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Ways to Protect Your Mental Health Amid Global Pandemic

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By Emma Harchanko
UAB News

Overwhelmed. Anxious. Distracted. Lonely. These are a few words that might describe the feelings of those who are transitioning into working from home, or limited work, during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

News cycles are dominated by COVID-19 news. While coverage is a pertinent necessity during a pandemic, it can be overwhelming to experience every news outlet’s abandoning its daily beat for serious COVID-19 news only. There is little to no positive news — currently, most pieces of communication are tracking ever-increasing infection and fatality numbers.

Sitting on the receiving end of virtually every possible news outlet pushing COVID-19-centric news leads to feeling distracted and overwhelmed.

“Despite the outbreak, it’s important to remember that life still goes on and that there are a number of strategies people can use to cope with this type of stress, said Laura Dreer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences. “We know that people have a tremendous ability to flourish in light of what one might consider life-altering situations.”

Dreer’s clinical research is on resilience of patients and caregivers in coping with traumatic injuries and chronic medical conditions and supports individuals overcoming adversity.

Ready to focus, experience mindfulness and boost your mood?

Help Someone Else

Helping someone else is a great way to feel more empowered about the impact of your day-to-day life. Virtually reach out to struggling co-workers or others in the community with support and encouragement, and check (again, virtually) on any elderly or vulnerable members of your community and offer to assist them through grocery shopping, picking up their medications or cutting their lawn.

Practice Mindfulness

“Mindfulness means being fully present in the moment,” Dreer said. “It is easy for many of us to get caught up in things that have happened in the past or in the future while missing out on living in the present.”

Combat the pinging notifications and things vying for your attention by practicing a bit of mindfulness at the start or end of your day — or even as a lunchtime break. Check out mindfulness platform Headspace or the Resilient Option, which is offering free unlimited access to its online program.

Read A Book

Whether you choose to read a positive book, a murder mystery or even a manual, reading still has proven health benefits. According to Scholastic, regular reading can decrease your stress levels by up to 68 percent and can lengthen your life by up to two years.

Watch A Positive Movie Or Television Show

Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., a psychotherapist at the Zur Institute, facilitates cinema therapy groups. Wolz stated that watching a movie can bring “insight, inspiration, emotional release or relief, and natural change.”

Al.com has created a list of 51 hopeful movies that will make you feel good about life, now streaming on Netflix and more. Dreer also encourages watching shows focused on humor; they can also help to relieve stress as there is evidence for humor and laughter’s effects on your emotional well-being.

Stay Socially Connected

Dreer advocates for the importance of staying socially connected throughout this outbreak, especially when social distancing is recommended and businesses, schools, entertainment, social, and sporting events/activities are halted.

“When people are socially isolated, they can become at risk for loneliness and depression, particularly among older adults living alone or among other vulnerable groups of individuals,” Dreer said. “Stress and loneliness can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to illnesses. There are many ways to continue to engage socially and during outbreaks, and it may take some creativity.”

Play games with your family using virtual multi-player games. Do not forget to include out-of-state family members!

Write down questions to ask relatives/friends in an effort to get to know more about them. “Tell me about the last time you remember laughing so hard. What was it about?” or “Tell me about something you learned recently.”

Eat a meal together at home with family and/or virtually when other family/friends might be eating. Cook with family, if possible.

Do A Puzzle Together

Limit your sources and amount of news intake

“Constantly listening to news and/or cable talk shows will only add to one’s anxiety in times of an outbreak or disaster,” Dreer said. “While it’s important to stay updated, limiting updates to once a day will help you stay more in the moment and lower your stress levels. This is particularly important for parents with young children and to be mindful of keeping the news to a minimum.”

Streamline your incoming news by picking a few reputable sources rather than relying on potentially unreliable social media. You can also get good information from sources such as the

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UAB, World Health Organization, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Get Moving And Get Outside

Restaurants, movie theaters and everything else might be closed; but sidewalks and trails are not! There are benefits to staying active, including boosted energy, improved mood, lowered blood pressure and reduced risk for chronic health conditions.

Getting moving is a good way to get your mind off the negative and remember the hope that is just around the corner! Fresh air and sunlight will give you a new perspective and keep you interactive in the world as daily routines are affected.

UAB News has also outlined “Six ways to stay healthy while keeping your distance” if you are looking for more ideas.

Start (Or End) Your Day With Gratitude

Taking a moment to remember all the things you are grateful for in life can be a great way to focus on the positive. To take stock of the ways in which you count yourself lucky or blessed allows you to re-center on your priorities. Dreer often gives exercises such as a 30-day gratitude challenge to her patients with vision impairments and their family caregivers. She recommends making a list of the things you are grateful for and keeping a gratitude journal.

Keep Your Regular Routine

Try to keep regular routines and schedules, which will help you get the sleep you need and keep structure for yourself as well as your children. It may feel good at first to have no structure, sleep in, etc.; but the more you can keep yourself on your regular routine, the better your long-term mental health. Try to eat healthy foods and engage in routine exercise, even simple walks outside.

Talk About Your Feelings, Concerns

Dreer advocates the importance of talking about your feelings and concerns with close family and friends, neighbors, mental health provider, and/or clergy. Talking with others can help process your concerns, give you a different perspective and make you think of things in a different way.

Share with children how you deal with your own stress so that you model that for them. Limit their exposure to news and social media that may have inaccurate information.

Expand Your Knowledge and Stimulate Your Mental Activity!

“Now is a perfect time to pursue those things you wish you had more time to do or learn about various topics,” Dreer said. “Use YouTube to learn to play an instrument or how to fix or make something, or view TED Talks to help further your outlook and perspective on various topics.

Spend Time With A Pet

There is much to be said about the comfort of a pet during times of stress. Dreer says there is a body of evidence supporting the beneficial impact of having a pet on mental health.

Pets can have a calming effect on us, allow us to relax, breath slower and lower our heart rate and have been found to keep us more physically active when taking them on walks as well as socially interactive in terms of meeting new people when out on a walk. And, pets do not have to be just dogs or cats to have a beneficial impact. Even watching a fish has been found to positively impact mental health and lower stress and blood pressure.