If you’re experiencing stress because of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, you’re not alone. The number of COVID-19 cases is increasing daily, and schools, businesses, governments and sports organizations are taking dramatic steps to slow its spread. Increased isolation, uncertainty and fear about the disease can be overwhelming and cause anxiety in adults and children.
Here are five tips to help manage your mental health during this time.
1. Focus on what you can control.
While current knowledge about COVID-19 is increasing, there are still many unknowns even within the medical community. And you can’t predict if you or a loved one will get sick or how it will affect you financially.
“This uncertainty can be very stressful,” says UNC Health psychiatrist Diana O. Perkins, MD, MPH. “Like any stressful situation, once you know what you’re dealing with, you can come up with a plan. But as individuals, we don’t know exactly what our issues are going to be. Roll with what you can control.”
One way to cope with this is to focus on things you can change, Dr. Perkins says. For example, if you’re staying in to help prevent the spread of the disease, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, make your home comfortable. Think through the resources you need to make it more pleasant to stay home for the next several weeks.
2. Limit news consumption.
While it is important to stay informed from trusted sources, you don’t need 24-hour COVID coverage. Take a break from media coverage or social media, especially if you find yourself panicking about the news or an article you read.
“You don’t need to have a constant stream of information,” Dr. Perkins says. “Instead, focus on the things you can do to keep yourself safe and what you can do to help your community.”
Set an alarm for when you plan to check the news and use a timer to limit how long you can spend on news sites, watching TV news or scrolling through your social media feeds. Find other activities you enjoy instead: Go for a walk in your neighborhood, watch a funny show, play a board game with your family or immerse yourself in a work project.
3. Set a routine.
You and your loved ones are probably adapting to a new normal, which can be stressful. “Any time you lose your routine, it can be anxiety-provoking,” Dr. Perkins says.
Set a routine to help you and your family feel safe. Maintain a schedule: Wake up, go to bed and eat meals at the same time. This is especially helpful for children.
“It’s very hard for kids to keep a social distance from each other, but we’re really concerned kids will be the vectors (of COVID) if we bring them in and out of the house,” Dr. Perkins says. “Talk to the kids about this and come up with a structure for the day that everyone can work with.”
Post the schedule at home for everyone to see. “Having a schedule helps reduce everybody’s anxiety and stress because they know what to expect,” Dr. Perkins says.
The same applies if you don’t have kids. “If you’re now working at home and it isn’t something you’re used to doing, adding structure can help reduce the anxiety,” Dr. Perkins says.
Have a plan for the day that includes specifics about your work (check email, write a memo, etc.) and any chores you want to accomplish (clean the kitchen). Make sure you schedule time for relaxing, too, and give yourself leeway and patience; you don’t have to be perfect, especially in such a tough time.
4. Stay connected.
Being homebound can be lonely, especially for at-risk populations who have to limit any interaction with others outside the home. These include anyone over age 65 and people with chronic conditions. But it also can be a challenge for anyone who enjoys interacting with others, especially kids.
Find safe ways to interact with others. Talk to your neighbors across your driveway, staying at least 6 feet apart, or open your windows and talk across the lawn.
“Social distancing is key to preventing transmission. This means it is unwise to invite your neighbor in for a cup of coffee, but it is OK so have a conversion across the driveway,” Dr. Perkins says.
Video chat with friends or loved ones, or pick up the phone and call someone you think may be vulnerable and isolated.
5. Practice self-care.
Self-care is identifying and tending to your needs and includes practices that promote your general well-being.
“All people—those with and without mental illness—really need to have good self-care practices during this time,” says UNC Health psychiatrist Sarah L. Laughon, MD.
This means getting plenty of sleep, eating nutritious foods, exercising and taking medications as prescribed, Dr. Laughon says.
“Minimize substance use, and manage stress with healthy coping skills such as meditation, deep breathing, journaling, talking on the phone with supportive loved ones and spending time with your family and pets,” Dr. Laughon says. “And follow any precautions recommended by the experts regarding COVID-19.”
If you find that you cannot control your worry, seek help from a mental health professional.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, talk to your doctor. For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.