishy. This fork is smooth, shiny, and has four tongs. My neck feels achy while looking down into the sink. My arms are relaxed and resting on the porcelain sink while washing.” Other kinds of mindfulness exist as well. There are near-infinite resources online and via apps that have guided meditations, breathing exercises, or visual imagery exercises. These can be great options for general anxiety or in times of heightened panic.
Anxiety management is important. Notice I used the term “management”. That is because some level of anxiety exists in a large portion of people, and the goal is not to eliminate it entirely. Anxiety serves a purpose. It tells us when danger is near, and physiologically jumpstarts our nervous system to take action to protect us. Sometimes, our brain recognizes the “danger” and takes it too far or gets stuck in an anxious thought loop. That’s when our fight-flight-freeze system is not helpful. By keeping your brain active, your body active, and practicing mindfulness skills, you can help reduce some of the anxiety you might be experiencing.
What About Everyone Else?
Remember, this is a big adjustment for the majority of people in the world. Normal day-to-day tasks and recreation are not necessarily available. People have to stop and intentionally think about how to go about their days. They are likely spending much more time at home with friends, family, and/or roommates. This can be a recipe for increased interpersonal distress. Essentially, spending much more time together than what is typical can increase tension and discord. Aside from attending to your own mental and physical health, keep in mind that we’re all just trying to figure this out together. Your spouse, kids, family members, friends, neighbors, and local grocery store cashiers…they are not trying to make life more difficult. Kindness goes a long way in the current state of the world. Extending a “hello” to your neighbor who is out for a walk, or a “have a wonderful day” to your grocery store cashier can be quite impactful. Not only can it relieve some of your stress, but it can set an example that even in trying times, being a caring human is possible and essential. Remind yourself to stop when you notice frustration increasing, take a deep breath (or a few), and then continue interacting with that person. Anxiety and panic are contagious, but let’s also remember that kindness and empathy are also contagious and better for humanity.