Addressing mental health during social distancing
With all the additional stresses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic — financial, relational, and more — building habits and strategies to help mental health is important. Alex Majcher, a member of the behavioral medicine team at Pacific Medical Centers at its Federal Way clinic, spoke about how to build some of these strategies: what to include in your routine, what to avoid, and how to try to make the best out of an extremely difficult collective situation.
What are some tips on balancing news intake in a way that doesn’t heighten anxiety?
You should limit the amount of time each day you watch or listen to the news. Don’t leave it on all day as background noise, and don’t watch first thing in the morning or right before bed. If you get your news by reading it on your phone, the same applies; don’t open up your news app as soon as you wake up, and don’t read it in bed trying to fall asleep.
Additionally, if you struggle with anxiety around the news, focus on local outlets. Local news tends to present more succinct information rather than having panels that mix in a lot of emotionally charged opinions. This also helps you to focus on what is happening in your reality and can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by what is happening all over the world.
What are proactive steps to take to ensure you’re being mindful of your mental health during social distancing?
If you are working from home, it is important to keep a routine similar to what you would have if you were still going to your office. Ensure that you’re maintaining a regular sleep schedule. When you get up in the morning, do all of the things you would have done on a regular day: take a shower, have your morning coffee and/or breakfast, get dressed, etc.
You also can try and find safe ways to help others. As social beings, we have the instinct to contribute to the well-being of the group, which is why it feels good to contribute to others’ well-being. During social distancing, this doesn’t need to go away — there are numerous ways to help others. Reach out to people who may be lonely by phone, or teach someone who doesn’t know how to set up and use social media so they can connect with others as well.
Additional proactive steps include:
- Do things that give you the opportunity to feel like you have achieved something, no matter how small it may seem. Do a project you’ve been meaning to complete at home, finish a puzzle, learn a new hobby or skill. Set a (realistic) goal for each day and work toward it.
- Make a list of things you can do at home that you enjoy, and schedule a time for them throughout your day.
- It doesn’t have to be intense, but get moving: a walk around the block or yoga will do.
- Spend a little bit of time outside each day, no exercise required! This will help prevent feelings of being boxed in or restless, which is common for people to feel these days.
What are the possible impacts of social isolation for those that live alone?
For those who live alone, social isolation can be difficult to experience. When you live alone, you’re already lacking a source of social support. A lot of people have a “work family” and are used to experiencing interaction outside of the home. This change can result in increased loneliness and boredom relative to people who live with roommates or family members.
Everyone’s anxiety is heightened now because of the pandemic and the impacts on their lives due to social distancing. People are concerned about their health and the health of their loved ones, and are afraid for their jobs and financial well-being. There is a lot to be anxious about right now, and being alone can exacerbate the anxiety because it’s easy to get stuck in those thoughts and worries.
All of the things listed above are risk factors for depression. Additionally, financial challenges also are contributing more to this concern for those living alone because they don’t have another person contributing to household expenses. Other symptoms include feeling unmotivated, thoughts of harming yourself or death, feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, and fatigue. I recommend you seek medical attention right away if you are experiencing any severe symptoms.
What are the ways social distancing might actually be beneficial to mental health?
During this time of social distancing, it gives us time to recharge, and to take time out from our busy and/or regimented lives, allowing us to get the rest we need.
This is an opportunity to form connections with people you may not have known well before because you don’t see them in your everyday life. I have spoken with people I haven’t heard from in years when they reached out because of this. We are being forced to slow down and simplify our lives and it’s an opportunity we didn’t have before.
Along those same lines, I’m sure every one of us has that one thing at home that we have been “meaning to do” but never had the time — that artwork you wanted to create, the cabinet door to fix, that book you wanted to read, or game you wanted to play with your kids: Now you have the time!
What is the importance of unwinding and taking time for yourself?
Your mental health is connected to your physical health. Taking time to relax promotes physical well-being as well as mental and emotional well-being. When you feel high-stress for an extended period of time, you are at higher risk for physical illness. It’s important to take care of yourself by getting restful sleep and doing relaxing activities (i.e. reading, yoga, stretching, taking baths).
Any tips on online or remote therapy? Is it as effective/are there ways to try to make it more effective? The benefits of online and remote therapy really depend on the reason for treatment and the personality of the patient. Virtual therapy is a really great tool to reach people who are unable to access in-person therapy because of social distancing, and overall because of living in a rural area, homebound by illness or lack of transportation.
I have also found that remote treatment has been the therapy of choice for those who have high social anxiety, and in my opinion, if that is the only barrier to seeking treatment, this is a fantastic option.
Tips to get the most out of virtual therapy include:
- Video is better than the telephone, and the telephone is better than texting. I know texting for therapy may be an appealing option for people today; in my opinion, text may be good for reminders of learned/practiced skills as a supplement to in-person or virtual therapy, but not a replacement.
- Make sure when you’re talking with your therapist, you’re in a quiet environment with no external distractions. I recommend a bedroom, quiet den, or even a backyard.