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A Therapist's Guide to Boosting Your Mental Health When You're Socially Isolated

by Rebecca Toy Mar 23, 2020

There’s no shame in feeling sad or scared. In stressful times, we’re all more vulnerable to anxiousness and depressed moods, panic and erratic behavior. They’re simply survival mechanisms that have protected us for millennia. But stress plus isolation is a bad combination. These passing issues can become staying problems, taking up room for rent in our heads, making a mess, and refusing to leave.

Happily, there are several simple things we can do every day to preserve our mental wellness. Just like washing hands and social distancing are critical for physical health during a pandemic, these are the preventative strategies that keep mental health strong. And luckily for us all, we don’t even have to leave our homes.

1. Protect your thoughts

We need to flatten two curves. One is the obvious curve, the spread of COVID-19. The other is the spread of anxiety and panic. Also highly contagious, anxiety and panic lead us into more and more irrational thoughts, what we therapists call cognitive distortions. These shove us from prepared to panicked. Big players right now are fortune-telling and catastrophizing: We know for sure what’s going to happen, and it’s going to be terrible. Not a helpful thought when you’re trying to press on.

Challenging distorted and unhelpful thoughts requires both a sword and a shield. Your sword is actively challenging negative thoughts. Your shield is being picky about what content you expose yourself to and what you give time.

  • Ask yourself, is this thought true? Is this based on facts or on possibilities? Pretty tricky, especially when there are several factual things happening that are concerning and even scary. But the run on toilet paper is a great example. We could have a shortage of toilet paper production and distribution in the future, but the fact is there is no disruption in the manufacturing or supply chain right now, just panic buying. Human behavior created this temporary shortage because of our distortions.
  • Is this thought helpful? This is your clearest challenge. Even if this thought is true, does it help? Can you do anything about it? Should you do that thing? We have thousands of thoughts in a day, and not all of them need attention. Nurture the ones that are good for you, that make you strong, and that give you peace.
  • Limit your media time. Media is not bad. It gives us the opportunity to connect and get the information we need. But long gone are the days where news was limited to the morning paper and daily news hour. We now have access to information and opinion all the time. We can feel the panicky thoughts wake after a constant diet of breaking news, Twitter headlines, or Facebook posts. Just like you wouldn’t go into a store and touch every surface, you don’t need to expose yourself to all available content. Make a conscious effort to step back from it all.

If you need additional support or counseling during this time, you’re not alone. Our field has telehealth options worldwide that you can access from your home. Contact your region’s mental health departments for recommendations.

2. Stay social — in new and old ways

Humans are pack animals. We’re wired to connect. As babies, we learned to read cues from caretakers and regulate our most primal feelings in sync with those around us. We need each other. In our previously fast-paced world, we used to crave what we now call social distancing. But the reality of prolonged social distancing can open the door to loneliness for even the most staunch introvert.

It’s time to go old school with communication. Keep texting, posting, tweeting, sharing memes, there’s nothing wrong with that. But we all need to hear our people’s voices. Verbal communication is unique. Hearing the voices of people we care about releases special feel-good hormones; texting does not.

So pick up the phone and place a call once a day. Countless apps like Zoom, Skype, Facetime, and WhatsApp offer video and audio options to get the full benefit of both verbal and non-verbal communication. If you’re an extrovert that is craving a larger socially distanced scene, virtual connections are multiplying. This is not the time to rely on texting. The more voices and faces, the better.

3. Keep your basic routines

As important as it is mundane, keep routine in your life, especially when it comes to your daily needs. Even in this unpredictable time, there are some things we can and need to control.

A steady sleep schedule is crucial for stable mental health. It is so easy to succumb to this vacation feeling if you’re socially isolating, so easy for your sleep to creep later and later until day and night are flipped. And any veteran of depression and anxiety management can tell you that flip is a dangerous situation for a mind under pressure.

Even if your days are more flexible now, make yourself get up by a certain time. Limit naps. Get to bed at a regular time. Our bodies and brains have to reset, to restock the proverbial shelves. Give yourself what you need.

Other routines that deserve a shout out include regular meal times, getting dressed in clean clothes, and daily hygiene. No shame if you want to sit in sweats all day, just put on clean ones. Brush your teeth and hair, wash up. We take good care of things that are valuable to us. Practicing self-care is a way of saying that you are valuable, which builds armor against hopelessness and worthlessness.

4. Get moving

Even if you weren’t a gym-goer before social isolation, chances are you were doing a lot more moving around as you went out into the world. And all that activity helped build not just a healthy body but a happy brain. Even 10 minutes of physical activity a day can make a difference.

Do something daily that gets your heart rate up. It could be cleaning, climbing stairs, going for a walk in uncrowded locations if allowed, or dancing around your house. For those that like more structured workouts, many gyms, yoga studios, and workout brands are streaming classes and even offering free access during this time. Scheduling the time and setting the space at home help make this happen. (Hello routines!) Go on and get that lovely endorphin rush.

5. Sunshine and nature

Sitting inside all day is not good for anyone. Sunlight affects our complex cocktails of hormones that boost or sink our mental wellness. It releases feel-good serotonin, regulates sleep cycles, and staves off depressive mood. Taking the healing power of the outdoors one step further, studies keep backing up an intuitive truth: Nature is good for our emotions.

We need to connect with the outside world, but responsible social isolating practices bring up a lot of questions about getting outside. Some of us live in areas where you can simply walk out the door and take a stroll in deserted forests, parks, and fields. Others have a balcony, a fire escape, a window, or even just a door. For those of you in the latter category, all is not lost. There are still ways to find remote green spaces near you. And everyone can benefit from simply sitting in some sun, opening a window, or just throwing up the shades.

6. Find activities and purpose, but pace yourself

“I feel like I’m in a hurry to go somewhere, but there is nowhere to go!”

The woman overheard from my porch is not alone in this feeling. So many of us are being forced to slow down our pace of life, and it’s probably a good thing. But as we all are painfully aware, change is unpleasant.

When we’re distressed, we tend to go to extremes. There are a lot of problems to be solved right now, and some people feel satisfaction scheduling up every hour trying to address them. Others are bingeing every Netflix recommendation. Neither is all bad or all good; as with most things, your mental health blooms best in the middle.

Make time for work and a sense of purpose. If you don’t have work right now, or it doesn’t leave you with the “I did something” feeling, look for a hobby or project that will give you that sense. Last and never least, make time for play. Dust off your games, pull out the crafts, gather your loved ones, and have some laughs.

We are going to make it through this difficult time. And other difficult times, too. If nothing else, tell yourself that every day. We have an incredible capacity for creativity and innovation. Collectively and individually we are far more resilient than we realize. Look at the beautiful things going on across the globe. We may not all be singing in unity from our balconies, but there are inspiring examples everywhere of people coming together for the good of everyone. Choose your thoughts. We can do this.

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