We’re living in a very stressful time due to the sweeping, global effects of the COVID–19 pandemic. Although much of the focus has been on physical health, mental health is equally important during these times. Broad feelings of uncertainty, job loss, fear, and drastic changes to our normal schedules and activities take a toll on our mental well-being. Some might be experiencing increased anxiety, sadness, or loneliness, difficulties with concentration or focus, and fatigue and sleep disturbances. These psychological experiences are expected when under stress and may, in turn, impact our physical health.
Below are four of the skills that I have relied on to maintain and support my mental health during COVID–19, though their utility extends to any time I’m experiencing stress in my life. I take these skills from cognitive behavioral approaches.
1. Activity Scheduling
Activity scheduling ensures that we’re deriving a balanced level of engagement in our daily routines that spans four core areas of benefit: Mastery, Pleasure, Closeness, and Physical exercise. With stay-at-home orders in place, or gradual re-opening occurring, many of our routines have taken a hit, and the usual activities that we enjoy may have to change. Brainstorming a list can be particularly helpful to find new (or reconnect with old) activities that span these areas.
Each Sunday, I look at my list and schedule a few different activities from each category throughout the upcoming week of Zoom meetings and project deadlines. Scheduling provides me with a sense of certainty and control and helps me ensure that I’m engaging in tasks that span those benefit areas. Moreover, activity scheduling capitalizes on the concept of behavioral activation — to improve our mood, we need to strive to be goal oriented, not mood dependent. Sometimes, our mood tells us something won’t be enjoyable (e.g., when I’m sitting on my couch reading the news and I think “go outside? What’s the point?!”). When we encourage ourselves to do something, despite our mood, it often turns out better than we predicted (e.g., I had that bike ride scheduled, so despite not wanting to go in the moment, I just do it. Afterwards, I actually feel pretty good).
2. Sleep Hygiene
Another area of life that can take a hit due to our changing schedules is sleep. Maybe we’re not as active, maybe our entire nighttime routine is off because we don’t have to get up early for work or shower, or maybe the blurring of space and time has just left us ignoring sleep hygiene altogether! For me, sleep has always been a fickle mistress, so it’s been critical to stick to my sleep hygiene skills. Some people (blessed sleepers) don’t need these, but others of us do!
For me, the biggest game-changers have been (a) avoiding caffeine (coffee, soda, black/green/white tea) after noon, (b) avoiding watching TV or using my phone in my bed, (c) avoiding naps, (d) changing my clothes to signal sleep time (this means NOT wearing pajamas all day, but doesn’t necessitate putting on formal work clothes), and (e) turning off blue-lights (i.e., computer screen, TV, or cellphone screen [Apple products make this quite easy]) from sunset to sunrise.
The nice thing about sleep hygiene skills is that there are many small changes we can make to improve our sleep; it’s likely that not every change will work for everyone. Try them out and find some that work for you. And if you need more help with sleep, you can always find a licensed behavioral sleep medicine specialist in your area.
Mindfulness has become popular, and rightfully so! This is a skill I use regularly, even before COVID–19, to manage daily stresses. It can easily be incorporated in activity scheduling. Mindfulness is the act of being wholly present in a moment or state, and free of judgement for that experience.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, mindfulness can take many different forms. The upside of its popularity is the wealth of resources available to engage in it. To me, mindfulness includes things like yoga, painting, listening to the Meditation Oasis podcast, and working on puzzles. These stop my mind from running through a litany of worries and, instead, drive me to focus on the moment: notice and feel the stretch of my muscles as I move deeper into a posture, visualize the colors I’m mixing, listen to the voice and understand each word walking me through a guided meditation, and feel the puzzle pieces and visually search for patterns.
4. Radical Acceptance
One of the hardest but most useful skills is acceptance. This skill is helpful when there are events that we cannot immediately problem solve (like COVID–19 and residual effects of job stress, isolation, or loss).
Essentially, radical acceptance is the process of letting go of the rope. Imagine your thoughts or emotions are a giant tug of war. To avoid being pulled into the pit of despair, or distress, you pull. But pulling is hard, exhausting work. Sometimes, we just need to release the rope. That’s acceptance; a physical representation of what we want to do with our mind. Again, this is easier said than done.
How do you actually do it!? It’s different for everyone. A few years ago, I injured my knee to the point where activities that brought me joy (rock climbing, volleyball, bike riding, even walking to work) couldn’t happen anymore; recovery was estimated at 16 months. I thought about it constantly: “I’m getting old,” “I’ll never be back to normal,” “This isn’t fair,” “I didn’t go to the doctor soon enough,” “Will the rest of my body fall apart?” It was exhausting and brought down my mood, affecting other aspects of my behavior (e.g., not even trying to go on walks or do my physical therapy). One day, though, I mentally pictured myself holding the rope and releasing it. Simply visualizing the release, clenching and opening my hands, helped.
Acceptance does not mean avoidance. We can still look at the monster on the other side of the pit and have thoughts about it, but we don’t have to constantly engage with it. No longer exercising was avoiding the situation altogether, which was not helpful for my mood. Instead, I could still experience my injury, see it, and feel it, but I didn’t have to think about all the consequences and ‘what ifs’. I didn’t have to wrestle. I could find enjoyment (walking shorter distances, biking on low gears) within the parameters of my new situation.
To me, at the beginning, mindfulness and radical acceptance felt like the movie scene where you’re in a yoga class and everyone is perfectly meditating but you can’t even seem to keep your eyes closed for 10 seconds, let alone unlock that higher state of being everyone else appears to be enjoying. Just remember to keep trying. Like a muscle, all of these skills can take training and practice to become strong and automatic.