By Dr. Kimberly Kohli, PhD, FHP Psychiatry and Health Psychology
Since 1949, the month of May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. Many national organizations, such as National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America, spotlight Mental Health Awareness Month to raise awareness about the importance of mental health and to stop the stigma associated with mental health conditions.
While 1 in 5 people will experience a mental illness during their lifetime, everyone faces challenges in life that can negatively impact their mental health. The COVID-19 outbreak, and the social distancing measures in place to prevent its spread, have turned all our lives upside down. If you have a mental illness, the increased anxiety, stress and social isolation may be especially harmful to your mental health.
7 Steps to Protect Your Mental Health During COVID-19
Maintain a routine
Social distancing and other measures have resulted in disruption of our daily lives. If you’re not used to working from home, you may find the adjustment challenging. Creating a new routine will help you feel more productive and maintain personal and professional boundaries.
It may be tempting to stay up late or sleep in. This is not a good idea! Instead, try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule and wake up around the same time each morning. Shower and dress when you regularly would, and keep normal working hours, if you are not required to be on-call.
Designate a specific work area. If you normally watch TV or scroll through social media while sitting on the couch, you may get distracted if you try to work from the same location.
Take reasonable precautions against getting sick, but don’t go overboard
Use only reliable sources of information, such as the CDC, Johns Hopkins University, and FMC’s regular COVID-19 updates to stay informed about pertinent updates and make a plan for your health habits and to keep yourself and family safe. Also, take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can increase stress and anxiety.
Find ways to “get going” and motivate yourself
Now more than ever, you need to tend to your own health. If you are prone to depression, you might be finding it harder to get out of bed in the morning, motivate yourself to accomplish household tasks, or get started on a work project. “Behavioral activation”—the technical term for “getting going”— is a research-proven antidote.
Exercise is an excellent stress-reliever and mood-booster. The gym may be closed, but you can go out for a brisk walk as long as you keep your distance from others. You can also practice yoga at home and even work out virtually with a personal trainer.
Practice healthy sleep habits
The changes in your usual schedule, combined with anxiety, can negatively impact your sleep. If you’re resting, try not to stew about not sleeping — staring at the ceiling at 2 am will just create a cycle of worry and insomnia. If you find yourself lying in bed wide awake for more than 15 minutes, get up and change the mental channel by watching TV, reading a book or listening to music.
You could also listen to a guided meditation available on YouTube or one of the many meditation apps, such as 10% Happier, Headspace, or the UCLA Center for Mindfulness. Keep in mind, however, that you are not meditating to try to fall asleep. Having sleep as a goal will likely backfire and cause more anxiety. Instead, you can use meditation to notice what is going on in your mind and body and observe your thoughts rather than getting caught up in them.
Practice mindfulness and acceptance techniques
Whether you use meditation, yoga, or prayer, focusing your attention on the present moment, rather than thinking about a catastrophic, uncertain future, can help you manage your distress. If you tend to compound your negative emotions with a cascade of negative thoughts (“I should be handling this better;” “Things will never get better”), mindfulness training can be useful in tempering your emotional reactions.
One good introductory resource, is “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World,” by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. The UCSD Center for Mindfulness also has free, guided meditations and useful information about the practice. Calm is a free app for meditation, sleep, relaxation, and mindfulness.
Be kind to yourself and practice good self-care
A vast body of research conducted by Kristin Neff, Psychologist and colleagues has shown the value of self-compassion for coping with emotional challenges and adversity. To ease feelings of isolation, acknowledge your struggle with kindness, rather than self-judgment, and recognize that millions of people across the world are also experiencing the same challenges. Keep in mind, this time is tough for everyone. But you don’t need to compound the difficulties by neglecting your mental health. Take time to participate in activities you enjoy. If you follow these suggestions, you can get through this crisis — you may even come out of it stronger in the end.
Stay socially connected while practicing social distancing,
Do something for others or support a family member or friend. Use apps like Facetime, Zoom, Airtime and Google Hangouts to video chat and stay connected with others.
If you do your best to follow these suggestions, you can get through this crisis — you may even come out of it stronger in the end. If you are in need of mental health services, reach out to Fairfield Healthcare Professionals Psychiatry and Health Psychology or your primary care provider.
Common Signs of Distress:
- Feeling hopeless or helpless
- Feelings of numbness, disbelief, anxiety or fear.
- Changes in appetite, energy, and activity levels.
- Difficulty concentrating and focusing
- Difficulty sleeping
- Physical reactions, such as headaches, body aches, stomach problems, and skin rashes.
- Worsening of chronic health problems.
- Anger and irritability
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco products, or other substances.
- Worsening of mental health conditions (anxiety, depression, trauma related symptoms, etc.)
- Changes in appetite (eating too much or eating too little).
Disaster Distress Helpline: Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746
Crisis Text Line: Text 4HOPE to 741741