Last week I clicked through my computer calendar and pushed delete on every event for the next two months. It was painful. Gone were the children’s spring concerts. Easter celebrations. An important meeting in Philadelphia. All gone, in the wake of a highly contagious virus.
This is what we have all been forced to do. With the click of a finger we have canceled much of our immediate lives in the hope that the future can be secured. It is a litany of loss and fear.
Even more significant, we face the potential loss of many lives over the next few months. It is no wonder, then, that the rates of anxiety and depression are spiraling upwards. Fear of present contagion combined with an uncertain future and no clear end in sight. This is a perfect storm for increasing angst.
What we do now to bolster our mental health in the midst of the storm may well prove as important as what we do to protect our bodies from this virus. There is a sliver of good news to be had here. To keep your spirits up, relatively simple things make a huge difference. The survival habits you engrain now can fuel an even stronger comeback as this virus subsides.
1. Build Connection
Our loneliness and need for more connection to each other has been a growing concern, even before this virus descended. Now we are truly home alone. We can’t go to the mall, hang out with ear buds at a coffee shop, or take a trip to Barcelona. Our need for relationship is painfully made clear.
Being quarantined has forced our most primal human fear to surface: the existential fear of being left alone. Isolation has not so much caused our anxiety as it has revealed it.
This is the time use our anxiety as a new impetus to connect with others every day in some small, meaningful way. Friendships aren’t inconsequential appendages to a busy, modern life, they are necessities, as we are discovering. This is the chance to carve out more space in your life for the importance of people and relationships.
We hear more deeply now words such as these from social researcher Brene Brown: “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people…when those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We get sick.”
Being forced into isolation can serve to help us reach out, and it’s crucial that we do. This morning I Facetimed with a good friend before I washed my face or put on any makeup, which I would have never done in the life I had a month ago.
This virus is keeping small things small. This moment was my chance to share a few laughs with a live human being about the current craziness of it all, to hear how someone else was bringing structure to mild chaos. I felt better the whole day. That’s what simple connection with others does to the human psyche.
As you open your eyes in the morning to what feels like another Groundhog Day, think of two people who might also be feeling a bit alone. Call, email, or video chat with them. Find out how they are doing for real. Then, tomorrow, call two more.
Strengthen your inner reserve, that psychological muscle that reaches out to other people and offers genuine concern. You will find yourself with better relationships on the far side of this virus outbreak.
2. Move Your Body
A doctor or therapist knows no medication for anxiety or depression can substitute for physical activity. Exercise burns off some of the underlying angst. The endorphins this releases are structurally similar to the drug morphine. They are the body’s natural pain killers. The feel-good neurotransmitters of dopamine and serotonin literally lift your spirits and brighten your outlook.
The recommendation for anxiety has long been at least 20 minutes of exercise that brings the gentle glow of sweat, as early in the day as a person will do it. Our bodies pull the rest of us into a place where we feel better, naturally. Things will work out.
Most of us can still get outside to run, walk, or ride a bike. Interviews from the New England Journal of Medicine with physicians in China, Italy, and Iran reveal the growing conviction that Covid-19 infection comes from the viral load of prolonged exposure to an infected person, conveyed through microdroplets in the air. So exercise in fresh outside air, maintaining safe distances, may well be the safest form of keeping your body moving.
If you are in part of the country with high infection rates and severe restrictions, new indoor workout videos have come online. There are even indoor and outdoor relay races you can do with your children, who also need exercise.
3. Rediscover the Immaterial World
We have lived through an unprecedented period of prosperity. Our garages are cluttered with stuff. A few clicks of the computer bring to our door whatever we might need or want. So we get deluded into thinking that the material world is what’s real. What we can see and feel and touch is what matters. This delusion is what the book of Ecclesiastes calls futility, or “chasing after wind.”
In the stripping down that isolation brings, we have the chance to re-discover the unseen realities that hold the world together. Courage, steadfastness, gratitude, unselfishness—immaterial virtues like these matter most in the long run. They win the day. We can do with much less stuff, as we are discovering. But courage and unselfishness? On these civilizations rise and fall. Our mental health is not too different.
The current health crisis is occurring during Lent, a season on the Christian calendar marked by relinquishment and re-focusing. Some have said it’s the most Lenten Lent they have ever known. In our solitude, we can take time to reflect on what’s really important. We can dial back our expectations for what this life is supposed to deliver. We can let go hurts and anger. And our anxiety will dissipate a bit, even though the crisis is far from over.
4. Read the Psalms
In difficult times, people through the centuries have found a deep appreciation of the Psalms. As a therapist, I have privately believed meditating on a Psalm is the rough equivalent of taking a tranquilizer. It calms the spirit in much the same way.
Do you feel as though you’ve lost your bearings—like you are in a free fall and you don’t know when you’ll find solid footing again? Do you wonder if God cares or knows what you are going through? Does some fear threaten to overwhelm? All those human emotions are there on the pages of the Psalms, raw and unedited.
Most people have their favorite go-to Psalms. I think, almost immediately, of Psalm 27 or Psalm 46 in times of trouble. I often encourage someone struggling with anxiety to flip through the pages of the Psalms until she finds one that voices what she is feeling.
A Psalm will ride you into what you are feeling and give it words. And it will ride you back out again into a deeper sense of trust—especially that sense of trusting God. Hardly anything helps anxiety more.
5. Get a Larger Perspective
I was about eight years old when I first walked through an old cemetery, the original one in the small Virginia town where I grew up. There were lots of gravestones from one time period, and I wondered why. Why all these small tombstones of children who died in 1917 and 1918?
Years later I realized, These were the people who died in my town during the Spanish Flu. Many grandparents I knew had buried children on this very hillside from a virus epidemic that particularly ravaged the young.
Covid-19 is the worst health crisis many of us have ever lived through. But it’s worth keeping in mind a larger perspective, like the one I stumbled on in my small town cemetery.
Disease and illness have forever plagued humanity. Even in the past 100 years, five other pandemics have claimed almost a million lives. We are not alone in our experience. And the world will go on. There is every reason to hope our lives will, too.
To cope with times that heighten anxiety, Martin Seligman, the psychologist known for his work on resilience, popularized three words that reorient our minds to a larger perspective: Personalizing. Pervasive. Permanent.
Each word begins with the letter, “P,” so they are easy to remember. The two words most helpful to the current moment are pervasive and permanent. Do I see this crisis as affecting every area of my life? Or do I look at it as forever changing things in a way I can’t repair? Seligman claimed, with good reason, that if you alter your perspective of any of these concepts you will feel noticeably better.
So every step you take to enjoy a hobby, call a friend, do anything you would call remotely “normal” sends a message to your psyche that this virus has not laid claim to everything you hold dear. Your life is a great canvas with many parts unspoiled. This virus is a big deal, but it’s less pervasive than you might believe.
It’s worth the effort to actively remind yourself and your anxiety that while this current moment feels interminable, it is not. Others before you have weathered wars and plagues, with losses strewn everywhere they could see. They came through it, and you will, too.