Are you struggling during this time of quarantine, economic uncertainty, and loss? If you are, you are not alone. This is a very stressful time, for all of us. Every day there is something new.
BWHI talked with Washington, DC-based psychologist, Barbara J. Brown, PhD, of CapitolHill Consortium for Counseling and Consultation, LLC, about how we can care for ourselves as we manage our lives and care for others during COVID-19 and beyond.
What is Conscious Self Care?
Whether it is COVID-19 or something else, it will always be true that the greater the loss of control that we feel from something outside of ourselves, the greater the need will be to find a center of control within ourselves. The term I have coined for this, Conscious Self-Care, denotes that the tools that are required to manage our stress-induced anxiety are within us and that it is up to us as individuals to manage ourselves. This does not apply to those who are not fully able due to age, such as children, or individuals with disabilities such as severe mental/physical illness or cognitive/neurological limitations. But it does apply by and large to adults that are capable of functioning in society.
What role does anxiety play in what so many of us are feeling?
In the face of uncertainty or perceived danger anxiety and fear are the usual emotional responses. Fear activates a survival response to an immediate danger. Anxiety is the worry that something bad will happen to us in the future. It has not happened to us yet.
Anxiety signals the loss of feeling in control. When we look outside of ourselves for a solution, we are prone to anxiety. We have little control over anything other than our own behavior and responses, so taking control of ourselves offers the best solution.
What Does This Mean in Terms of COVID-19?
In the face of COVID-19, we have both fear and anxiety. There is an immediate health threat and it is potentially life-ending. We are also experiencing economic threats. We are all threatened with a drastic change in our ability to sustain ourselves financially and to meet our basic material needs for food, shelter and necessary supplies. The 22 million unemployment claims made in the U.S. as of April 16, 2020 are a testament to this fact.
The most common threats to our mental health and emotional wellbeing during extreme stress are first, anxiety, secondarily depression and anger.
We can’t prevent stress at this time, but how should we manage it?
Boosting our internal coping skills is our best defense to manage our mental health during the current COVID-19 pandemic. If we are going to build emotional immunity to stress, we must attend to the core areas of sleep, exercise and nutrition to create a foundation of emotional wellness.
What concrete things should we be doing every day?
- Choose regular sleep and wake times.
- Don’t use electronic devices of any kind (phone, television, tablet) at least one hour before bedtime.
- Do a “brain dump” of what is on your mind and/or to do list, by journaling outside your bedroom.
- Start a regular bedtime wind down routine, such as warm milk or soothing tea, a warm bath or shower, reading, prayer, etc.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes, that can include walking, running, and biking to calm your nerves and stimulate mood stimulating endorphins in the brain. But you don’t need to go to a gym to get regular exercise. In fact, there are free exercise classes for aerobic and yoga practice on YouTube.com. Pick what works for you, based on your physical fitness and medical advice.
- Eat a balanced diet, stay hydrated by drinking sufficient amounts of water and limiting or eliminating alcohol and caffeine.
- Create routines and structures for yourself. Set limits for work and watching television. And take time for self-care and relaxation.
- Include breathing exercises to help manage anxiety.
- Practice meditation and mindfulness.
- Connect with others by phone, text, video conference, or other devices.
Can we always manage on our own?
If you find that the self-care tools are not working for you, seek out specialized help from a mental health professional. If you are already in therapy, speak with your therapist about the additional help you may need to feel better.
For more information on mental health in the time of COVID-19, read Dr. Brown’s paper on Conscious Self-Care.