The challenges we face today with the recent outbreak of COVID-19, or simply the “coronavirus”, aren’t unprecedented.
In fact, similar pandemics and epidemics have happened before.
However, for most of us living today, we’ve never experienced anything like it before.
The idea of having to stay home, away from our business, work, our favorite restaurant or hangout spot, the gym, even visiting extended family is strange and unsettling.
Taken together it feels, in some ways, like the world is standing still.
Things are rarely as bad as we make them out to be in our mind, and chances are the brunt of the challenge and the lockdown of many parts of the U.S. and the world may be over soon.
But there’s no telling for sure. And the uncertainty of it all is a catalyst for stress and anxiety.
Whether it will get better soon or worse before it gets better, our mind triggered by anxiety is programmed to cycle through the negative possibilities endlessly, causing us continuous stress and worry.
For that reason, it’s important to take steps to better manage and protect your mental health.
A few simple practices can go a long way toward making you feel calmer and more in control– now more than ever.
Here are 3 tips for managing your mental health during a crisis:
1. Use mindfulness to see things as they are
During times of great anxiety, it can be hard to see things clearly.
Fear fills our mind with thoughts of what’s going to happen tomorrow, next week, and next month, with our job, our loved ones, and our own health and safety.
Despite all this– in fact because of this– the mind can often act curiously, almost ignoring the events altogether and acting as though nothing happened at all in an effort to ignore what might cause us psychological pain.
We’ve seen this in recent pictures of people defiantly taking to the beach for Spring Break despite the consistent warnings, even pleas, from the Surgeon General and other authorities.
It’s difficult to accept that such radical and sudden change has occurred in our life, but the sooner we can accept that change the sooner we can come to peace with it.
Mindfulness can help us accept change more easily by increasing self-awareness, helping us notice how we’re responding to change and when we’re acting in a way that attempts to deny obvious evidence.
For tips on how to get started with a regular mindfulness practice, read: 24 Mindfulness Tips for Beginners to Bring Balance to Daily Life.
Mindfulness is also useful for helping us see that things often aren’t as bad as we think
Another thing that mindfulness helps us with is seeing that things aren’t really as bad as we think they are.
The truth is, the coronavirus situation may get much worse. It might be as bad as we think.
However, it’s also true that it could die off almost entirely within a matter of 2-3 months and never be seen again (or be under control).
The reality is, though, that our mind often centers on the worst: how bad can it get? Is it going to get worse? What more bad things are going to happen?
By practicing mindfulness, we can create a shift in the mind towards truth. Sure, things might get worse. But they also might get better.
With greater self-awareness, you see both of these possibilities instead of partaking in your own fear-mongering party that only ends up amping up your anxiety.
Not to mention, mindfulness practice helps increase our resilience in general.
In one study published in Personality and Individual Differences, researchers Badri Bajaj and Neerja Pande found that “Individuals with higher mindfulness have greater resilience, thereby increasing their life satisfaction.”
They went on to say that those who have developed mindfulness are better able to cope with negative thoughts and emotions without being overwhelmed.
2. Hack your brain’s anxiety cycle
In a recent article in the New York Times, Brown University associate professor and author of “The Craving Mind”, Judson Brewer, talked about dealing with the cycle of anxiety the recent outbreak has caused many to fall into.
He says, “I start by teaching them how their brains work, so that they can see how uncertainty weakens the brain’s ability to deal with stress, priming it for anxiety when fear hits.”
Our ancient ancestors developed fear as a form of negative reinforcement. If we became cornered by a sabertooth tiger, it was fear that sprung us to action, to get away, back to the tribe and to safety.
Today, the same thing happens when we step into the street and a car doesn’t notice the green pedestrian hand signal in front of them as they’re turning. Fear activates us so we can move out of the way of the oncoming car, saving ourselves from harm.
A development, and a complication
Later the prefrontal cortex developed, which helps us in planning and creativity. It was a positive development. However, it didn’t come without complications.
“If information is lacking, our prefrontal cortex lays out different scenarios about what might happen, and guesses which will be most likely,” says Brewer. “It does this by running simulations based on previous events that are most similar.”
The problem, Brewer says, is that when our prefrontal cortex doesn’t have enough information to make an accurate prediction, anxiety is born. And that’s exactly what’s currently happening with the coronavirus situation.
“Without accurate information, it is easy for our brains to spin stories of fear and dread,” says Brewer. Without knowing how long this will last, when the lockdown will end in our area, how widespread the virus will be, or how many people will be affected, we’re left in a perpetual cycle of anxiety that only gets worse.
And this gets even worse when factoring in what scientists call “social contagion”, the spread of emotion from one person to another.
“Their fearful words are like a sneeze landing directly on our brain, emotionally infecting our prefrontal cortex,” says Brewer.
How to beat the cycle of anxiety
Fortunately, we can do something about it.
Brewer says to hack our brains and stop the cycle of anxiety, we need to do two things:
- Notice that you’re getting anxious and what the result of that anxiety is: What are you anxious about? And is that anxiety actually helping you survive or making it worse? Anxiety is often harmful to both your mental and physical health and gets worse over time.
- Bring in what Brewer calls the, “bigger better offer”: Brewer says our brain will always choose more rewarding behaviors if we make it clear that they are more rewarding. So, you need to replace your old habit of worrying and panicking with more rewarding behaviors.
For example, Brewer says that if you start worrying about whether you’re going to get sick because you touched your face, you can ask yourself, “When was the last time I washed my hands?”
Notice how good it makes you feel when you practice good hygiene and you’ll be motivated to continue that behavior and discontinue worrying about whether you’re going to get sick when you touch your face.
Asking questions like this activates your prefrontal cortex and allows it to do its thing, only this time you’ve given it a way of predicting what is going to happen, so it can take back control.
In fact, this is so effective that, in one study, Brewer’s lab found that basic awareness training such as this (and basic mindfulness practices) can reduce anxiety by as much as 57% in as little as two to three months.
3. Use digital fasting
Roughly a decade ago, under great stress due to several difficult events that compounded on one another and wanting a change, Emmy-nominated filmmaker and author of 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, Tiffany Shlain decided to start what she dubbed a “Technology Shabbat” for her and her family.
The idea is simple: you can use tech six days a week like normal. On the seventh day of the week (presumably a Sunday or Saturday), you take the day off of all technology.
It sounds simple but, as Shlain suggests, the result “feels like magic.”
Shlain continues: “It seems to defy the laws of physics, as it both slows down time and gives us more of it. I laugh a lot more on that day without screens. I notice everything in greater detail. I sleep better. It strengthens my relationships and makes me feel healthier. It allows me to read, think, be more creative, and reflect in a deeper way. Each week I get a full reset.”
Shlain says it even helps you appreciate technology more because it places your tech use in perspective.
She says that simple practice bleeds into the other days of the week, making her entire relationship with tech, and her life as a whole, better as a result.
“Our daughters, Odessa (sixteen) and Blooma (ten), have done this practice most of their lives, and it’s shaped how they interact with technology in extremely beneficial ways,” Shlain says. “They enjoy their time off screens and look forward to it. It feels like a vacation every week. We look forward to it with the same anticipation, and it provides that same feeling of deep relaxation we get when we go away.”
During a time where you and your kid’s tech use may become even more frequent due to plain boredom being stuck indoors, setting up a weekly digital fast can help you curb your tech use and stay healthy.
Bonus: Helping your children manage their mental health in a crisis
The tips above are useful for anyone dealing with anxiety from a crisis like coronavirus.
However, for those looking for more tips for helping their kids manage this difficult time, we have a few more tips.
The truth is that while this time might be toughest for you, it’s really tough on kids as well.
They feel the uncertainty and feed off your anxiety. Plus, for many kids right now their entire life has been upended as well.
They can’t go to school, and if their school is still open, they’re wondering when school is going to close down. Plus, they can’t visit friends or do extracurricular activities like sports.
So, what else can you do to help them?
One tip is to set up a tech contract.
Setting up a tech contract might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about how you can help your kids during the crisis.
However, as we talked about, they’ll probably be spending more time online than usual.
That means you need to have something in place that helps them manage their use of social for the sake of their mental health and well-being.
And you do that with a tech contract.
What is a tech contract?
A tech contract is an agreement you make between you and your child about how they can use their devices.
What kinds of things can you have in your tech contract?
For example, you could have these times be ‘no smartphone’ blocks:
- No smartphones until 2PM (have a block of time, say 12AM-2PM, be reading time or something similar, as a replacement)
- Or during dinner (have this be a dedicated family time each night)
- And no smartphones 2 hours before bed (this is important to maximize the quality of their sleep
This kind of schedule limits their tech use down to a certain section of the day and creates certain valuable “tech-free” blocks, such as a reading and family hour.
It’s also important to consider the loss of structure that kids will be faced with as a result of not being able to go to school for a certain period of time.
The more you can keep up this appearance of structure in their day, the better they’ll feel (even if they don’t realize why), as upending their daily schedule can make them anxious and restless.
For more on creating boundaries with tech, listen to this episode (55) of the TFM podcast with Caroline Castrillon:
And don’t forget: social media can be good, too
Social media has several potential negatives. However, it’s important to consider that right now social might be the only way teens, in particular, have to keep up with their friends.
During a crisis like this, social media can actually be a good thing for them as long as they’re being careful who they connect with.
In one study, researchers found that 81% of teens from 13-17 said social media makes them feel more connected, while 68% said that social makes them feel more supported during tough times.
An uncertain future doesn’t have to be an anxiety-filled one
While no one knows what the future has to bring, uncertainty is always a part of life whether there’s a global crisis or not.
But while uncertainty may be a basic part of life, anxiety doesn’t have to be.
By taking these steps, you can better manage your mental health in and outside a crisis, no matter what is going on around you.
And for those looking for additional resources to help them get through this tough period, fortunately, the amazing gift of podcasts is still available to us.
So, check out 14 of the Best Podcasts on Mindfulness and Mindful Living for 2020, still as accessible as ever.
And for those professionals who suddenly find themselves having to work remotely from home, some tips for managing distractions: How to Reduce Distractions: Tips for Managing Distractions in Work and Life.