Fear and anxiety about the spread of COVID-19 can be overwhelming – and those worries may be compounded by the disruptions and isolation many people face as we adapt to stay-at-home orders and physical distancing.
So how can we cope with the extra stress brought on by COVID-19? Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations, and no one solution will work for everyone. But M Health Fairview Psychologist Katie Lingras, PhD, LP, who is an assistant professor at University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, says that there are some techniques we all can try in order to reduce or prevent negative thoughts and feelings associated with COVID-19. We asked Lingras and her colleagues for tips to help manage mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Our national news cycle and our social media feeds are consumed by COVID-19. Though it’s important to stay informed with accurate information about the disease, it’s easy to get lost in the endless, outbreak-focused news. Lingras and her colleagues recommend taking breaks from news and social media and focusing on wellness by exercising, cooking nutritious foods, and getting enough sleep.
Springtime weather in the Midwest is always unpredictable, but our bodies need the regular movement and fresh air that comes with going outside, Lingras said. Taking a walk, running, outdoor solo yoga or conducting other fitness activities becomes even more important at a time when so many people are stuck indoors due to stay-at-home guidelines that have been imposed in many areas across the United States. When you are outside, however, Lingras notes it is important to observe six-foot physical distancing rules recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in order to maximize safety and avoid putting others at risk.
Just because you’re stuck at home doesn’t mean you can’t still see people – virtually, at least. Lingras recommends taking time to reconnect with friends or family members over the phone, through digital services like Skype, FaceTime or Zoom. Schedule a digital “social hour” or bring friends together to participate in trivia sessions, movie screenings, and other activities together being offered via video conferencing tools.
It’s OK to ask for help, too. Lingras and her colleagues suggest talking with loved ones, naming your feelings, and sharing tips or resources for managing feelings of anxiety and isolation. Talking with people you trust about your concerns and how you are managing them can be an important factor in building resilience. If you find yourself continuing to struggle, reach out for professional support. Most mental health professionals are still available for virtual appointments or phone calls and can be resources during this difficult time.
Lingras suggests that parents talk openly with their children – in a developmentally appropriate way – about COVID-19. Don’t wait for children to ask questions or find potentially inaccurate or misleading information online or from other sources. Instead, parents can schedule a “check-in” once per day with their kids to discuss how everyone is feeling and address any concerns or anxiety. During this process, Lingras encourages parents to lead by example. Parents can calmly share their feelings, too, and talk with children about how they deal with stress so that children can learn coping skills from their parents.
Focus on maintaining feelings of safety and consistency to help children feel secure. Do your best to maintain basic routines like bedtime and mealtimes, Lingras said. This predictability around basic needs/rhythms sends calming messages both socially and biologically. Encouraging children to engage in their favorite hobbies, helping them connect with friends digitally, and scheduling other family activities are all great ways to foster a sense of normalcy at home. If you run out of ideas for keeping kids occupied and engaged, Lingras suggests turning to free resources online, friends, or other parents to swap ideas. Lingras herself has been collecting activities and opportunities for children and families on Twitter. Follow her and share your tips.
Looking for other ways to deal with the stress and isolation of COVID-19? Listen to M Health Fairview Psychiatrist Kaz Nelson, MD, discuss the topic during a special edition of the podcast “The Mind Deconstructed.”