A guide to coming out of this mentally stronger
With an unprecedented proportion of the world’s population in self-isolation, many of us feel uneasy (to say the least) about the sudden, strange upheaval to regular life as we know it. There is no doubt that, on top of the serious physical respiratory health pandemic, a tsunami of associated mental health issues is rapidly sweeping the globe.
It is totally normal and understandable to flip between a multitude of mental and emotional states during the COVID-19 outbreak. Researchers recorded “fear…depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder” in China during the outbreak. Other studies found depression and anxiety levels to rise in the UK, following the announcement of the government’s lockdown policy.
“It’s okay to feel what you are feeling, whatever that is. Don’t feel ashamed if you aren’t positive…People misunderstand what ‘being strong’ really is. Strength is the courage to be vulnerable, be real. Some days I feel empowered…some days I feel helpless…This week I’ve had heaping doses of both polarities. Most people I’ve spoken to have felt similar. It’s all okay.” — Aubrey Marcus
Coming out of this mentally stronger
Although we might not go actively looking for them , life’s toughest challenges also provide the opportunity to shake up our lives and realise what matters most. After struggling with several big life changes myself a few years ago, I focused on what seemed to help keep me emotionally stable and happy — even in the midst of external turmoil.
The pandemic is like a collective challenging life-change — the world is battling serious illness; anxiety; financial woes; separation from loved ones; grief; a temporary loss of freedom — instability in multiple areas en masse.
Here are 10 practical ways to help keep you mind balanced during these challenging times:
- Stay connected with others
Healthy relationships are key for our well-being. The 80-year Harvard Study of Adult Development found that close personal connections are key for our happiness and longevity throughout life. Research also suggests that people who engage in supportive, positive relationships produce more oxytocin, which can: boost our immune system, allow us to physically heal quicker, and mean we are less likely to experience stress, anxiety, and depression.
Technology is often blamed for making us feel more socially isolated (more on that later on); but most of us are using it now to build a sense of real-life community that we might miss at the moment. Commit to speaking to at least one person who uplifts you on a phone or video call every day. You can arrange to share meals, play online games, or have creative sessions with loved ones using apps like Zoom or Houseparty. You can even host virtual dinner parties by eating meals at the same time as those we miss; or have virtual book or movie clubs — where you discuss a book you are all reading, or film you’ve watched, on scheduled calls.
Social media self-isolation support groups (global on Facebook, local on Nextdoor, or you can make your own using Whatsapp) are popping up to help members stay positive. These groups can help us pool resources and knowledge; share how we feel; and find the support we need.
As well as contacting those we trust and feel positive with when we are struggling, reaching out to others who might be feeling alone, anxious or overwhelmed can also help us get through hard times together. Every morning when you wake up, try to think of two people you could check in with that day — with a message, call or supportive voice note . Helping others is also known to help boost our own mental well-being.
Supporting small businesses online can help those struggling with low in-person footfall. We can also donate to local food banks, homeless shelters, services for the elderly or COVID-19 appeals like the UK’s National Emergencies Trust, or volunteer to help the NHS support those most in need.
If you live with other people, keep in mind that we all deal with stress differently, and all have “up” and “down” days. In general, try to take a few breaths before reacting to someone else’s emotionally-triggering behavior, and to be open about how you feel and your needs — perhaps using the Nonviolent Communication method — to build understanding rather than resentment.
This recent Freakonomics podcast episode discusses the effects of the pandemic on urban populations and marriages. Tim Ferriss’ COVID-19-related podcasts have been super-insightful, and his recent interview with acclaimed relationship therapist Esther Perel is packed with useful lockdown coping strategies. There is more practical advice for isolating with your family in this LBC Radio interview.
2. Meditate small and often
Just a few minutes of meditation day has been shown to have a multitude of positive effects on our mental and physical well-being, and now might be a great time to start. Over the medium-term, research has shown that meditation can help calm down anxious racing minds; decrease stress and depressive feelings; give us new perspectives; and find inner stillness even when the outer world seems tumultuous.
Set up a comfortable, quiet space with a cushion, blanket, candle or other elements which make your spot enjoyable to go to. Head there at a regular time — for example at 8am; before you go to bed; or after you brush your teeth — to make it more likely that you keep going back.
There is an ever-growing treasure trove of free and paid-for meditation material online. Insight Timer is my favorite meditation app for variety and the community aspect; the Calm app has a free “Let’s meet this moment together” section to soothe COVID-19-related anxiety; and Australian Smiling Mind also has this dedicated “Thrive Inside” resources page.
Many of the world’s best-known meditation guides (such as Jay Shetty) are busy sharing positive-mindset content on social media; and studios like “Unplug Meditaton” in California are streaming classes online to help us calm down too. Alchemy of Breath also runs free online breath-work meditation classes every Sunday which can be particularly transformative to our mood.
Megan Monohan’s book “Don’t Hate Meditate” is a great practical introduction to building a practice; and Deepak Chopra’s “Hope in Uncertain Times” site is offering a free 21-Day Meditation Experience.
3. Approach things more mindfully
To be mindful means staying non-judgmentally aware of the present moment — rather than mind-wandering into thoughts about the past or the future (which is believed to make us less happy). During difficult times it’s easy for our attention to drift to worries about worst-case scenarios that may never happen. The fact is, no one really knows what the future holds. It is prudent to be practically prepared, but after that it is helpful to remember that we are safe in the present moment, rather than diving into negative thought spirals.
Meditation is a concentrated, dedicated period of mindfulness, but we can also practice staying mindful — or to keep bringing our full attention to — during other tasks.
A few easy ways to practice mindfulness include:
- Pausing to notice three things you can touch, two objects you can see and one sound you can hear in your immediate environment;
- Closing your eyes and counting five slow, deep breaths. Feel how your body moves with each breath, notice how warm or cold your inhales and exhales feel;
- Going through all five of your senses individually (noticing sight, smell, sounds, tastes and touch) whilst preparing or eating a meal or a snack;
- Running your fingers along the outside and then the inside of your own arms from your shoulders to your fingertips slowly three times;
- Each morning or night, write down three things you’re grateful for, or the previous day’s successes — no matter how big or small. These might be someone you know; things you like about yourself or where you live; what you ate or did that day; or an aspect of nature — like the sky, a flower or bird song. Research suggests that gratitude practices can improve our outlook on life.
Some of my favorite books further exploring mindfulness, consciousness and living in the present moment include the beautifully written “The Untethered Soul” by Michael A. Singer; the esoteric “The Power of Now” by Eckhard Tolle; and mind-blowing “Freedom From The Known” by J. Krishnamurti. You can watch Tolle’s recent “Staying conscious in the state of adversity” video here.
4. Develop a new routine at home
Try to build some kind of routine at home — you might decide to wake up, go to sleep and eat at regular times; take up exercise on certain days; or diarize blocks of your calendar for work and other tasks. This can help to help maintain our sleep patterns, to eat more healthily and stress less.
It’s useful to list things you’d like to achieve tomorrow (highlighting three top priorities), as well as the week ahead in your journal, carrying any unfinished tasks forward to the next time period. You can find tips on productively working from home online, like in these articles by the BBC and CNN.
If you’ve wanted to read a book (here are 10 books that totally transformed my life); learn a new skill (like a language); or take an online course (you can check many affordable or free ones out on Udemy or Coursera) but haven’t prioritized it — take this extra time indoors as an opportunity. Hal Elrod’s easy read “The Miracle Morning” suggests activities to start our day off right, including exercise, meditation, reading, journaling and visualization. I personally like to meditate each morning, exercise in the afternoon, and read before I go to bed — this structure helps me to stay grounded. I also like to mix up how I exercise, books I read and my self care routine, depending how I feel that day.
To work on forming good habits, or getting rid of old ones, James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” is a great guide to getting started. Using a journal, a highly-visible habit tracker, app or having an accountability buddy also helps us stay on track. To help my focus levels, I like listening to calming background music like this on YouTube, or you can check out science-based Brain.fm.
5. Take breaks from tech
Being at home all day means that many of us are spending more time than ever socializing, working, informing and entertaining ourselves through our online devices. The majority of Brits use their smartphones right up until bedtime and, in 2019, the average American checked theirs 96 times per day. Studies have linked heavy smartphone use to stress, depression and anxiety, with too much social media particularly found to affect our mood. Most of us have also likely noticed the associated effects of overuse on on our sleep, focus and productivity at home.
We can use usage-tracker apps like iPhone’s Screen Time, or Digital Wellbeing for Android to see how much time we spend on our devices— usually it’s way more than we consciously realize! Then it’s down to simple hacks like having a phone-free room at home (like your bedroom) or times of day (like 9pm to 9am); turning off all but essential notifications; keeping your phone of arm’s reach when you are working; and deleting social media or other potentially time-wasting apps to de-clutter your home screen.
Check out the brilliant book “How to Break Up With Your Phone” by Catherine Price for more tips. Many of us are also enjoying digging out paper books, board games, gardening, baking or exercise equipment for offline entertainment.
6. Moderate your negativity intake — have fun too
It’s important to stay up-to-date with key developments, but if you start to feel overwhelmed by negative news, follow the CDC’s advice and take a break from it. Over half of participants in a 2018 study by the American Psychological Association said that the news causes them stress, with many experiencing anxiety or sleep loss as a result. Try not to have news on in the background — check once a day for updates, rather than constantly, and set a time limit on how late you’ll consume it at night. Notice how you feel before and after you check the news. If you feel like you are compulsively checking, give someone you care about a call, or do something productive, like picking up a book, instead. Alternatively you can even check out Positive News for pandemic respite.
At a “Flying with Confidence” course several years back, my fellow flight-phobic attendees and I were told to avoid watching fictional, Aircraft Investigation-style, TV shows about plane crashes — the human brain has a tendency to normalize the catastrophes and outliers we see on TV. It can be tempting to consume all of the apocalyptic Netflix programming we can, in an attempt to understand all of the unknowns. In the same way, I am avoiding watching this too now, and focusing on uplifting or funny shows (my current favorite is Bojack Horseman) instead.
Laughter is known to make us feel better, and can soothe physical tension, strengthen our immune system and give us pain relief. Notice the small things that make you smile, and make sure you are regularly having fun doing things you enjoy — like baking, drawing, dancing, singing, speaking to friends who cheer you up, watching or reading something that makes you smile. Think about what lit you up as a child, and dedicate at least 30–60 minutes a day to activities that make you feel most happy and alive— instead of consuming anxiety-inducing content.
7. Connect with nature
Studies show that spending time in nature can have positive effects on our health — like lowering our blood pressure and boosting happiness; and, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, Spring has sprung.
Try to spend time outside in your garden or patio every day, or go for a socially-distanced walk or run in the park or a natural space near you (as permitted by your local government’s recommendations). Take the time to mindfully notice your surroundings — any trees, flowers or birds you spot. Focusing on distant views can also give our eyes a break from all of the screen time at home.
You can connect with nature without leaving the house, too. Commit to noticing how the sky, or other natural phenomena like trees, look outside each day — research suggests a window view of nature can even shorten the recovery time of patients. Owning a houseplant has also been shown to improve our mood; and listening to recorded nature sounds (I love hearing the ocean whilst I work) or looking at images of green environments are thought to also have calming effects on us. You could also install a bird feeder you can see from inside, and try to spend a significant proportion of your day in a room with adequate sunlight.
8. Prioritize your sleep
With all of the upheaval and uncertainty, many of us are finding it harder to nod off, with some reporting vivid dreams or nightmares once they do manage to. The American National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night; while the NHS explains here how being chronically under-rested can lead to serious health conditions — including anxiety and depression.
For now, try developing a regular relaxing bedtime routine — such as having three things you regularly do, like reading a book, having a herbal tea, a bath, journaling, meditating or moisturizing. Make sure your bedroom is as quiet and dark as possible, and avoid mental over-stimulation and blue light from our screens in bed — which affect our sleep cycles — by charging your phone outside of the bedroom. You could also try putting tech on airplane-mode at 9pm (and not checking your messages until 9am), or using free desktop tool F.lux which aims to keep the light levels coming from our screens with that of our natural environment according to the time of day.
Calm’s sleep stories have helped millions of people already, and HuffPost has some great tips here on sleeping better during pandemic-related anxiety. If you are interested in finding out more about our sleep quality’s effect on our health, Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep” is full of practical information and tips based on cutting-edge sleep-science.
9. Move your body every day
The UK government recommends healthy adults do at least 2.5 hours of moderate exercise every week. Physical activity has many mental benefits such as improving cognitive function, boosting our perceived quality of life, and reducing anxiety and depression. If you’re used to feeling the positive effects of going to the gym or playing sports, which you can’t do right now, do not fear! Many of the world’s top fitness studios like Barry’s Bootcamp, and instructors like Joe Wick’s The BodyCoach TV, have moved to streaming regular free or paid-for classes online during lock down.
Research has found that lower intensity, strengthening movement like yoga (which also often includes a meditation section) can help calm us down during stressful times. Some of my favorite yoga teachers are also recording frequent classes from their social media accounts (like Ted McDonald on Instagram). I also love online ecstatic dance classes with URUBU or Rise Up — basically, an excuse to dance like no one else is watching from the comfort of your living room, whilst connecting online to people from all over the world.
As well as dancing, singing has multiple health benefits too, and listening to music we enjoy is known to uplift our mood. There is a proliferation of DJ live streams and concerts going on — check out this list of ideas if you are looking for something new.
10. Be kind to yourself, acknowledge those feelings
We can all be guilty of being harsher to ourselves than we would be to anyone else — learn to treat yourself like a best friend instead. If you’re not feeling as productive as usual — do what you can and know that you’re trying your best during an unprecedented, stressful situation. This could also be an opportunity to rest a little from “normal” busy life, and to learn to forgive yourself if you are not feeling 100% (or failing to meet unrealistic standards).
As spiritual thought-leader Sadhguru recently half-joked to his 2.9m followers during his daily Instagram talk, the general public are saving lives just by staying home — “for once by doing nothing, we are doing something”.
If you are comparing yourself with other people’s attitudes or achievements — notice, and then try to put a stop to, doing that. We all handle things differently at different times, and we never really know what someone else is going through.
Acknowledging difficult feelings — such as anxiety, grief, or boredom — by sitting quietly with them and feeling where they come up in the body, and maybe sharing them with someone we trust, or a mental health professional — can help us process and move through them, rather than repressing and paying for it later on. We can tell ourselves “Ok, I’m anxious/grieving/bored now, but that is normal and fine, and this too will pass” — after all these are not usual times!
Journaling or free-writing — committing to writing whatever comes up for a set time duration (such as five minutes) or number of pages (three, for example) without editing or censoring ourselves — can help us to get clearer on what’s going on in our heads, and so make them feel less cluttered. Recording feelings can also be interesting to reflect on in future.
Other useful mental well-being resources:
Keep in mind and check in with what feels useful to your own physical and mental state before and after you practice, then you will learn what works for you. You can find further COVID-19 mental health resources here:
- At Mind: Unlocked we’ve curated this free list of fact -checked mental well-being resources, covering a range of topics — and are regularly updating it;
- Mental health charity Mind has this page dedicated to mental well-being and the COVID-19 outbreak;
- The NHS has published useful tips for “Mental well-being while staying at home”;
- Mental health guidance specifically released by the World Health Organisation and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ;
- The American Psychological Association has a list of pandemic guidance here;
- This Psychology Today article on pandemic trauma is also insightful.
If you are feeling unable to cope or overwhelmed, and speaking to someone close to you who you trust doesn’t help you feel better, contact your family doctor or seek a professional counselor or therapist — it’s often possible to have sessions remotely, over the phone or online.
These are uncertain times where many of us face grief, financial pressure, loss of freedom and anxiety — so it is imperative to look after the physical and mental well-being of ourselves and others well during this period.
To summarize, try to regularly: meditate and practice mindfulness; build social connections; prioritize sleeping well; practice movement and a hobby you enjoy every day; regulate your tech use and consumption of negative content; and help others who are vulnerable, lonely or in particular need.
We can decide to not only survive and get through this period, but maybe learn to come out the other side as improved beings — with a better understanding of how to tend to the needs and feelings of ourselves and others, and a renewed realization of our connectedness to nature and the rest of the world, as well as of what is truly most important to us.
Jessica Warren is co-founder of Mind: Unlocked — a mental well-being business that provides practical tools, courses and workshops to help people cope with the stress of everyday modern life. She has been featured as a wellness speaker on BBC Radio and at conferences like Wanderlust and Eurekafest; and writes for Thrive Global, Economia Magazine, and the StartUp and P.S. I Love You publications on Medium. Jessica trained as a Chartered Accountant and worked in corporate finance, before deciding to dedicate her time to exploring and sharing how to live more fulfilling lives we love.