You, like almost all of us, have likely been impacted by the coronavirus (COVID-19), the new viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects the lungs and respiratory system.
Whether or not you or someone you love has become infected, chances are high that your employer has asked you to telecommute, that you’ve begun to social distance and that you’ve had all major travel and large gatherings on your spring calendar fully canceled.
While isolation and social distancing has become an “introvert’s dream” meme on the internet, a joking response to the actions we’re called to take right now to help slow the spread of COVID-19, this ease (if not delight) in social distancing may not be true for you.
In fact, for many of us, social distancing and isolation can be a trigger for depression or an accelerant of depression symptoms if depression is something we already live with.
Social distancing and isolation — removing ourselves from the contact of others in our workplaces and everyday lives — may reduce the kind of support you otherwise take for granted to manage your mental health.
For many, the ability to be in contact with others and to be out in the world — commuting to work, being at work, grabbing dinner with friends at your favorite taco joint, looking forward to seeing one of your favorite artists in concert on the weekend — helps reduce our sense of disconnection, rumination and despair, which are all symptoms common and familiar to those of us who live with depression.
When we can be with others, our very innate human need for connection is met.
When we can leave our homes and go out and engage with the world, it can help us get outside our minds and into our bodies.
When we build events and plans into our calendar to look forward to, it can give us a sense of hope and excitement even when the day-to-day feels hard and challenging.
Social distancing and isolation removes us from habits and actions that we may otherwise take for granted as mental health supports: being out in the world, in contact with a diverse set of others, the freedom to plan, attend and enjoy.
In the absence of these supports and against the broad context of the serious and unknown nature of the times (let’s face it: we’re not social distancing and isolating by choice like we might otherwise choose to do on a staycation), it’s important to understand that this may challenge your mental health, exacerbate your depression symptoms and require you to develop a creative new set of tools to support your mental health.
The good news is, that, even in these extraordinary times, it is possible to cultivate a different set of tools to support your mental health and to manage your depression symptoms.
Here are the tips I have for prioritizing your mental health and combating isolation if you’re someone who lives with depression:
1. Continue to meet with your therapist on video.
At my boutique therapy center in Berkeley, my staff and I had HIPAA-compliant video software in place long before COVID-19 to support us in continuing to meet with clients even when they couldn’t come in. Many therapists have this kind of technology set up so please check with your therapist to see if they do so you can keep making regular therapy sessions an important part of your mental health care plan. And if you’re not already seeing a therapist, it goes without saying that now might be a great time to start. Via video of course.
2. Nurture your relationships via face-to-face technology.
Whether this is through Facetime, Skype, or, my current favorite, Marco Polo, be intentional, deliberate and regular about being in touch with your loved ones through technology that allows you to see their face. I find that for myself and many of my clients, the face-to-face contact is far more supportive and nourishing than simply text or video messages.
3. Be mindful of how much media you consume.
It is, of course, important to stay informed in these trying times. But please be mindful of the impact media consumption has on your depression symptoms and please only seek out reputable, trusted sources (WHO, the CDC, etc.). Adjust how much you consume and from who if you feel your anxiety and despair escalating.
4. Build projects and events into your calendar that you can reasonably count on.
Life on the outside may be in a bit of a pause mode, but that doesn’t mean it will always be that way. If it helps you to daydream or sketch out trips you may take in Spring 2021, do it! Daydream, research and loosely plan for activities this winter or into next year. Also, don’t forget that now would be a great time to plan and execute little projects around your house or apartment to keep you engaged, active and feeling like you’re accomplishing something and making progress.
5. Continue to eat and move in healthy, self-supporting ways.
If there is a particular way of eating (including avoiding substances) and movement that you know supports your mental health, now is the time to keep doing that as much as you can. Grocery supplies may look a little strained for a while and gyms and community pools may be shut down, but you can be creative about home-based workouts and new, creative recipes.
6. Get out into nature!
Very importantly, please remember that social distancing does not mean that you have to stay inside 100% of the time (unless, perhaps, you’re infected right now). Nature, I think, is a huge support for our mental health so, if you’re well, remember: you can still make getting outside a priority. Head out to the local state park trails, go jogging by the lake, hike in your local woods. Probably, if possible, just avoid buses to get there.
7. Reframe the experience as a chance to do what you can’t otherwise do.
It’s easy to feel despair about COVID-19 and what’s going on in the world right now. I won’t diminish the seriousness of it at all, but I do think it’s important to balance out our awareness of the gravity of the situation with a little levity and reframing to support our mental health. For instance, while the situation may not be ideal, can you view this time of social distancing as a great opportunity to finally KonMari your house? Can you imagine that it may be your one and only chance to watch “West Wing” from start to finish? What’s good and possible in this situation versus hard and impossible about it? The more we can train our brain to reframe situations and look for the positive, the more we can help any depression symptoms that may need support in these times.
I hope these tips felt helpful and I truly hope that you and your loved ones stay well and healthy.
These are extraordinary times but we humans are remarkably resilient and adaptable. This time may, however, call upon you to cultivate new mental health tools to support yourself and I hope this post gave you a few ideas of how to do this.
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