How do you stay (mentally) healthy during a Pandemic?  

The increasing number of stories in the ever growing, often journalistically questionable  media outlets cause your limbic system (fight, flight or freeze) to idle much higher than normal, but ultimately there isn’t much to “do”.  Rather, you are asked to “shelter in place”, wash your hands vigorously and regularly, and reduce your human footprint. You care about the vulnerable populations, those above 60 years old and/or with compromised immune systems, so you are committed to ‘social distancing’ and whatever else you can do to protect them.  But this particular pandemic illness won’t likely threaten your physical life.  You’re all revved up with nowhere to go and nothing to do!

This situation of helplessness is a first for many of us.   

The news provokes more and more anxiety with steepening predictive curves made with an ever multiplying number of illness dots getting closer and closer to your loved ones.  The next direct message is “don’t move!”. All those messages activate your limbic system pooling adrenaline and other biological fuel that would normally get us moving, doing, etc…  Our ‘idle’ is running higher than usual and we are supposed to somehow stand down.

This paradoxical state has gotten me thinking about what we can do in  the weeks and months ahead to embrace our new normal AND keep physically and emotionally healthy.  I will speak a little to the emotionally healthy part.

Americans have enjoyed an abundance of resources.  And our society has trained/encouraged us to 1) consume and 2) stay entertained and busy.  I suggest we shift to more value-based behaviors and activities filled with “meaning and purpose”.

How you define what is ‘purposeful and meaningful’ in your life is something only you can answer.  Many people say their values largely involve helping others. Because our movements are heavily restricted at this time, physically volunteering will be limited.   Over time, different ways to help will likely emerge. Necessity is the mother of invention, so I am sure that the techy folks will offer more and more safe ways to actively help.

Outside of directly helping others through active efforts or charitable giving, there is the opportunity to think about our values that have to do with helping and growing ourselves.  Turning inward, being reflective/introspective is important. Our ‘values’ include everything we’ve always wanted to do, learn, create, etc.. Learning or skill-building will feel like an effective way to contribute toward our own values, meaning and purpose.  And in truth, self-development is one of the best ways to ‘give back’. Just as we are instructed to put our own oxygen mask on before helping others, investing in our own well-being at a time like this ensures we will have more to give to others. Normally we don’t give ourselves permission to do this.

Right now it is imperative.

My advice is to to learn something or develop a new skill set.  Here are some examples with links to online resources I like:

Learn to Knit:  YouTube video

Learn a Language:  Duolingo

Learn to Cook: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojZIgseX7Xo

Learn Yoga:  Countless online resources. One suggestion is to pick a local studio that is putting out online classes.  Supporting our local economy may be a high value of yours. https://blackswanyoga.com/

BEST ONE:  Learn Meditation: (especially good right now as it’s like the superfood of anxiety reduction techniques) – Tara Brach YouTube video

Another great way to deal with crisis is to read inspirational or rise from destruction stories:

The BEST ONE:  Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel.  

Lastly, a simple and easy positive mental health behavior is practicing gratitude.  I encourage my clients going through loss, trauma, anxiety or depression to build a ‘gratitude list’.  At a specific time each day, write down or mentally list all the things, people, situations for which  you are grateful. The therapeutic value of this simple exercise is proven and impressive.

As a psychologist, I attest that anxiety, from environmental stress and past trauma is steeped in our culture.  Perhaps one silver lining in in this Covid19 pandemic will be to ultimately decrease our ever rising anxiety levels.

MEDITATION is the best possible activity you can do during this time for your mental health and by consequence the mental health of those around you.  Why not start right now?