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How to Manage Your Mental Health in the Face of Coronavirus Uncertainty

As a result of COVID-19, our world is currently living in a moment of deep uncertainty, fear and confusion. We fear for the health of our loved ones, those who are immunocompromised, those who are elderly, those who are working in hospitals and clinics, and those who can’t afford to stay home due to the nature of their work or (lack of) benefits.

Some of us face these fears looking at the circumstances of our own lives as well. It seems each day brings a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how serious the situation has become.

In a matter of 7 days in the U.S., where I’m writing from,  we’ve gone from an awareness of COVID-19 as a growing epidemic oceans away to one which has spread rapidly through concentrated communities on both coasts and in the midwest of our own country, taking on pandemic status as it continues its spread worldwide. The quarantined status of Italy has begun to look more like a future possibility for our lives in the U.S. and many other countries rather than an unrelatable sacrifice of epic proportions.

In this new reality, many of us cognitively understand what is happening, the precautions we must take collectively, the altruism required to “flatten the curve” of pandemic spread and reduce the likelihood of gravely overwhelming medical systems all at once.

As our daily (even hourly, given our rapid news cycle) collective consciousness and awareness of what COVID-19 entails grows, our individual and global anxiety is also spiking massively. As a licensed mental health therapist, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how, in this time where heightened anxiety seems unavoidable, we can calmly, confidently and courageously manage our mental health and wellness.

1. Let it RAIN

Tara Brach, PhD, Psychologist and Meditation teacher, provides the helpful acronym of RAIN to mindfully and compassionately address difficult emotions, circumstances and thought patterns. While I’ve used her acronym many times myself and with my clients over the years, I find it particularly apt for this moment we’re in. The four parts of a RAIN practice can be done individually, or with a partner or therapist and are as follows:

  • R- Recognize what is happening, right now; simply name it. You may recognize a feeling (anxiety) an unhelpful thought (related to fears, work, loved ones, the government, etc.) or a bodily sensation (chest tightness, knots in the stomach, headache, racing mind). By slowing down enough to be able to name what is happening right now, you begin to take some control of the narrative of what is happening, when everything else around you feels out of control. You can practice this step by speaking aloud what you notice, mental identification, or by writing it down. 
  • A- Allow whatever is happening to be here without restricting, avoiding or trying to move past it. “It makes sense that I am anxious right now, and I allow anxiety to be here”- is an example of a phrase that you can speak or write to signify your allowance of the current state you are in. Sometimes our prolonged experiences of painful emotions are exacerbated because we try to fight what’s happening. When we allow ourselves to fully feel what we are experiencing, we can often move through the sensation more quickly. When we fight it, resist it, and avoid it, it just keeps coming up, often more powerfully each time. When we allow for the existence of a painful sensation, feeling or emotion, we create a new way to relate to it. 
  • I- Investigate with care what you’ve recognized and allowed to be present. More than likely, there is a vulnerability being expressed through your current emotional state. Without judgment, ask questions internally, aloud, or on paper to more deeply understand that vulnerability. Tara Brach suggests the following questions for inquiry: What most wants attention? How am I experiencing this in my body? What am I believing? What does this vulnerable place want from me? What does it most need?
  • N- Nurture with Self-Compassion – You’ve done the hard work of pressing into what’s happening by identifying it, allowing it to be there, and investigating it further. Now, offer yourself compassion for looking inward, for sitting with a painful emotion in order to learn from it rather than react to it. You’ve discovered more about the part of you that is anxious, scared or hurting. Now offer it kindness, gentleness, and love. As in previous steps, you might continue to speak aloud, write, or simply mentally identify phrases that offer self-compassion. Some example phrases might be “I offer myself love and care in the fear I feel right now” or “I’m here for you. I’m here for myself no matter what happens.” 

RAIN will not change COVID-19’s impact on your life, your business, or the health of your loved ones. But it will offer you a chance to understand your reactions, to slow them down and to become more responsive to the true need beneath them that is fueling anxiety or any other emotion you’re encountering.

Just as we want to slow the spreading of the germs that cause COVID-19, we also want to slow the spreading of our emotional reactivity to it, to create space between the anxious thoughts to truly understand them with insight and awareness. I  encourage you to read Tara’s full write up on RAIN with more details and explanation. Please check it out here.

2. Connect in new ways

Along with doing the internal work to support your mental well being, it is equally important to continue to foster connection with others. That will look differently than normal for the time being as we limit our in-person interactions and group settings. Thankfully, the internet, which is our source of immediate information, and at times, also the fuel for fast-moving anxiety, can be utilized as a tool in maintaining connection.

Just today, I logged on to a community conversation on Glo,  the comprehensive online yoga website I use and will especially be continuing to use during this interim time. I found on Glo’s community forum a deeply connecting conversation with yoga practitioners world-wide, sharing about their current experiences in their respective countries. The messages were filled with unity, hope and support crossing borders and time zones. In this collective experience we’re sharing, no one is alone in feeling afraid, uncertain or anxious. 

Even as we find ourselves working from home, following social distancing measures, and perhaps, some form of isolation, let’s recognize we have tremendous possibility to maintain connection and support one another with empathy and understanding via online community groups, texts and phone check-ins, FaceTime, and video apps like Marco Polo.

Even if it’s unnatural to you, explore sharing, perhaps with a bit more vulnerability than you might normally, about what this experience is like for you with others in your social groups. While it may feel like a risk, it’s also an opportunity to connect more deeply via a shared experience. That connection will bolster your resilience for maintaining in-person distancing practices for as long as required. 

3. Remember: this won’t last forever

We don’t know when it will be advisable to return to the normal cadence and routine of our daily lives. There could be significant disruption to our functioning as individuals and as a global society before that happens. Yet, we do know that this is an impermanent state that we are currently in. It’s uncomfortable, scary and uncertain, AND it will not last forever.

When big world events occur, it feels natural to take on the immediacy of the present moment. We must balance that with an awareness of the ever-changing impermanence of our lives. In the last decade alone our world has weathered countless crises, leadership changes, and disasters. Many have lost loved ones, health, financial stability and safety. And yet, we remain a resilient global society. We pick ourselves up and keep going, across cultures and languages and nations.

This scenario will be no different. It will come and go, and we will do the best we can to help as many people as we can through our individual and collective actions. If we get lost, we will get back up. That is how humanity has operated for centuries, adapting to the various threats that come our way as we go.

COVID-19 is our current, yet impermanent, challenge, among many others that will go unnoticed as this particular issue takes up the most of our mental space and energy. Allow this to be a serious, impermanent situation, which we must act on urgently, and with an awareness that this will not last forever.  

4. Practice self-care basics

Along with internal awareness, external (remote) connections, and the more existential concept of impermanence, managing mental health wellness also comes back to self-care basics.

The tenets of self-care basics include:

  • Practicing good sleep hygiene (7-9 hours per night if possible)
  • Regularly eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods
  • Staying hydrated
  • Contemplative practices (meditation, journaling, prayer, etc.)
  • Movement based practices (there are numerous online sites that can substitute for in person gym memberships)
  • Limiting screen time and news intake for 1-2 hours before going to bed at night

Take breaks from the intensity of the current moment to make sure your basic needs are being met. While many of these tenets are obvious, they can also be quickly eliminated when we find ourselves in a place of fear or worry. Slow down the fear and pacify the worry through maintaining the regular rhythms of self-care.

As you eat, sleep, and move mindfully, remind yourself that you are nourishing your body in order to have strength to navigate stressful events. As you attune to these daily practices of self-care, you again fight the cycle of reactivity and slow down the mental chatter that creates a sense of being out of control. 

Connect to yourself and others—and don’t neglect self-care

I offer these suggestions to you as a reminder that we don’t have to live within the panic of a 24 hours news cycle, even as we are deeply grateful to the news for providing information that allows us to keep ourselves and others safe.

To summarize the steps I’ve outlined, connect to yourself and what you are feeling, which will allow you to (remotely) connect with others in their own experiences, which will in turn provide perspective as to the larger picture of this big but impermanent experience we’re all sharing. And, don’t neglect the simple steps of self-care along the way, as they’ll bring you back to the present moment rather than future-focused fears. May we all step forward in calm, confidence, courage as we navigate this together.

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