Coping in the Time of Coronavirus

Let’s face it; we could all use some help coping with life in coronavirus times. The following suggestions come from Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler, a long-time friend of HTG. She is a clinical psychologist, author, and speaker who practices in Weston, CT.

One thing is for sure. Several weeks in to staying at home, everyone is struggling to adjust to the pandemic. You may be reacting with anxiety, anger, fear, sadness, or worry. These days, your mood may be as unpredictable as the virus. One minute you may be laughing, the next minute you’re tearing up. Thinking about whether the virus will come to your home—and when you’ll be able to leave your house again—can make it hard to get through the day. Although you may not feel like it, all of these responses are perfectly normal.

It is human nature to be fearful of the unknown. The ongoing confusion and mixed messages around COVID-19 are worsening the threat of the disease. Guidelines for keeping safe keep changing. Nobody can say for sure when the virus will go away and the comforting structure and rhythms of life as we knew it can resume. This is an unprecedented time. Most people alive right now have never been through anything remotely like this pandemic, so it is understandable that we’re unprepared to cope.

Plus, your usual ways of blowing off steam may not be available. For now, no more gyms, pickup ball games, lunches with friends, dating, or drinking in bars. Family togetherness is wonderful, but being cooped up with children who are typically in school all day and/or young adults who are used to living on their own can get on any parent’s nerves, especially with no end in sight.

So what can you do to survive the coronavirus with your sense of humor and sanity intact?

Here are some strategies that my mental health colleagues and I are suggesting:

Accept Your Feelings. Paying attention to your emotions rather than fighting them frees up your energy to take care of yourself and others. Noticing even uncomfortable or distressing feelings alerts you to what you need. But you don’t have to hold onto them; allow them to pass, just as you would clouds in the sky.

Be Patient. With routines disrupted and uncertainty on the horizon, everyone is on edge. Create a pleasant environment by being extra patient with family members and friends. Let go of inevitable irritations by trying to empathize and focus on the positive. Remember to say thank you for everyone’s contribution. That includes you. Recognize that you’re doing your best and, if you mess up, give yourself a huge break.

Be in the Moment. No matter what you are doing, research says that being fully present in that moment makes you happier. Neither dwelling on the past nor worrying about the future is constructive. So whether it’s playing a family game, preparing a meal, or doing household chores, focus on what you’re doing will bring you more pleasure.

Limit Bad News. While keeping up with medical experts’ latest suggestions is necessary, limiting your diet of bad news is equally important. No good comes of watching disturbing coronavirus predictions or gruesome video clips. In the same vein, you can emotionally support friends without listening to endless horrific accounts of COVID-19 casualties (e.g., “I’m very sorry you’re going through this. I hope you’ll understand that I’m trying not to hear too many upsetting stories).

Practice Gratitude. Studies show that consciously appreciating what we have can make us more joyful and alleviate depression. Fortunately, even in a pandemic there are reasons to be grateful. When you awaken in the morning and realize the coronavirus isn’t just a bad dream, take time to think about what is good in your life. Maybe you’re happy to be living where you are rather than in the current hotspot. Perhaps you’re grateful we are in the age of technology, when your kids can keep learning and you can work remotely, stay in touch with friends (e.g., hello Zoom cocktail parties), and experience a distant grandchild’s firsts.

Smile. If there ever was a need to find the humor in situations, a global pandemic fits the bill. Finding reasons to smile every day makes you happier. Smiling reduces stress as well as a good night’s sleep and more powerfully stimulates the brain’s reward center than chocolate. Yes, you read that right.

Relax. Setting boundaries comforts kids and helps family members get along better. But the current situation calls for flexibility. You may want to expand your kids’ screen time limits (but still regulate what they are allowed to do online). With teens’ developmental need to prioritize friends, they may deserve leeway to spend more time on their cellphones. Relaxing less crucial rules and welcoming more spontaneity can ease tensions and lift spirits.

Keep Expectations Realistic. If you are among those who intended to learn a foreign language or write a novel with all this “extra” time, you probably discovered quickly the fallacy of your thinking. Forget being super productive right now. And don’t expect your kids or significant other to be, either. That is a setup for disappointment. Instead, set a few reasonable goals every day to feel accomplished.

Connect. Humans are programmed for connection, especially in stressful situations. Research shows that people who experience stress while in the company of others suffer less harmful effects than when they are alone. You can still connect while following social distancing practices. Visit outdoors, staying at least six feet apart. It’s possible to stay in contact and check in with many more people through mail, text messages, and video chatting platforms.

Exercise at Home. As you know, being active is crucial to stay physically and mentally healthy. Just because local Y’s and gyms have closed doesn’t mean you have to give up this enjoyable and healthful coping strategy. In just a short time, dozens of free or low-cost online exercise platforms have cropped up, offering yoga, Pilates, Plyojam, Zumba, weight training, and other activities. Dedicate an area in your home for movement and, for extra benefit, exercise with a family member.

Soak Up Nature. Being outside is great for you. No pressure to kayak level-four rapids or climb expert trails. Just get off the treadmill and walk or run outside— staying away from everyone you see, of course. Nature is a proven stress-buster, effectively lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and other bodily responses to threats. Full disclosure: you can benefit from nature without moving a muscle, just by checking out the blossoming daffodils or sitting beside a budding tree or babbling brook. Noticing the natural beauty surrounding you is rejuvenating.

Contribute. Although the coronavirus is largely beyond our control, all of us can choose how we want to handle ourselves during this time. Sticking together as a community, being kind, respectful, and supporting each other, will help us get through this. Contribute any way you can. Maybe help a neighbor, order food from a local grocery or nearby restaurant, or contribute to a worthy cause. Knowing we are helping others makes us feel good, too.

If things get tougher, know that help is available. Most mental health professionals are offering teletherapy or counseling sessions using secure video chat platforms. Just reach out.

Stay home, be safe, and keep healthy, everyone!