While talk of the surge in COVID-19 cases continues, what has been less audible in the national discourse is the surge in mental health distress that will be with us long after the pandemic is gone. Many of us who have enjoyed relative psychological well-being are feeling inundated with near pathological levels of anxiety, uncertainty, anticipatory grief, and real or secondary trauma. Here are the ABCDEs of self-care to keep yourself and your loved ones emotionally—and physically—well.
About. Stay informed as you need to regarding the pandemic, but then promptly pull yourself away and unplug. Initiate what we call a “sensory diet” to limit anxiety-provoking exposure to TV and radio news, social media, and print materials, beyond what you must know for yourself, your family, and/or your job. Fearful news can be addictive. Don't overindulge!
Body. Many people, when asked how they can best care for themselves to stay well, say something on the order of “handwashing, masks, social distancing . . .” Sure, all that! But we also need to respect the healthy things our mothers tried to teach us. How about exercise and fresh air (even if it's just a three-minute brisk walk around the block), adequate sleep, and decent nutrition? Honoring our bodies now will help us stay healthy and well in the present and future.
Connect. We've been told to connect to loved ones, but we also need to connect to ourselves. Being mindful of our mental processes can keep us alert to scary thoughts about things we have no control over (for example, “What if I touched a can at the store that someone touched who might be coming down with the virus?”). Turn negative thoughts in a positive direction instead of going down the anxiety mole hole. This can be as simple as distracting yourself with thoughts of what to make for dinner or which flowers to plant in a spring garden. And yes, regularly connect to loved ones too, via virtual media, to see their smiles and laughter, share their hopes and dreams. Just as with negative emotions, positive emotions are infinitely contagious.
Develop. We've read or watched amazing stories of innovation and creativity during the pandemic: farmers markets instantly developing drive-through shopping, entire health systems adapting virtually, neighbors supporting small businesses in new ways. We can all pivot our problem-solving into creativity and innovation: repurpose (washable!) tempera paints to color bathwater magenta for an amazed child. Throw a virtual party for a friend. Create a work-from-home template that includes breaks for reading, family time, or brief walks. We are familiar with posttraumatic stress, but what's less known is a very real concept called posttraumatic growth, which occurs when we transform adversity into resilience and growth. This is just one #COVID19SilverLining; can you develop others?
Emotion. A pandemic is an unprecedentedly frightening and uncertain time for everyone. We experience emotions more vividly, and this can lead to irritability, insomnia, depression, anxiety, or extra distress. Nurses and other direct care providers are especially susceptible. If all the coping skills in the world are not helping you relax, sleep, or coax yourself back to a neutral state of mind, reach out! One #COVID19SilverLining is increased understanding that we are all in this together, and we each deserve emotional supports that are quickly being developed so they are widely available to us all. You can access some of them at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html, or locally through friends and colleagues.