Judy Ho, Ph. D., ABPP, ABPdN is a licensed and triple board-certified Clinical Neuropsychologist based in Los Angeles, a tenured Associate Professor at Pepperdine University, podcast host, and published author. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, she’s also a regular on the set of The Doctors. Inspirational both in her achievements, and her extensive resumé, she’s here with six amazing tips to help you adjust to the new normal!
image via DR JUDY HO
The COVID-19 pandemic has a lot of us grappling with fear, stress, anxiety, grief, and feelings of being overwhelmed. With the new directives to practice social distancing (maintaining > 6 feet of physical distance from other people, or avoiding direct contact with people or objects—no hugs or handshakes—in public places during the current coronavirus outbreak to minimize exposure and reduce the transition of infection), we are urged to work from home, avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, and do so to protect ourselves and the larger community.
These directives, while imperative and clearly necessary, have direct tolls on our mental and physical health in addition to our growing fears of the unknown and the fact that news updates seem to present an everchanging picture each day. With no specific end in sight, the unknowns of how long this new normal will last and what it will look like as the situation unfolds is bound to cause heightened anxiety. Unknowns are very stressful for the human mind. We want to feel in control of our lives, as the more we feel is in our control, the more our chances for survival increases. The social distancing directives isolate from others, and we know that loneliness and perceived dissatisfaction with social interactions can wreak havoc on our well-being. Being in one place most or all of the time will also lead us to experience symptoms of cabin fever, lethargy, sadness, problems concentrating, irritability, feelings of being stuck, claustrophobia, and difficulty dealing with minor stressors.
To help us cope, here are some evidence-based tips on how we can make the most of these times, attend to our mental and physical wellness, and stay productive and motivated.
1. Take deep breaths and combat defeatist thinking
In these unprecedented times, it is easy to lose hope or feel absolutely inefficacious about how you can improve the circumstances. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the challenges, take deep breaths. This resets your brain and body and tells it to chill out and veer away from a state of emergency or fight or flight. Then, manage any negative, catastrophic thinking. Thoughts are just mental events and not necessarily reflective of the truth, even when it feels that way! Try this evidence-based technique from the ACT literature called defusion. Whatever negative or catastrophic thought you are having, put the clause, “I am having the thought that …” in front of it. This takes the wind out of the sails of that negative thought just enough for you to feel more proactive and in charge of your life. So “I won’t be able to survive this” becomes “I am having the thought that I won’t be able to survive this.” This simple exercise of distancing from harmful thoughts without trying to change them is extremely helpful in helping to curb subsequent negative emotional or behavioral reactions.
2. Accept negative feelings and thoughts, and let them be
You are bound to have negative emotions right now, and one of them may be grief. Grief can be conjured not only be fears of death and dying (and this pandemic certainly has aroused that existential fear in many of us), but it can be about saying goodbye to a former type of lifestyle, the end of a job or career, the fracturing of relationships; all of which are possible outcomes many are dealing with during this uncertain time. Rather than grief processing occurring in stages, I actually think it’s a circle of grief. People don’t move linearly. When we grieve, we bounce back and forth between depression, denial, anger, acceptance, and bargaining. One day you might feel accepting of the situation, the next day when a news story hits, you are back to experiencing anger. And that emotional swing can be tough to manage, so we have to be kind to ourselves and allow these feelings to happen. Know that they are normal and that they won’t last forever. The more you struggle with feelings the longer they linger, but if you accept them as normal and fact, they tend to dissipate easier.
3. Find creative ways to socially engage
We are social animals and we need meaningful social engagement. We can do this by making sure we touch base with loved ones in real life by calls or video chat. This can be additionally bolstered by having a shared experience. For example, eat lunch or dinner with a loved one over video chat. Watch a movie together while on video chat and share commentary and opinions about the film during or after. Make sure you do this a few times a week.
4. Open the shades (and get outside)
Whenever possible, try to get outside, even for a few minutes a day, to take in the fresh air and the outdoors. Research shows this is especially effective in the morning hours to align with human beings’ circadian rhythm which can also help promote better quality sleep. If you are unable to get outside, open the shades. This can help ward off claustrophobia and boost your mood.
5. Avoid binge-watching anything (or binge video game-playing)
It would be so easy to pass the time with hours of Netflix or Call of Duty. But doing this can actually lead to feelings of depression and hopelessness, according to research. Limit yourself to two hours per day for video and media consumption. This would include leisure shows, the news, and social media.
6. Keep a routine
Routines are comforting to the human mind. Make sure you devise a daily routine that mimics what you did prior to social distancing directives. This means getting up at the same hour every day (set an alarm clock if you need to), showering and getting dressed as if you were going to work outside the home (and direct your children to do the same), and having “work hours” when you focus on industrious activities and “home hours” where you focus on family togetherness and relaxation.
feature image via usatoday
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