First came the coronavirus and its strict stay-at-home orders, impacting the mental health of almost half of Americans, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Then came the protests, filled with anger and outrage over racism and violence.
“People are having a hard time adjusting to this new normal,” says Pavan Prasad, MD, a psychiatrist at Clarity Clinic, a psychiatry practice with locations in Chicago and Arlington Heights.
The overwhelming burden of the COVID-19 pandemic along with the intense discussions of systemic racism have added stress to those experiencing racism as well as those trying to understand it.
For COVID-19, “Many people are experiencing diminished access to supportive people and activities and, therefore, there is a natural grieving process,” says Michelle Emerick, PsyD, clinical director and psychologist at IntraSpectrum Counseling, a Chicago private group practice that specializes in LGBTQ-affirming counseling.
Between dealing with the news, health, jobs and loss of normal routines, we’re all experiencing some sort of disruption of our daily lives. “People are feeling stuck, confused and frustrated, and they’re having to be really creative about how they take care of themselves,” Emerick says.
Taking care of ourselves means something different to each person. Here are five potential strategies for self-care during this complex and uncertain time.
1. Get active
Staying active is essential for not only physical health, but also mental health. “Moving your body and exposing yourself to different sensory experiences can help you transition to a different emotional mindset,” Emerick says.
Increased exercise has been linked to improved mental health, according to a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry in 2018. Yet, closed gyms and stay-at-home orders have made working out a logistical challenge.
Look on YouTube for at-home workouts you can do without equipment, from cardio workouts to yoga. Going outside for a daily walk is a great way to be active, breathe fresh air and connect with the outside world. Just be sure to wear a mask when passing others on sidewalks and especially if you’re participating in large-group protests or marches.
2. Stay connected
For many people, social interactions have been reduced to the people they live with. “We can feel lonely even with other people. Loneliness is significant right now,” Emerick says. “Challenge yourself to share your experience with others. Having a witness for what’s going on is essential to reduce that loneliness and move forward.”
While those who live alone may feel isolated, others may be getting a little too much time with their family or roommates. Regardless, we are all missing key interactions with friends, colleagues and acquaintances.
“We’re used to many more daily interactions,” Prasad says. “These interactions help to form our identities and are key in determining who we are.”
Schedule a call or reach out to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Virtual video happy hours or playing games through the virtual gaming service Jackbox are great ways to socialize with friends you’re physically distanced from.
But don’t feel like you need to commit to a different virtual hangout every night. “Check in on the people in your life, but know your limits,” Emerick says.
3. Practice mindfulness
We are living through both a coronavirus pandemic and a racism pandemic and, for many, seeking solace in a higher power can help deal with the complex emotions involved. That may include tuning in to a livestream from a place of worship or reading a sacred text.
For others, this peace can be achieved by getting in touch with themselves on a deeper level. Emerick encourages regular self-check-ins and meditation, as well as expressing gratitude. Try breathing exercises or a self-guided meditation on YouTube if you feel overwhelmed.
Find a practice that works for you. “The most important thing is for people to be practicing self-care in a healthy way that works effectively for them as an individual,” Emerick says.
The practice of mindfulness — of focusing on the present moment rather than reliving the past or imagining the future — can promote a sense of calm. “When all else fails, I encourage people to come back to the moment,” Emerick says. “That’s really all we have control over. It gives us a sense of control, a sense of meaning and the ability to really connect with what we’re doing or who we’re with.”
4. Seek help
The coronavirus pandemic alone is a significant stressor that impacts so many facets of our lives, and now there’s even more happening. “This pandemic is triggering a lot of mental health issues past their typical threshold,” Prasad says.
Therapy isn’t just for those with significant mental illnesses. Anyone who is experiencing negative mental health symptoms that affect their daily life should consider seeking professional help.
“If someone is struggling, I would encourage them to look up symptoms of depression, anxiety and burnout online,” Emerick says. “But symptoms only say so much. Honestly, if someone doesn’t feel right or they feel lonely, that’s enough of a reason to reach out for support.”
Mental health professionals are making access to care easier for patients during this time. Most are offering telehealth therapy sessions to patients and using online intake forms to make signing up easier.
Finances can be a significant barrier to treatment, especially now with job losses from COVID-19. “There are financial implications of this pandemic, and people with lower incomes are suffering disproportionately,” Prasad says.
Some therapists are offering therapy for free or reduced rates. Therapists on Open Path offer sessions for between $30 and $60 per session. Psychology Today has a directory of mental health services, some of which are offered at a reduced cost. And Project Parachute is offering pro bono therapy for frontline workers.
5. Learn something new
Being at home more may be a good opportunity to learn something new, starting with a timely conversation about combating systemic injustice. If you come from a place a privilege, now is a good time to seek out articles, books, podcasts and documentaries that teach anti-racism. Also, journaling can be a great outlet for anyone for processing life experiences.
Staying home can give us more time to channel energy into activities that offer a chance to slow down, process the moment and decrease stress. Now may be a good time to take up cross-stitch or gardening. Bake that new recipe you’ve been wanting to try or read the book that’s been on your list.
It’s fun to share new accomplishments on social media, but it shouldn’t be used as a metric for comparing yourself to others. Know that we’re all operating at a reduced capacity right now, and it’s okay not to be productive during this time.
We’re all in this together. Give and do what you can to others, but don’t forget to take care of yourself — you deserve it.
Should you need immediate help, resources are available
- Disaster Distress Helpline: Call 800-985-5990, or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 800-799-7233 or text “LoveIs” to 866-331-9474.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 800-273-TALK (8255).