Naomi Torres-Mackie Ed.M., Ph.D.

Underdog Psychology

A Therapist’s Guide to the Outbreak

How to take care of your mental health during the coronavirus crisis

Posted Mar 15, 2020

The spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has transported us to a time of uncertainty, unease, and fear with breakneck speed. The situation seems to evolve so rapidly that each hour feels like days, and as we try to keep up, it becomes easy to neglect our own emotional well-being. Some have argued that this pandemic will prove to be just as much a crisis of mental health as it is a medical crisis.

As a clinician working in a New York City hospital (and seeing patients via telehealth as of this week), I have the unfortunate privilege of a front-row seat to the effects of today’s climate on emotional, mental, and cognitive wellbeing. If you are feeling any of these effects, don’t worry; it’s normal. Consider these ideas for how to manage the less tangible impact of this global crisis.

Find ways to connect while practicing social distancing
Quarantines, self-isolation, and social distancing have become necessary for the safety of our communities. However, these can take a toll on mental health by creating a deep sense of loneliness. To address this, utilize all methods of communication available to you.

If you are someone who finds phone calls uncomfortable, challenge yourself to reach out to those who are on your mind. Just hearing their voice can be soothing and connective. Also consider video calls, text messages, emails, social media as important tools to connect with others during a time of physical isolation. Typically, the digital world is considered less intimate compared with the tangible world; however, during this time, it is one of our best tools for dealing with the demands of our current situation.

Don’t be ashamed of having anxiety or taking precautions
This is a global pandemic. Almost by definition, it is bound to kick up fear, dread, and many other difficult feelings. Even worse than having these feelings is denying them because of shame or embarrassment. If we can admit that we are scared, we can be scared together. Shame about our coronavirus-related anxiety leads to denial of that anxiety, and denial leads to suppression. When we suppress negative emotions, they are bound to come out in sneaky, unhealthy ways.

While we don’t want to spread panic, we want to be sure we are letting go of any shame that gets in the way of expressing anxiety, a very normal reaction to a very stressful situation. We also don’t want shame to get in the way of taking the necessary precautions. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you are feeling and do what you need to keep yourself safe. This will allow you to better ride out waves of anxiety and be able to more fully enjoy the moments when you realize this too will pass.

Think about things you’ve put off, and get them done
Inaction allows us to stew in fear. Having vast swaths of time ahead of you with few plans and lots of scary news headlines can surely amp up anxiety. To combat this, ask yourself: Are there books that you’ve been meaning to read, projects you’ve been meaning to start, or friends you’ve been wanting to call? Schedule some time, and go for it. Whether you have ample time at home because you are quarantined, or you have less options for releasing stress after returning from work due to social distancing, making a conscious effort to visit projects or activities that you once wished you had the time for. This can provide a welcome distraction amidst chaos and give you the satisfaction that comes with completing a task.

Practice bite-sized acts of self-care throughout the day
Fear thrives when we neglect care for ourselves. During this time, remind yourself of the ways in which you have effectively dealt with stressful situations in the past and reimplement them, even if it takes setting reminders in your phone or putting up Post-It Notes.

If you find yourself needing new ideas for self-care, here five quick ones that can be implemented almost anywhere. Number one: Take five minutes in quiet to just breathe. Focus on your breathing and nothing else; let go of any unwelcome thoughts that pop up. Number two: Play a song and just dance. No further explanation necessary, just enjoy it. Number three: Take a longer than typical shower and relish the sensations it provides. Number four: Practice the DBT technique of half-smiling and willing hands. Sit or stand with your arms relaxed at your side and your palms turned outward. Relax your face and turn the corners of your mouth slightly upward. Now notice that it becomes more difficult to hold on to frustration, anxiety, and other difficult emotions. And lastly, number five: Turn off your phone (more on this below).

Take news, phone, and technology breaks
Although it feels highly important to remain in touch and constantly connected to the stream of news updates inundating our devices, remember that it is equally important to take information vacations. Think about how you can best balance being well-informed and taking digital breaks when you notice it negatively impacting your emotional wellbeing. Put simply, allow yourself some space from it all.

We still don’t know what the full impact of this pandemic will be, but giving our mental health the care it deserves right now will help both during the crisis and after the dust settles.

Lastly, here are some professional resources that can be useful in times of high stress:

  • The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne (available online)
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)