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A Therapist's Guide to Managing Mental Health During the Unpredictability of COVID-19

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It’s no secret that the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was quite the kickoff to the start of a new decade. And unfortunately, it’s not the kind of kickoff where the opposing team kicks the ball right into the hands of your favorite player, prompting him to make a touchdown while dodging the defense with unrelenting ease. No, we’re talking about the age-old Peanuts cartoon where Lucy pulls the football out from under an unsuspecting Charlie Brown, causing him to fall flat on his back. But wait, it doesn’t end there. Snoopy, Pigpen, Peppermint Patty and the rest of the gang then trample over Charlie. And then lose the game. In the final seconds of overtime. That you bet half your savings on.

2020 began with such promise. I had just hit my year mark working at a practice I adore, in a career I love, with a consistently full caseload of psychotherapy clients. My husband was also doing well in his career, and my daughter was loving being in kindergarten. We were looking forward to a few vacations we had planned, as well as a bunch of home projects for our new-to-us home. Not that I would ever suggest a client do this during a time things were going well, but as a therapist and therefore the exception to the rule (sarcasm) I probably should have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. And boy, did that shoe drop. It dropped from the top of a 200-story building and was created by a designer with no concern for consumer comfort or safety. That designer’s name is, you guessed it, COVID-19.

While there isn’t a single person in this world who hasn’t been impacted by this horrible virus in some way, shape or form, some of the hardest hit in my opinion are those who live with mental illness. As a therapist and someone who lives with several diagnosed mental illnesses, I have seen the effects firsthand. We are approaching the year mark of first discovering the disease, and there is still so much uncertainty and fear. Will my loved ones or I contract COVID? Will I lose my job? Will I have enough money to pay the bills? Will I ever be able to live the life I once loved? These are all legitimate concerns my clients, loved ones and even I have expressed.

Living with mental illness can be challenging in the calmest of times, let alone during a pandemic. It can exacerbate depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), mood disorders, and the various maladaptive coping skills that often go along with these disorders. So the question is, how do you effectively manage your mental health during times of such turmoil? Here are some suggestions:

1. Take a break from mainstream and/or social media.

There is no question this virus is serious, and everyone should treat it as such. (Come on, how hard is it to wear a freaking mask?) However, there is also no question many media outlets thrive on ratings. And how do they do this? Sensationalism. The more dramatic, the better, and it doesn’t matter the news outlet. Social media platforms can be just as toxic. So how do you reduce your news intake without burying your head completely in the sand? I think it’s important to give yourself time limits each day when it comes to screen time, and try holding yourself accountable to these limits. It is also wise to comb through people you follow on social media, and remove or unfollow anyone you may find triggering. (Come on, do you really need to keep following Brendan from your sophomore year history class who consistently posts his own conspiracy theories?) Some even find taking an entire break or a “detox” from social media altogether greatly improves their mental health.

2. Practice self-care.

Self-care has become quite the buzzword these days, but what is it exactly? Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional and physical health. Self-care can be subjective in terms of activities chosen, just make sure they don’t consist of anything you feel forced to do, for these activities are meant to leave us fulfilled and refreshed, as opposed to depleted.

3. Stay physically active.

With gym closures and limitations, many people are feeling stuck when it comes to exercising. As a frequent gym and fitness class attendee myself, I’ll admit, it can be tough to remain motivated on my own. In addition to being a therapist, I am also a personal trainer, and yes, even I have days where I’m just not feelin’ it. So what are some ways to keep up the momentum? Sure, you can purchase a fancy piece of cardio equipment (which reminds me, I could kick myself for not investing in Peloton stock earlier this year). However, getting in a good workout doesn’t require much or any equipment at all. There are many live-streamed or readily available recordings of workouts you can do from the comfort of your living room! Many boutique fitness studios and certified personal trainers are even offering them for free. You can also workout with a buddy via Zoom or FaceTime. I’ve done this quite a few times and it helps with accountability, and is a great way to catch up with a friend! There is also always the option of just strapping on your sneakers, opening your front door, and going for a run or walk during a nice day. Physical activity is an organic mood booster, and healthy for the mind, body, and soul.

A banner promoting The Mighty's new Navigating Coronavirus Together group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Want to connect with others who are managing their health during the pandemic? Join Navigating Coronavirus Together now. Click to join.

4. Maintain a healthy diet.

As a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, I firmly believe no foods should be off-limits. Anything can and should be able to fit appropriately into one’s daily diet, it is simply about balance. With that being said, make sure some of the foods you are incorporating into your diet are rich in vitamins and minerals. These will both preserve good health, and boost your immune system. Also, remember to remain hydrated. Drink around 64 ounces of H20 a day to keep the doctor away! (Or something like that.)

5. Don’t take on too many projects.

If you are like many people, the beginning of quarantine lent itself to being the perfect opportunity to finally complete tasks on the good ol’ to-do list. From home improvements, to learning a new language, to tapping into the artistic side you never knew you had, people had very grandiose ideas about how they wanted to spend their newfound free time. Home Depot was the hottest new nightclub in town, and good luck trying to find a puzzle anywhere online that wasn’t on backorder. Before you knew it, your house was filled with a variety of flooring tile and backsplash samples, packages from Wayfair and Amazon, and bags of art and craft supplies from Michaels and Hobby Lobby. While this kind of ambition is admirable, it can also cause one to begin careening toward burnout. Start in smaller, more manageable chunks, and go from there.

6. Find creative ways to stay connected to friends and loved ones.

During the beginning of the pandemic, my cousins, sister and I engaged in weekly Zoom sessions. They were filled with belly laughs, wrapped up way later than intended, and resulted in a bit of a headache the next morning. They were what we looked forward to weekly. Now with cases beginning to spike again and the threat of another quarantine, along with much of the country headed toward the colder months of winter, it can be the perfect time to reach out to old friends and loved ones again.

7. Consider seeing a therapist.

As a therapist who sees a therapist, this suggestion shouldn’t come as a shock. You do not have to be going through a major life change or a tough time to benefit from seeing one. Sometimes just having an unbiased, third party to talk to and process with can be the most productive way to help develop a path toward a better life. A good therapist is not going to give you advice or tell you what to do, rather, they help clients develop tools and skills to uncover the best version of themselves.

So let’s show 2020 who’s boss, and take back the reins on our mental health. Be prepared, 2021. You are no match for us!

Photo by Andi Rieger on Unsplash

Originally published: December 3, 2020
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