Whether or not you’ve stopped to think about it– COVID-19 has changed your life. For some people, the pain is obvious. Whether it’s a lost loved one, financial damage, or the relentless fear and loneliness of this revised way of life– everyone is hurting. Why?
Your nervous system is tuned to identify and assess threats in your environment. According to the polyvagal theory, prolonged exposure to stressors can lead to a nervous system response called “immobilization.” Essentially, your body goes into “shut-down mode” as a means to protect itself. You feel numb, zoned-out, and even dissociated.
There’s nothing quite like a widespread life-threatening virus, economic de-stabilization, and social isolation to push someone’s stress levels over the edge.
One of the best ways to combat this response is through social engagement. However, with mandatory isolation and only seeing people in masks, we are missing many of these social cues that would usually make us feel connected and safe.
How do you feel better while a pandemic rages? What relief is there when you’re continually living in a state of forced isolation and uncertainty?
Although it may take a little work, it’s possible to maintain mental health and wellness during a pandemic, albeit with some tethered expectations. Plus, building up some good habits now will help you thrive when this whole thing ends. Here are 13 scientifically-backed tips to help you feel better in a world of uncertainty.
1. Non-verbal connectedness: We’re practicing social distancing, we’re wearing masks, but we still have a few tools at our disposal to feel connected to others. When you are out and about in your mask, do your best to lean into your most dramatic non-verbal communication. Use your hands, smile with your eyes, and give a feeling of warmth and openness. With the small number of interactions we have, every bit of connectedness helps.
2. Decompress: With constantly elevated stress levels, it’s become essential to give your body a break. Try keeping a daily journal to vent about your day. Not only will it help ease your stress, but you’ll also be creating a log about a unique time in history. You can also try scientifically-backed relaxation tools like progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, and listening to calming music.
3. Meditate: Whether you use a timer or a guided track, meditating for just 10 minutes a day can reduce stress, improve sleep, and enhance your ability to cope with daily stress. One study found that 30 minutes of daily guided meditation significantly improved well-being and enhanced resilience in the most vulnerable people during COVID-19. Try a free app like Insight Timer for meditation tools and guided tracks.
4. Manage your expectations: For many, the pandemic started out less dismal. People had ample extra time and dove into long-forgotten hobbies and explored new ones. Slowly the sourdough recipes faded, and everything just kind of stood still. Why? Well, extra time does not equal productivity. The emotional burden of a pandemic is significant. It’s normal to have difficulty concentrating, low motivation and feel in a state of distraction. Don’t expect yourself to be a superhero, instead focus on some smaller tasks and go easy on yourself when you aren’t performing optimally.
5. Challenge yourself: While it’s important to be kind to yourself, you should also aim to set realistic goals and challenges. Try stepping out of your comfort zone by taking an online class you’ve always wanted to take, trying a winter activity you have avoided, or starting a new hobby. Stretching yourself outside your comfort zone leads to growth, and perhaps you’ll find some passions along the way. Hobbies like digital drawing, carpentry, photography, and writing are all easy to learn from home. The world is yours to explore!
6. Close your screens to build resilience: There is no shortage of entertainment to distract us during these trying times, but are we zoning out too much? Probably. One of the most healing things we can do is sit with our pain and discomfort. Rather than avoiding uncomfortable feelings, try allowing your emotions to present themselves and exploring their effect on you. Notice your heart rate, your breathing patterns, and the muscles in your body that have tension. If your emotions feel overwhelming, you can seek a therapist’s help to guide you in resilience training.
7. New routine: The human brain enjoys routines, they not only present environmental cues about what to expect, but they also provide comfort. Try a morning routine where you get out of the house and go for a drive while listening to your favourite music. You can then park somewhere and practice a soothing meditation. In the evening, you can have a power-down hour where you engage in self-care, hygiene, and mental decompression before bed. A bedtime routine can also help you fall asleep faster!
8. Hack your happiness: Nobel prize winner Dr. Daniel Kahneman has shown that when you recall events, your brain uses shortcuts to remember two things about an event: 1)The emotional peak and 2) The end. You may not be able to control your emotional peak, but if you can end your day with a positive note, your brain is more likely to recall that day as “happy” or “good”. Skip the TV at night and try engaging in a hobby, reading your favourite book, and practicing a soothing evening ritual. Over time, your brain will bank these “good days,” which improves your overall happiness.
9. Get ready: Even if you aren’t going out, it helps to get ready. Brush your teeth, comb your hair, practice a skincare routine– pretend you have somewhere to be. While it’s a treat to occasionally spend the day in your pyjamas, getting ready even if you aren’t going out has positive effects on your emotions, motivation, and self-esteem.
10. Know your triggers: Endless doom scrolling and continuously checking the news can sometimes wear you down. Be aware of the sensations in your body when you’ve been exposed to too much stress. Identifying them will help you discern when to pull away. Whether it’s a sense of doom, shaking, stomach upset, or feelings of sadness and fear– it’s important to recognize when you need a break from consuming content. Don’t worry; there will be plenty more pandemic news to scroll through tomorrow.
11. Keep breathing: Deep breathing exercises activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which induces a sense of calm. Try techniques like box breathing, where you breathe in through your nose for four counts, hold for four, breathe out through your mouth for four and hold for four, then repeat. Use this any time you feel overwhelmed, stressed, or just want to feel calmer.
12. Maintain connections: As the months go by, it can feel harder and harder to feel connected to others. You can create a virtual hang-out every week for a group of friends or even make a book club. If you aren’t comfortable reaching out in your own social circle, there are now many online groups offering virtual forums, coffee groups, and book clubs that are open to everyone. Humans are wired to crave connectedness, and by reaching out, you’ll likely help fill that void for someone else as well. You can also try writing handwritten letters to friends or family. It’s a fun way to connect, and everybody loves receiving a letter.
13. Self-care: Treat yourself to a little self-care. Whether that’s a soothing bath, wine and a good book, or putting on noise-cancelling headphones and listening to your favourite songs on repeat– do what makes you happy. Engaging in self-care helps reduce stress, boosts feelings of wellness, and we all really need some self-care right now.
Everyone has felt the looming emotional burden of the COVID-19 pandemic blues. While it may not be possible to obtain total relief, you can engage in many activities that will build your resilience and reduce your daily stress. Rather than always leaning into habits like TV that zone you out, try to make an effort to participate in activities that bring you into the present moment and build your coping skills. You’ll help reduce the total stress load on your brain and body, and you might discover some cool passions and hobbies along the way!
About Us: As the largest counselling service provider in the Woodbridge area in Vaughan, we have had the privilege of working with individuals and families through periods of transition and crisis for the past 15 years. The purpose of our practice isn't simply to help clients "cope with" or "survive crises". While necessary first steps, these are not particularly productive therapeutic goals. Our purpose is to help clients to use challenging moments as a new lens for self-appreciation and as fuel for progress. We offer virtual as well as in-person counselling.
We are a team of independent psychotherapists, social workers, psychologists and counsellors who share the same values, mission, and vision in our practice. Our team offers cutting edge counselling/coaching to individuals, families & couples with presenting issues such as: Anxiety & Panic Attack, Trauma & PTSD, Sexual Trauma, Anger Management, Eating Disorder, Postpartum Depression, Health Anxiety, Depression, Social Anxiety, Phobias, Grief, Bipolar Disorder