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Guard Your Mental Health During COVID-19

Published in Mental Health, For the Health of It Author: Michelle Lee, Exercise Physiologist

It is hard to find your equilibrium when everything feels upside down

We are experiencing unchartered territory when it comes to the COVID-19 outbreak. I think most of us can agree these are challenging times for our mental and emotional well-being. Every life situation is bringing its own unique challenges and so many routines and activities we took for granted have fallen away. Going in to work, hanging out with friends, going to the gym, shopping, being able to go to class, have all been stripped down and we need to be intentional in protecting our mental health. I am going to share some practices to guard your heart and mind during this time.

  • Follow a schedule. Few things are more challenging for your well-being than a lack of daily structure. Establishing a consistent routine is one of the friendliest things you can do for yourself.
  • Sunlight: Spend time in the sunshine in the early part of the day. If your area is discouraging nonessential time outdoors, at least sit by a window in the morning.
  • Sleep: Go to bed and get up at about the same time every day.
  • Meals: Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at consistent times.
  • Exertion: Plan a consistent time for exercise (e.g., first thing in the morning; after work).
  • Bathing: It can surprisingly be easy to fall off the shower wagon when you don’t have to leave the house for an extended length of time. Bathing routine is good and being stuck at home together is a lot nicer when everyone smells fresh.
  • Be kind to your mind. Your thoughts can be a powerful ally or a formidable foe. Now more than ever, practice training your mind in helpful directions that support your well-being.
  • Direct your attention. We can dwell on our struggles or on opportunities to love each other through this time.
  • Practice gratitude. We can make a habit of noticing all the things that are right in our lives, rather than dwelling on what is wrong or missing. Finding ways to practice thanksgiving is one of the most reliable ways to guard your mental health.

Be Good to Your Body

Mental health starts with physical wellness. Research supports that the mind and the body are intimately connected. The following areas are especially important:

  • Make sleep a sacred priority. Give yourself enough time in bed to get the rest you need and stick to a consistent sleep pattern. Build in a technology-free winding down routine for 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.
  • Move every day. Now that gyms are closed and our activities are so limited, it’s easy to become inactive and not realize that you’re barely moving throughout the day. Find a way to move. Go for walks every day and investigate online exercise resources that offer cardio, yoga, stretching, toning, or bust a move with a dance party. Consistent physical activity is known to lower stress and anxiety and improve mood, not to mention strengthening your immune system.
  • Feed your body and mind. Speaking of your immune system, choose healthy food options like vegetables and fruits, and avoid highly processed foods and refined sugar. Limit your alcohol consumption, and beware of too much caffeine, which can aggravate stress and anxiety. If you’re aiming to eat better, focus on making one improvement to one meal at a time, and gradually build from there. Good nutrition is good not just for your body, but for your mind and emotions.
  • Find moments of stillness. Stress and tension collect in the body and mind throughout the day. Set aside time to release this nervous energy.
  • Release tension and breath. Close your eyes and take a slow breath in through the nose for a count of 5, feeling the belly rise and expand. Exhale slowly out the mouth for a count of 5. Pause briefly before starting the next inhale. Repeat...
  • Unplug. Being constantly connected to screens takes a toll on your nervous system, but it can be hard to avoid when so much of your work and home life exists online. Establish some tech-free zones; this can include mealtime, bedroom and during quality time with those you care about.
  • Be in nature. All kinds of good things can happen when you step outside. Your stress level tends to go down, your perspective widens and your mood generally lifts. You don’t have to go for an hour-long hike — just a 5-minute walk around the block can make a big difference. If your time outside is restricted, savor brief essential trips outdoors — look around, feel the air and breathe.
  • Share love. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, exercise your truest nature as a being of love. It is easy to neglect our relationships or to frankly find them irritating, especially with the people closest to us who we see every day. But nothing is more important for your well-being than these relationships. Invest time and energy in the people who will be with you no matter what.
  • Be with people you enjoy. “Being with” might be virtual for now, through texts, emails and Skype or FaceTime. One way or another, find time each day to focus on the people who matter most to you, whether friends, parents, partners, children, siblings or canine/feline “family.”
  • Forgive. This gesture makes huge deposits in the bank account of your relationships.

More than anything else, grant yourself some grace. This is a difficult and stressful time as you adapt to a completely new situation. There is no need to aim for perfection in how you manage your mental health — you’re going to feel anxious and off balance at times as you find your equilibrium, and lose it, and then find it again. You are doing the best you can, and that is good enough.

My final thoughts. I feel that hearing the words “social distancing” so many times a day has affected me emotionally and stripped away some of my happiness and joy in life. Myself, I try to focus on saying “physically distancing” and allowing that social connection that I truly need to still be part of my life.

Stay safe and healthy!