10 tips to manage your mental health while social distancing

While COVID-19 cases increase across the country, more people are isolated in their homes. While social distancing is considered essential to slowing the spread of the virus, it can have a tremendous impact on your mental health.

Here are 10 tips to manage your mental health during this time from Psychology Assistant Professor Mei Yi Ng, and her research team in the Mechanisms Underlying Treatment Technologies (MUTT) Lab at FIU’s Center for Children and Families.

1. Plan ahead, take action. Depression is linked with a sense of helplessness. Planning ahead and taking action in preparation for staying well and taking care of family members during the pandemic can make you feel more in control.

You can ask employers about working from home, plan for school/daycare closings, purchase adequate food and supplies, identify reliable sources of information, learn how the virus spreads and ways to reduce risk, learn what to do if someone has symptoms, find ways to continue treatment, maintain a routine, and engage in physical and social activities at home.

2. Continue treatment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges individuals with preexisting mental health conditions to continue with their treatment plans during an emergency and monitor for any new symptoms.

Make sure you speak with providers about telehealth options—and, if needed, request prescriptions to ensure adequate supplies of medication if under quarantine.

3. Adapt an existing routine or create a new one. The American Psychological Association says that apart from increased risk of fear and anxiety associated with the outbreak, the interruption of daily routines may result in elevated depressed mood. Constructing a daily routine at home will preserve a sense of order and purpose and that includes healthy pastimes.

4. Stay physically active. Physical exercise has mood boosting effects and a recent study showed that physical activity can even prevent depression.

Individuals can still go for a run, cycle or walk their dog while maintaining six-feet distance from others. Those quarantined can do a wide range of exercises at home without equipment like yoga, calisthenics, online workout videos and virtual group exercise sessions with friends.

5. Maintain connections with others. Social distancing and quarantining reduce opportunities for social interactions, which are essential for emotional wellbeing. Those who are depressed or at risk of depression could lose a important source of positive reinforcement and support during a pandemic.

Technology offers a convenient way for people to stay connected through phone calls, text messaging, video chat, social media etc. Activities done alone at home can be made “social” by arranging with others to do the activity together at the same time while keeping a video chat open. Get creative!

6. Do something fun, helpful or challenging. These activities provide feelings of pleasure and mastery, and takes one’s focus away from negative thoughts or worries. Scheduling and engaging in these activities are a cornerstone of behavioral activation, an evidence-based psychotherapy for depression.

You can read a novel, write poetry, watch a movie, cook/bake, garden, play a musical instrument, play games with family or others online, offer at-risk relatives/neighbors help with getting groceries and supplies, learn a new language or take an online course. The list is endless!

7. Practice relaxation and mindfulness. Relaxation and mindfulness exercises help reduce stress and rumination, which can exacerbate depression. You can practice listening to music, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, positive imagery and mindfulness exercises.

8. Prioritize sleep. Sleep problems are linked with development of depression and bipolar disorder and contribute to poorer outcomes for those with mood disorders. Not only are individuals who get more sleep less likely to contract disease, but good sleep fosters mental and emotional resilience.

The Harvard Medical School recommends a combination of lifestyle changes and behavioral strategies, including physical exercise, relaxation techniques, avoiding caffeine and nicotine (especially before bedtime), a regular sleep-wake schedule, keeping the bedroom dark and distraction-free and sleep retraining. Limiting news, social media and screen time at night to avoid exposure to worry-inducing news is especially important during this time.

9. Counter unhelpful thoughts with helpful ones. Depressed individuals tend to focus excessively on negative aspects of themselves or a situation. Recognizing these thoughts and replacing them with more helpful thoughts is the basis of cognitive therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, an evidence-based psychotherapy for depression.

Possible helpful thoughts include considering objective evidence (e.g., most people who catch the virus develop mild symptoms), acknowledging one’s ability to cope with a feared outcome (e.g., if I do get symptoms, I know what to do), looking for the silver lining (e.g., I now have more time to do something I like), expressing gratitude (e.g., I have supportive friends and family), and keeping a longer-term perspective (e.g., this situation is stressful now, but it will pass).

10. Remember that one is contributing to the greater good. According to a review of the psychological impact of quarantine, a stressful situation is easier to tolerate if one feels that others will benefit from it.

The purpose of quarantine and social distancing is to keep oneself, one’s family, and members of one’s community safe, especially those in high-risk categories. Remembering the altruistic reasons for quarantine/self-distancing can help shift one’s focus away from sad feelings and unhelpful thoughts and reinforce one’s adherence to quarantine/distancing guidelines.


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