Tips and strategies from a mental health expert on coping with stress, keeping up routines, and staying connected while in isolation
We are living in unprecedented times, with the virus COVID19 continuing to wreak havoc across the globe. Fear and anxiety are natural responses to the uncertainty and chaos of this pandemic. Dr. Deanna Nobleza, Director of the Student Personal Counseling Center and Emotional Health & Wellness Program for House Staff at Jefferson, shares some tips and strategies to care for our emotional wellbeing and stay connected to friends and family while practicing social distancing.
Turn to Trustworthy Sources of Information
“With all the different sources of media, there’s a lot of stories that are based on belief, misinformation, and not on evidence, which can feed panic and anxiety,” says Dr. Nobleza. “We can protect ourselves by making sure we have accurate information from trusted sources.” Knowledge and information can also help soothe catastrophic or irrational thinking, which is common in these situations. “In cognitive behavioral therapy, we tell people to act as if you’re being your best lawyer. If you find yourself overly focused on that worst-case scenario, weigh all the evidence for and against. It helps stop those cyclical and inflammatory thoughts,” says Dr. Nobleza.
Tune Out When You Need to
While staying informed is helpful, Dr. Nobleza recommends limiting your intake of the news and social media. “For many of us, especially if you are working from home, it’s easy to have the news going on in the background or go down rabbit holes of news articles online,” says Dr. Nobleza. “We can get inundated with information, and that can raise levels of stress and anxiety.” She recommends turning off news alerts, visiting your trusted news sources only once a day, and limiting the news shows you watch to one or two per day.
Try to Reduce Stress
Grounding exercises like keeping a gratitude journal, practicing mindfulness, and meditating can also help with stress reduction. “There are so many different apps now that provide guided meditations for all levels, whether you’re just starting out or practice regularly” says Dr. Nobleza.
Apps like Ten Percent Happier and Headspace are offering collections of exercises that don’t require a subscription. They are also giving special free access to the app for the next 6 months or more for healthcare workers, as well as meditations specifically designed for them. Allowing time for stillness and calm in a time of crisis can go a long way toward diffusing stress.
Set Aside Some “Worry Time”
When stress begins to feel overwhelming, Dr. Nobleza recommends a cognitive technique called “scheduling worry time.” Instead of letting our thoughts run away at every moment, we can proactively set aside a regular time each day (10-30 minutes) to think about, or list, the things that cause worry. “In this way we accept that we have worries but also create a limit and/or boundaries to our worry so they don’t overtake our day,” she explains.
Continue Care and Support for Mental Health Conditions
For those who are already dealing with mental health challenges like anxiety and depression, stressful times like these can heighten symptoms. It’s important to develop a plan with your mental health provider and make sure you can reach them on a regular basis. Many therapists and counseling services, including Jefferson’s Student Personal Counseling Center, and Emotional Health and Wellness Program for House Staff offer telehealth appointments. “We have fully transitioned to telehealth, so everyone can continue their care with us,” says Dr. Nobleza. If you are on medication, make sure you’ve contacted your provider to order the necessary refills and check to see if your pharmacy delivers.
Maintain a Routine and Structure
“For those of us who are working remotely now, it’s easy for our day to become unstructured,” says Dr. Nobleza. “Even if you’re not leaving the house, take a shower, eat regular meals, do a short workout or go for a walk, make sure you’re keeping regular sleeping hours.”For students who have suddenly found themselves out of the classroom for the rest of the semester, Dr. Nobleza suggests trying to create a stable learning environment at home. “Have a dedicated spot in your room like your desk, or a room that isn’t your bedroom, to do all your classwork. Schedule virtual study groups and homework sessions with your classmates.” Many University services are still available: the library and Academic Commons are all offering their services online, faculty are still holding virtual office hours, student counseling is still available. “You are not alone,” emphasizes Dr. Nobleza.
Don’t Rush to Fill Spare Time
Some of us may find that we have some spare time in our day that we didn’t have before. “Use that time to reflect, let yourself daydream, think about things that you’re looking forward to, like a vacation or going to your favorite restaurant, when this is all over. Because it will be over” says Dr. Nobleza.
For healthcare workers on the frontline, maintaining structure and finding time to reflect is likely impossible. To the extent that they can, she recommends taking a moment to breathe, trying to get rest and stay nourished, and reaching out for help when necessary. “As a community, we have to be compassionate to them and understand that they’re doing their best right now in very stressful and unusual circumstances.”
We have to make use of the technology available to us to stay emotionally connected. Start texting chains, FaceTime or Skype your friends and family, exchange songs. – Dr. Nobleza
Humans are social creatures, and with social distancing in effect, many people are worried about feeling isolated. “We have to make use of the technology available to us to stay emotionally connected,” says Dr. Nobleza.
“Start texting chains, FaceTime or Skype your friends and family. My team and I have been exchanging songs and creating a playlist – some are lighthearted and upbeat songs, and others are classical and reflective. But it’s the experience of relationships that creates lightness.” Google Chrome has created an extension for Netflix called Netflix Party, which allows you to watch Netflix remotely with friends for a movie or date night. It also synchronizes video playback and has group chat. People are also doing virtual book clubs, happy hours, dance parties, and even karaoke sessions.
For parents juggling remote work and childcare, Dr. Nobleza suggests activities that involve the whole family. “Right now at home, we have a big ‘Paint-By-Numbers’ canvas out, and sometimes we paint together and other times we each spend a few minutes on our own,” she says. It’s helpful to encourage kids to channel their energy into other creative projects that also structure their time at home, like crafting a schedule for the day or a chore-wheel. “It will be challenging at times to adjust to this new environment, but it’s also a chance for busy working families to connect with each other.”
For those who engage in prayer, many faith-based organizations are also streaming their services online. Check with your community to see if this is available.
“One of the tenets of self-compassion is common humanity. Yes, we are suffering, but we are not suffering alone,” says Dr. Nobleza. She suggests channeling some of the frustration we might feel into thinking about how we can help others during this time. “They say anxiety is contagious. But so is empathy and compassion.”
Resources at Jefferson:
- Student Personal Counseling Center or call 215-955-HELP to make an appointment
- Emotional Health & Wellness Program for House Staff or call 215-955-HELP to make an appointment
- First Call Employee Assistance Program for all Jefferson employees
- Click here for free, anonymous online mental health screenings
Resources for Anyone:
- National Alliance on Mental Health Coronavirus Tip Sheet
- Psychology Today: Find a Therapist
- For the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org