I am trying to feel ok, but today is hard. And maybe you feel that way too.
I’ve been struggling to write this blog post on how to overcome mental health issues during the coronavirus pandemic because my mental health hasn’t necessarily been stellar. It’s hard to focus knowing there are more than one million Americans suffering from COVID-19, 30+ million workers who are now unemployed, and others in their jobs whose work is quickly dwindling away. I am thankful to still be employed, and for my health and my family’s health. But trying to project that thankfulness in the midst of underlying chaos is a daily struggle.
May is #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth – a cute hashtag for a serious epidemic. Mental health disorders cost American businesses nearly $200 billion per year. This stat that is often thrown around and, in and of itself, describes one of the main reasons nearly 40 million Americans experience anxiety and over 16 million suffer a major depressive episode each year.
Measuring mental illness in dollars is intrinsically destructive. When your worth is calculated by productivity, hours spent, money generated, time lost, it takes the humanity out of being human. And now with so many businesses closed and people out of work, the pressure is on to be productive – whether that means learning a new language, working 24/7, or writing that novel you’ve been putting off.
But even during a pandemic when all of us (sans essential workers) are mostly just staying home, it is ok to take a break. Sometimes, we need to hit eject, take a seat, put our phones down, recharge.
Like I said, I’m definitely not the picture of perfect mental health (I honestly doubt anyone is), but I’ve gathered a few pieces of advice from trusted resources that have helped me during this time. And hopefully, they will help you too – even if just for a minute.
Just One Breath
Recently, I participated in a virtual mindfulness meditation session through rbb’s ‘Tune Up Tuesdays,’ a series of health and wellness classes for rbb employees. At each Tune Up Tuesday, we practice different strategies to promote our physical and mental wellbeing, either through exercise or other stress-reducing methods.
This session was guided by Alice Lash of Mindfultime, an incredibly serene woman with a calming presence, even through Zoom. Before walking us through a guided practice, she explained mindfulness meditation is not about shutting off your brain, but rather taking the distractions as they come, acknowledging them, and then letting them pass. Your surroundings and thoughts are not going to go away simply because you’re meditating. Basically, you cannot control what you cannot control. The key is to stay in the present moment despite interruptions. Accept them, acknowledge them, and move on – an important lesson that I’ve tried internalizing.
The most useful thing I took away from the session was that mindfulness can be practiced anywhere at any time – even if just for one breath. You can ground yourself right at your desk, feet planted on the ground, eyes closed, hands on your lap. By just taking one breath – in and out – where you are completely focused on just that breath, you can recenter your thoughts and bring yourself back to reality. If you want to try it for yourself, I highly suggest checking out Alice’s free meditation (it’s less than four minutes long and a great way to get your feet wet).
Make Time for Yourself
This one might seem obvious, especially since we’re all in quarantine and basically alone with ourselves all the time. However, with constant pressures from outside voices (e.g. “What else do you have to do anyway? We’re all in quarantine.”) and with more than one in four Americans reporting that they feel guilty when practicing self-care, making time for yourself right now can be a challenge.
So, what is self-care anyway? A Google search will reveal a myriad of definitions, but I think this one from Psych Central sums it up best.
“Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health.”
The “deliberate” part is crucial in this definition. Self-care is something that is planned. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be planning for hours before starting self-care, but it does mean you are doing the activity with intent.
How can we do this during the pandemic? The CDC suggests taking breaks from COVID-content and making time for sleep and exercise, amongst other things. For me, yoga, painting, bike riding and reading are some of the things that help me relax. When I go too long without them, the stress creeps in and becomes overwhelming. Intentionally making time to do the things that make you happy can completely change your perspective and boost your mood.
Assess Your Resources
Mindfulness meditation and self-care are great solo activities for your mental health. However, it’s also ok to reach out to others when you need help.
There are tons of free resources available through mental health organizations, like the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ free informational guide on how to cope with stress, anxiety and depression exacerbated by the pandemic; or Mental Health America’s Mental Health And COVID-19 guide, which offers a variety of resources for all types of individuals coping with anxiety during this time, including first responders, domestic abuse survivors, veterans, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Also, be sure to check out the resources your job is offering. Does your employer have its own version of ‘Tune Up Tuesdays’? What about your health insurance? Many insurers now provide access to telehealth offerings such as Doctor on Demand, and a therapy appointment could be a click away. There are also apps solely dedicated to mental health like Talkspace, which provides users the ability to message a licensed therapist at any time of day, regardless of whether they have an appointment. And for those that feel like they have nowhere else to turn, you can dial the 1-800-622-HELP (4357), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free national helpline. Trained specialists provide referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
There is no cure all to mental health issues, especially during this time, but we can all learn how to manage the inevitable stress that comes inherent with a pandemic. And perhaps there is a silver lining to all of this. Now that our daily lives have been uprooted, this is a great time to assess what was and wasn’t working before quarantine. Which lifestyle changes have you made to accommodate this new environment? Which ones have you let go of? What were you doing in your previous life that did not benefit you as a person?
Protecting your mental health will not stop after this pandemic, and life will constantly throw stressors your way. The question is – how will you deal with them?