These times are tough. Many people are suffering, have lost jobs or businesses, and are facing an uncertain future. Yet this time has also created opportunities for some: to slow down, spend more time with family, bond in a deeper way with loved ones, focus on meaningful projects or reflect and set a new compass for life. As therapists, we have noticed that many people have increased stress, anxiety, loneliness or depression at this time, and we have been helping to care for people so they feel well. We have also noticed many people engaging in existential reflection, re-setting priorities and finding new avenues for joy. Let’s explore how to manage some of the downsides of this time while also maximizing the opportunities.
The stress and loss of this time is affecting many people’s mental health. There is grief from illness-related crises or not being able to see loved ones, concern for family members at risk, and considerable economic loss and pain for many. The coronavirus has disrupted our lives, and that adjustment is easier for some and more difficult for others. Depression can set in, anxiety may be higher, sleep issues are common, and relationships are under stress. We recommend closely monitoring your mental health for any new or concerning symptoms, trying to maintain a healthy routine with your diet, sleep, exercise, social contact and reaching out to a therapist if you need any support or have concerns about your mental, emotional or relationship wellbeing.
This time of sheltering in place has also resulted in considerable existential reflection for many. In some cases, job losses or business disruptions are spurring identity questions, career explorations, and an examination of life plans. For others, this time has offered a voluntary opportunity for self-reflection, examining identities and thinking about what life is all about. What’s really important? How should we use our time, even after this crisis begins to resolve? Should we have new or different goals? Whether existential questions have arisen due to loss, fear, or just having the downtime and chance to reflect, we recommend spending some time every day just sitting quietly and listening to how you’re being guided in life. Taking that time helps your brain and mind process emotions, can reduce stress, and can help you arrive at insights that give you strength and energy for the path forward.
Most people are getting to spend more time in with loved ones. In a busy and industrious society like ours, more time at home with family can be a valuable correction. This shift in routine brings our lifestyle in the U.S. closer to that of some other countries where family members come home for lunch, have extended meals together, don’t work as much, and spend time playing and laughing with loved ones every day. While this may be a high-stress time for some, some can take advantage of the meaningful opportunity to bond more closely with family, partners, children and friends. You can have vulnerable conversations about your emotional angst and share any fear or concerns with one another. Sharing vulnerable emotions is often bonding and creates opportunities for care, curiosity and support. The extra time you may have together to deepen care, love and understanding can produce benefits in your relationships that can last for years to come. For those in stressful relationships, this can be a good time to focus on improving your skills and communication, perhaps with some support. Of course, some aren’t at home with family or are working extra hours to help on the frontlines of the current crisis. Even then, there can be an opportunity to focus on the increased love and support available in our relationships due to everyone being a little more raw and aware of needing to offer and receive support.
Exercise has healing benefits for depression, stress and anxiety and can help you feel energized and happy as well. Getting your heart pumping for at least 30 minutes a day helps balance your neurochemistry and has numerous other benefits as well, like improving circulation and helping you feel motivated. Getting out in nature has additional benefits like enjoying the beauty and regulating your nervous system. We recommend taking calls with friends and family while walking outside, going for a jog or supporting one of our local gyms and trainers offering classes online, which can also impart some accountability and a sense of community.
Before the era of social distancing and sheltering in place, many people felt too busy to reach out to some friends on a regular basis, or worried about bothering their friends who juggle work and families. During this time, many people have been reconnecting with old friends, having longer conversations with casual friends, and reaching out to friends they didn’t get to talk to as much before. We invite you to think of 5-10 friends you might like to connect more deeply with, and that you don’t normally get to talk to very often, and give them a call! Set up a Zoom call so you can see one another, or catch up on the phone while walking around the park! This is a great time to refresh friendships, deepen some and even connect with casual acquaintances. Those improved connections can last long into the future.
Engaging in more physical touch throughout the day is a great way to soothe the nervous system, regulate anxiety, and bond in a connecting and joyful way with others. Physical touch can be more connecting than words at times, and it can be nice to sit, hold hands, and just gaze out at nature as a way to relax. For some, touching can mean a desire or pressure for romantic intimacy, but it can be nice to have a habit of platonic touch that just serves as a way to bond and relax. Massages feel great and offer a way to relieve stress at this time.
Just making it through this time is deserving of recognition and appreciation. Life is overwhelming for some, and having a healthy dose of self-compassion is appropriate. Others may have the bandwidth to learn new skills or focus on new activities, which can bring joy and feel productive and stimulating. This can be a good time to engage new hobbies and do some things you may not usually have time for. Some people have taken up cooking and are learning how to cook things from scratch they never knew how to make before. Others have taken up crafts and sewing and are even making masks for their families and community members. It can be a good time to organize a closet, digitize old videos and photos, or use Google and YouTube to learn how to clean your oven, washing machine or engage in other random maintenance tasks. While some of these activities may seem mundane, it can be exciting to learn something new, expand your skillset, and maybe even save money in the process! Who knows, maybe you’ll carry some new habits and skills past this unique time. Even something as simple as watching a foreign film or listening to a podcast you wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to can add new perspectives.
Now is a great time to engage in charity. Many are stressed, have lost income and work, and are feeling fearful about life. You might see if there are neighborhood groups already organizing supplies and donations to families and individuals in need. There may be elders in your community for whom you can drop off some groceries as a way to help out. You can also go online and donate to local charities that are helping care for folks in your area. If you don’t have money to give, you can still be generous and make someone’s day. Think of saying something extra nice, complimentary, and appreciative to friends and loved ones. Offer a smile to those you see. Write a letter, a touching email, or create a nice card for someone who might be feeling lonely during this time. Giving to those in need is an important way to be a good community member but can also help you feel valuable and impart an added sense of purpose to your day. You might want to share any charitable acts on social media to inspire others to give as well.
Corona time is causing new stress and has been difficult for many, but also offers new opportunities for self-reflection, changing habits, and deepening love and relationships. Be aware of your mental health and monitor for any signs of depression, anxiety and overwhelm, but also embrace the possibilities of tending to friendships with greater attention, learning to eat healthier or more simply and sharing more love and connection with those around you. While the world is changing in ways that are challenging, that change can also serve as a kind of spiritual retreat to appreciate what we do have, peer courageously into the future and perhaps even rebalance priorities or set a new compass for life.
John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at PRESENCE, a wellness center supporting the integration of your mental, physical and relationship health so you can heal, grow, and thrive in life through leading-edge, science-based psychotherapy and medicine.