Your Pandemic Survival Guide
Living through this pandemic and the extended sheltering in place it demands has turned life as we know it upside down and posed many challenges to us all. As the horizon seems to indicate more of the same at least for the foreseeable future, here are some ideas, tips and tools to help get you through as healthfully and calmly as possible.
As we continue to primarily spend the hours, days and weeks in our own spaces, coping with feelings of isolation and loneliness continue to challenge us all. The next best thing to the in-person contact so many of us crave is Zoom or video calling. Technology has enabled us to keep in touch and feel some level of ‘connection’ with loved ones, friends, and colleagues as well as providing a means to continue working and earning a living for many. It has also brought us relief in the form of online entertainment: theater and musical performances, virtual travel tours, and museum visits and offered social opportunities including happy hours, family reunions, and at-a-distance holiday and birthday gatherings. I cannot imagine a shelter in place world where these were not available and it is important to note here that not all of us are so privileged as to have reliable internet, good computers, and the time to enjoy these. I do not wish to sound ungrateful for this miraculous advantage that has kept me and so many others afloat in so many ways, but, like everything else, there is a powerful downside which does need discussion.
Pandemic-driven fears and frustrations and its subsequent isolation, despite Zoom and video conferencing, have taken a heavy toll on us all. While many try not to acknowledge or even think about these, it is important to keep in mind that at all times, there are factors pressing on each of us and impacting our energy levels, our ability to take in, process and understand information from our environment, and to communicate. While it perhaps has never seemed harder to do, being tolerant of differences and flaws and going easy on each other are most important now.
Professional and personal interaction have been stripped down and sanitized, relegated to the virtual world, which offers a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’. The experiences most of us crave: a hug, touch of the hand, and other signs of in-person closeness have been deemed potentially lethal. People, once a source of comfort, entertainment, excitement, and intimacy, are now the most dangerous threat to us all. We have had to insulate ourselves with masks and layers of sanitizer (and even that is not enough as we later literally wash off all of our contact) from each other. This weighs heavily on us all.
And, for others, the lack of personal space and privacy are a pressing issue. Mothers are spending day after day at home endlessly caring for children and many are also burdened by trying to carve out work time to keep their families afloat. Dads are feeling the pull of work vs family duties like never before. Children, trying hard to behave, in the face of the boredom and restlessness that result from the lack of structure and routine which school and daycare had previously provided. Anyone who thinks these factors are not, at every moment, impacting our nervous systems and psyches, is simply and dangerously, in denial.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
When faced with this question, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the where-do-I-even-begin challenge that arises. I say, start at the beginning with the basics: breathing, resting, nourishment, talking, keeping an eye on substance use, practicing good virtual habits and activity…all of these can help. (For worksheets/more info on any of these or for a ‘talk it out’ session, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
When stressed, do any of us breathe properly? A common side effect of anxiety and worry is a shallow style of breathing that many of us these days are doing habitually. Is it surprising that this virus so often seems to lodge itself in the lungs? At the start of the pandemic, there were a number of videos posted, made by front line medical professionals, on deep breathing techniques to help combat the impacts of COVID infections in the lungs. Deep breathing can also be used to anchor oneself, to calm your system and reduce anxiety. If you don’t already know, there are numerous books, articles, and free videos out there on how to use breathing for relaxation. (Feel free to contact me for a worksheet on deep breathing)
Getting enough sleep and relaxation can be a challenge during stressful times. The number one offender among the people I speak with, seems to be over exposure to bad news. Many feel they cannot afford to miss a thing, news- wise and are reading the headlines and stories (mostly negative) throughout the day from a variety of sources. Additionally, for news program fans, the sound effects and theme music, meant to grab attention, can be jolting and hard on your nervous system. Protect yourself from all of this tension by limiting your news exposure (once a day for the headlines is plenty) and do not listen to or read about the news within two hours of bedtime.
As we are all feeling a certain level of vigilance and worry regarding the next potential crisis event, many of us are keeping phones, tablets, and laptops close by at all times. To stay on alert, sleeping with the phone or tablet in the bedroom for many has become standard. Again, this is not helpful to anyone’s sleep routine and should be avoided. We must find time, particularly at day’s end, to unplug, let it all go, and rest. Otherwise, exhaustion will follow. All of the news you are missing tonight or today will still be there tomorrow!
Talk it Out
If despite confiding in friends and family during the day and regularly carving out a daily, techno-free wind down time in the evening, you are up throughout the night, worrying or with your mind racing, take action. With the legitimization (finally) of telehealth services, it has never been easier to find a skillful psychotherapist whom you can use to study your own experiencing, learn from, and try out new tools with, hopefully leading to better sleep. Think of this as, literally, talking the toxins out of your system.
Feeling stuck at home, deprived, and having to prepare most meals oneself can be a great excuse for throwing caution to the wind regarding what and when you are eating and drinking. Increasing food intake can feel soothing in the moment, but the shift from 2-3 meals a day to 4-5 or snacking more frequently or later into the evening will not make you stronger. Over consumption, particularly in tandem with decreased exercise, will only lower your energy level and resistance, and negatively impact health. Similarly, the doomsday approach of letting go of nutrition guidelines and just eating any old nutrition free junk foods (“if I am going to get sick anyway, I might as well eat what I like now…”) can lead one down the path of carbo-craving and continuous hunger, despite consuming a greater number of calories. While chicken wings, chips, candy and the like may be calling to you, try to eat wisely. If you are struggling with this, there are many online eating and support programs that can help.
Practice Good Virtual Habits
As so much of our time is spent online these days, the what, how, and when of our virtual usage is important. Remembering to get up from your chair, though seemingly simple, can be a challenge as we are spending hours upon hours in front of our screens. (As we sit and sit, it’s easy sometimes to forget we have bodies!). Setting up an alarm or using devices that remind us to move about hourly can help.
Being mindful of the energy required for video meetings and conferencing, and planning accordingly, has never been more important. Too much time in the video fishbowl can lead to misunderstandings, decreased self-esteem, poor decision making and impulsive behavior (A few times, after too many meetings, I have wondered: Did I really just say that?). Try as best as possible to move around between online sessions as well as to change the scenery between longer meetings. Remember, the commute to and from meetings used to provide us with a restful break for our systems. Staying in one place for meeting after meeting does not provide the necessary down time we need to function well. (Contact me for a fuller list of helpful tips to maximize your virtual presence).
Alcohol, Weed, and Other Substance Use
How many memes have appeared on increased alcohol usage while sheltering at home? Jokes about bathtub sized wineglasses, breakfast cocktails, and the like seem to be everywhere, as are Zoom ‘happy hour’ invitations. Other substances may also call to us now with promises of lowered tension levels and momentary relief from worries and woes. No lecture forthcoming as hopefully, you know what your limits are, and you are paying attention to the amount and frequency of whatever it is you using. Moderation, people, please, moderation. Do remember that substance use (including caffeine) can interfere with your sleep cycle, so don’t forget to consider this if not getting enough rest is an issue for you.
As previously stated, many of us are staying in our chairs, safely in front of screens rather than risk going out into the virus filled environment. The obvious downside is that exercise for many has all but disappeared. Again, being mindful of what you are and are not doing is important. While the gym or studio may no longer feel like an option and trails and recreation areas may feel too risky, there is an abundance of online (yes, more screen time) exercise classes that are free and effective. Everything from yoga, aerobics, spinning, stretching, meditation and more is available now for you to utilize regularly. And, if all else fails, a brisk walk (with your mask on, of course) can always get your heart rate and mood up.
I encourage all of you to try each of these tools and also to find your own. I also invite anyone who could benefit to consider contacting me to “Talk It Out”, if you think it might help.
Here’s To Your Health,