Across the country and indeed the globe, the coronavirus pandemic has upended people’s lives. Over 150 million Americans have been ordered to stay home, and the vast majority of them are not physically ill right now. This news still feels like a shock to the system, but as these radical changes shift from days to weeks and even months, the combination of widespread anxiety and social isolation will be a major strain on our mental health. Here’s what I’m doing (and what you can do) to maintain sanity during this insane time.
Trade the news for a novel
Coronavirus news is everywhere, and it is true that the facts are changing by the day. Naturally, I want to know about the latest number of cases, emerging science about the virus itself, and government plans to address the illness as well as the effects on the economy. However, being trapped at home makes the world feel small, and constantly reading about the coronavirus adds worry with little solace. A supervisor once told me that reading fiction is the best training for a psychiatrist. As we move from our own mind to another person’s point of view, we literally practice empathy. I have also come to realize that reading fiction transports me to another time and space (without exposing me to any viruses). This week, I finally read Tara Westover’s Educated. Reading about the Idaho mountains added a breath of fresh air to my small New York City apartment.
Remember the mind and body are connected. Just because you can’t go to the gym doesn’t mean you can’t work out. I strongly prefer gyms or playing a sport, but these are not options right now. I’m focusing on what I can do from home: 5-minute yoga sequences in the morning to stay limber, and bodyweight workouts that do not require much space. The American Heart Association guidelines suggest we aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 times per week or 75 minutes of intense physical activity per week. If you need people to help motivate you, many fitness studios and yoga classes are offering online streaming so that you can continue your group fitness class from the comfort and safety of your home.
Do that project you’ve been putting off
Let’s face it: with the lack of commute to work and social events, most of us have more time on our hands than we’re used to. Especially for people who are feeling well and suffering from “cabin fever,” try to think of this time as an opportunity. We all have things we’ve been meaning to do when we get more time: clean out our closet, make a scrapbook, learn a language. Now is the time to work on these items. 2020 will be forever remembered as the year of coronavirus in history, but in your personal story it can also be the year you began something new. In my case, I’m working on improving my Gujarati skills to pass on the language of my parents to my newborn child.
Stop texting and start video-chatting
Language and communication are the essence of what makes us different from every other animal species. While social distancing is the best public health strategy right now, social isolation runs counter to human nature. Perhaps that is why isolation is a risk factor for depression, anxiety, poor cognition, physical illness, and even premature death. I have family in 4 different states, and we’ve implemented a FamilyFaceTime on Saturdays at 12pm. It really is different (and better) to get dressed and look at one another in real-time. For many younger people reading this, a video-chat may feel intrusive in today’s text message-oriented culture, but remember, if they are a human on this planet, your friends and family are likely at home with more time on their hands too. While you’re at it, consider reaching out to people you care for but have lost touch with. Reconsider strained and estranged relationships in favor of burying the hatchet. Calamities like this one risk isolation and despair, but they are also an opportunity for mutual understanding and coming together.
Reflect on your values and goals
Extra time can make anyone stir crazy, but it is also an opportunity to consider what you want out of life. Introspection requires us to pause and think about who we are, what we believe in, and what we want out of life. Mindfulness and meditation using apps like Headspace and Calm can help with focusing our minds in the present moment. For people who find such exercises challenging, this reflection could take the form of journaling about where you are in your life and where you want to go. Finally, for people who have been considering it, now is an excellent time to start therapy - just be sure to find a provider using telehealth.
A special note for college students
College is a time of exploration, growth, and development. It has its own ups and downs. In that context, freshmen who were just getting their feet wet and seniors wrapping up their final semester (and everyone in between) have all been asked to halt everything, return home, and try to take their courses online. Naturally, much of the magic of college occurs in conversations, group meetings, clubs and extracurriculars, and class discussion. Feeling sad, disappointed, and even angry are all normal emotions to have during this time. If you are feeling particularly out of sorts, reach out to your college counseling center. They are likely still functioning (albeit online), and they can help you figure out the best way to get through this situation.
Wherever you are, I hope these tips help you as we prepare for weeks and maybe even months of social distancing, lockdowns, and more time at home. Take care of yourself. Look after others. And above all, stay safe.
Ravi N. Shah (@RaviShahMD) is assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Co-Founder of Mantra Health.