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Caring for the Social and Mental Wellbeing of Yourself and Others during COVID-19

Written by Tammy M. Beran, PhD.

Dr. Beran is a Psychologist and former Simms Mann trainee who specializes in how to support those impacted by health challenges and coping with isolation.

With our entire country a few weeks into physically distancing, the morale and mental health of everyone, especially those who live alone and/or who are in high-risk groups, is on my mind. As both a mental health professional and a person who has experienced a great deal of social isolation due to my own medical problems, I have learned many strategies for helping people cope with extra time alone and physical distance from others. 

  1. In my experience, depression and anxiety increases the longer a person is isolated.  Often, when anxiety and depression spike, the person who most needs contact will not reach out for it.  If there are people in your life you feel this might apply to, don’t assume they are okay, please reach out to them first and nudge them into some social contact.  Just tell them you’re thinking of them, or share a little anecdote from your day.  Send a picture. Suggest watching a series “together”.  During times when I was most isolated, a good friend sent selfies each day as she left for work.  That picture and virtual hello helped me maintain a sense of connection with her.  Consider joining one of the many online ZOOM groups run by the Simms/Mann Center or other community support organizations.
  2. Meaning and being of service fight mood issues and bolster connection.  I believe that the most rewarding feeling in the world is serving others. During this time, think about calling grandparents, figuring out how to make food for a neighbor, or finding a way to Skype, call, or write someone who is totally isolated or in a nursing facility.  The people who are isolated around us are VERY vulnerable right now. Not only are they isolated, but they are likely also the most frightened because they are often in the more at-risk groups.  Further, older individuals may be not as comfortable or familiar with newer technology that can help keep them connected. Do everything you can to connect with the elderly, disabled, and ill. We should always be doing this, but especially now.
  3. The brain LOVES novelty and novelty spikes positive mood hormones.  This is a perfect time to learn a new skill or do a thing you’ve been meaning to do forever. Read that book you’ve been meaning to read, and then discuss it with a friend.  Learn how to play chess or bridge and then invite a friend to play on-line with you. Research the top albums in a particular year and listen to them in order.  Anything “new” will help your brain. If you’re ambitious, try to learn a foreign language or pick up that guitar again.  There are many free resources for learning on-line.  Doing something “active” with the brain will keep it happier and sharper than doing passive things like watching television.  During periods of my own illness, I always felt a dramatic improvement in my mood when I worked to actively learn something new.
  4. Crafting. Repetitive things like knitting, crocheting, or coloring relax the brain and put it into a meditative state.  I highly recommend these activities for relaxation and believe them to be as useful as formal meditation.
  5. Finally learn meditation and mindfulness.  Right now, there are so many free resources for trying mindfulness, visualization and meditation through on line apps and classes.  Trying a small practice of a few minutes a day, or simply learning a couple of breathing exercises that you do throughout your day can have a surprisingly big impact in calming your brain and soothing your body.
  6. Go outside.  I can’t emphasize how good nature is for you.  Get in your car and go to a park if you’re able, just stay 6 feet away from people.  Walk around the block.  Sit in the sun when it’s out.  I promise you’ll feel better. Nature is a free and potent healer.
  7. Grow plants. This is a way to bring nature inside.  Even if you end up killing them, give it a try.  It’s very satisfying to grow and care for plants, and research shows that elderly people who grow plants are healthier than those who don’t.  It wasn’t until I was homebound that I discovered how satisfying and fun it is to watch a plant grow.  An ancillary benefit is that plants clean the air inside your home, making you healthier, too.  
  8. Do that project you’ve been putting off.  Maybe you wanted to change all your light bulbs to LED to conserve energy or to finally clean out a closet or organize those computer files.  Now is the time.  If you live with someone who typically does not have the energy or the health to do such projects, volunteer to dedicate some time to helping them.  This will help everyone involved feel a sense of accomplishment during this time of physical distancing.
  9. Exercise.  Stretch, go for a walk, lift some soup cans.  Just move if you can. Nothing fights depression like movement.  Do what you can and modify when necessary.  Creativity is important during this time: My mother-in-law, who is in a high-risk group, walks her apartment staircase each day and then goes into her parking garage to walk; it’s not ideal, but it’s something and it keeps her safe.  If you can do some form of exercise, maintain empathy for those who cannot, like those with disabilities or other medical issues, and send them good thoughts as you are grateful for you own abilities.  Many yoga and dance classes are available online for you to join in from home.  If you do join, make sure you stay safe and respect your own limits. Now is not the time for unneeded injuries.
  10. Use aromatherapy.  Scents strongly elicit emotions and many essential oils have been shown to decrease pain and anxiety.  Light a candle or diffuse some essential oils.  Lemon is a personal favorite of mine and never fails to help me feel more optimistic.
  11. Maintain a clean and visually pleasing home.  Our environments impact our mood.  Do what you can to keep your space uncluttered and to surround yourself with images and colors that bring you calm and joy.  This is especially important in homes where we are now all together, all the time.  It is easy to just live with mess.  Tackle one small project at a time – like that messy drawer and move your way up to a pantry or closet.  If you are living with children or other family members, enlist the whole family in these tasks and make a chart with everyone’s name and stickers for completing clean ups.   Begin and end the day with some ritual of taking things out of their place and putting them back, as a way to transition from one part of the day to the next.  If you know of individuals who cannot do this for themselves, think of ways you can help them. 
  12. Understand that anxiety and depressive symptoms are likely for people right now as it is an uncertain and high-stress time.  If you are feeling these emotions, let others know and seek support from compassionate friends and family.  If you are not experiencing such symptoms, ask and be open to hearing about them from others.  Simply listening and being willing to hear the struggles of others is healing.  Everyone is experiencing loss in some way and we all process and express it differently. Be patient, kind and compassionate to others and yourself about how you are grieving during this time.   For some, professional services such as teletherapy and medication are appropriate and needed right now. Be open to seeking these resources, available remotely through your Simms/Mann team. Reach out and give them a call.
  13. Finally, remember that even though we are physically apart, we are also in an unprecedented moment of togetherness right now.  At no other time in history have citizens of the world all been experiencing the same risks and challenges together.  Simply remembering this and sending loving kindness to all beings being affected by Covid-19 can be soothing and unifying.  Take moments throughout the day to imagine your shared solidarity with people in different states and countries who are affected by this virus and to send them healing thoughts and well-wishes.

By working together, using creativity, and being of service, I believe we can not only get through this difficult time, but also grow closer and develop greater resiliency because of it.  Best wishes to all for health and peace today and always.

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