One way or another, the recent coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has impacted our daily lifestyle. No more movie theater night outs, meeting up with a friend for coffee, or the usual morning rush to get to school and for some, work. The safety recommendations to stay home and “flatten the curve” is creating a new way of life. We have already seen the changes, particularly, with the increased use of technology serving different needs, including, but not limited to: continuing our socialization while keeping physical distancing, having meals and other necessities delivered to our homes, maintaining remote work, and staying distracted with entertainment. In addition to these changes, we have also experienced a shift in our perspective of the self, the world, and the future. This change in perspective, if not balanced, can bring upon a negative chainlike reaction to different aspects of our lives including our psychological, social, and occupational functioning.
How so, you ask? Well because how we think, affects how we feel and how we act. Fortunately, years of research and contributions from insightful individuals, have gifted us knowledge and tools to help us keep moving forward, especially when we find ourselves drifting away onto the dark side, be it due to fear, panic, overwhelming anxiety, depression, or numbness. The following recommendations are considered crucial tools and knowledge to have in order to help us survive this COVID-19 crisis.
Tip #1: What are you doing for relaxation and self-care?
Stress management skills should be part of our “essentials package.” We all have an embedded “fight or flight response system” which when triggered, orchestrates a physical phenomenon in our bodies. In its basic form, the fight or flight response is our survival mechanism, allowing us to react quickly to life-threatening situations (Harvard Health Publishing, 2018). However, when this survival mechanism is frequently turned on (e.g., every time we see or hear a new article involving COVID-19), it becomes “chronic stress.” According to research, repeated stress activation can take a toll on our physical and psychological health, that is, chronic stress may contribute to serious medical and mental health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, anxiety, depression, and addiction (National Institute of Mental Health, 2020). On the bright side, there are techniques to counter the stress response:
- Relaxation: This is the time to try meditation, deep breathing exercises, and visualization of calming scenes. I usually recommend patients to visualize a scene of their “paradise vacation” while using their five senses, that is: see the details of the scenery, smell the scents of the scenery, feel the weather of the scenery, hear the sounds of the scenery, and if applicable, taste the scenery (e.g., salty ocean water). Especially during this time of limited access to destinations, the use of visualization exercises can serve as a mental vacation away from home.
- Exercise: The California statewide stay-at-home order does not necessarily restrict us from exercising outdoors. According to the stay-at-home order invoked on 03/19/20 by Governor Newsom, “…so long as you are maintaining a safe social distance of six feet from people who aren’t part of your household, it is ok to go outside for exercise, a walk or fresh air.” It is recommended that you stay up to date on changes to the current stay-at-home order to avoid a fine or other penalty. In the meantime, while following recommended health precautions (i.e., using a face mask, staying 6 feet away from others outside of your household, etc.) if you can, take a walk outside at least once daily. Get your heart pumping and muscles activated to reduce muscle tension. Speaking of face masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just released a DIY video on how to make your own mask to help fight spread of the virus, you can find it here. Other great ways to get exercise include instructional home-based exercise videos which are now widely available online. Just make sure to check in with your healthcare provider before embarking on any strenuous exercise to avoid injury.
- Get proper sleep: Sleep deficiency is associated with many chronic health problems, including heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and depression (National Institute of Health, 2020). And a deprived immune system is the last thing we want during this crisis. Getting a proper amount of sleep each night can help protect our mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety. Of course, the amount of sleep needed changes over the course of our lives, but the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends between 7 and 8 hours of sleep a day for adults. For more tips on how to establish better sleep habits, please visit our “Sleep Hygiene” blog here.
- Social support: Again, the “social distancing” recommendations are intended towards physical distancing, not socialization per se. Social support can fulfill emotional, tangible, informational, and social needs. Now is the time to reach out to your network of friends, family, and acquaintances. Check in with them and see how they are handling this crisis. Offer support, be it emotional or maybe even just informational. Reminisce on good times and make plans for the future once the crisis becomes more stable. Don’t forget, technology allows us the opportunity to use video and audio as a way to connect with others.
Tip #2: Challenge irrational thoughts
This may be a more difficult task than the rest. The reason being that for most of us, our irrational thoughts have accompanied us for a longtime, settling in as habitual patterns in our minds, emerging automatically from time to time. It may be difficult to pinpoint the irrational thoughts at first. However, with practice, and if needed with support from a mental health professional, we gradually begin to notice these maladaptive thinking patterns that have been impacting our emotions and behaviors. This is the essence of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): “how we think influences how we feel and how we behave.” Monitor your thoughts and identify which ones are interfering with your daily functioning during this crisis. Challenge them. Do you tend to think in terms of extremes? Is there a more balanced way to see the situation? Am I looking at all the evidence? Am I confusing my feelings with the facts?
With the increased use of technology, mental health apps have also emerged as a useful healthcare tool. You might find the following phone apps useful in managing your mental health:
Tip #3: If needed, seek professional help
If, after attempting to cope with this crisis using the coping mechanisms you have resorted to for years, or after attempting to incorporate the recommended tools above, you continue to find yourself struggling to cope through this crisis, then by all means, please seek professional support. You are not alone in this struggle, and ensuring your mental health is being managed properly is important. There are different types of mental health treatment available, I recommend you take the first step to learn more about which type would be a good fit for you. Given the COVID-19 outbreak and health recommendations, more mental health providers are providing video-based therapy appointments. At Pacific Neurobehavioral Clinic, we have a variety of providers willing to help and walk you through the process. You can reach us here. The following hotlines also provide free and confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: English 1-800-273-8255; Spanish 1-888-628-9454
- Access and Crisis Line: 1-888-724-7240
California Coronavirus (COVID-19) Response, 2020. Stay home except for essential needs. Retrieved from https://covid19.ca.gov/stay-home-except-for-essential-needs/
Beck Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 2019. What is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)? Retrieved from https://beckinstitute.org/get-informed/what-is-cognitive-therapy/
Harvard Health Publishing, 2018. Understanding the stress response. Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
National Institute of Health, 2020. Sleep deprivation and deficiency. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/sleep-deprivation-and-deficiency
National Institute of Mental Health, 2020. 5 things you should know about stress. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml
Written by Angela Patino, Psy.D. @ Pacific Neurobehavioral Clinic.
If you haven’t signed up for our blog and news subscription, please do so by clicking here.