Uncertainty can make any experience of loss more complex and challenging. Currently, we are experiencing uncertainty not only in terms of our individual futures but also in regard to the people who matter to us. The nature of what we know about the novel coronavirus undoubtedly exacerbates this uncertainty, and as we learn more regarding its nature, spread, and life-threatening complications, we may feel more and more overwhelmed.
How can we navigate uncertainty under the weight of the secondary losses and non-death losses that we are individually experiencing? How can we respond healthily to our emotions in this frenetic and upsetting time?
If you are looking for ways to help yourself and others cope in the midst of this public health crisis, I encourage you to consider the following strategies. Many of these ideas may be useful following any type of loss, while others are exclusive to our current time of pandemic.
Put on Your Oxygen Mask First
Many of us have heard the “oxygen mask” metaphor when people reference self-care. You are sitting on an airplane before takeoff, and the flight attendant inevitably tells you that, in the event of an emergency, you should put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others with their masks. This metaphor reinforces that we need to take care of ourselves before we can possibly help other people. However, our self-care routines and practices during normal times may feel difficult to complete while navigating the daily stressors we are experiencing, personally and professionally. We are in a state of emergency, and we all need to put our oxygen masks on before we can help those in our lives who are also in need as a result of our public health crisis.
By now, we have heard from experts numerous times that to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and minimize our chances of contracting it, we should wash our hands frequently for at least twenty seconds, avoid touching our faces or coughing into our hands, practice physical distancing, avoid social gatherings, and stay home to the best degree we can. This is our primary responsibility to take care of ourselves and others preventatively.
Most of us who are not working in health care or other essential jobs are spending the vast majority of our time at home. When we are not going to a workplace, engaging in social events, or interacting in public, it is easy to neglect physical self-care, but it is important not to do so.
Establishing a “new normal” routine might mean that our physical self-care is on a different schedule than in our usual daily lives, but an intentional routine can be invaluable in contributing to a sense of stability in an unstable time.
Take time to prepare healthy meals that you enjoy and avoid binging on junk food or snacks. Eating nutrient- and vitamin-rich foods not only makes us feel better physically and mentally but also boosts the immune system and offers increased protection against any viral contraction.
Pay attention to your alcohol consumption. If you are drinking more than usual, question your motivations for doing so and take steps to regulate it. If you believe that your relationship with alcohol is unhealthy, seek help from a substance abuse specialist.
Adapt your regular exercise to the regulations of your state or county regarding distancing. If you cannot exercise outdoors because you are in an urban are or crowded town, look into the many resources now available for free online workout routines.
Stress can create or exacerbate sleep disturbances, including insomnia and nightmares. If you are having trouble sleeping, explore healthy relaxation aides such as meditation, a sound machine, or aromatherapy. If sleep issues persist, consider calling your primary care physician to discuss medical alternatives.
Mental and Emotional Self-Care
While taking safety precautions and keeping ourselves physically healthy is a priority during this challenging time, our mental and emotional health is no less deserving of attention and care. We are all under unique individual stressors in addition to collective uncertainty. To minimize both immediate and long-term negative mental health outcomes, we must be intentional in how we respond to the ways we are emotionally impacted by this pandemic.
Do mental health checks. I encourage you to “check in” with yourself and your feelings at least once a day and more frequently whenever you are feeling particularly overwhelmed. Identify your feelings – name them – and try to locate their specific sources. Determine which sources you can control and which you cannot, and work to accept what you cannot control and to promote positive outcomes for what you can control.
Similarly, recognize and examine mood changes. Extreme or ongoing stress can initiate rapid mood changes in people with no history of them and exacerbate the frequency of mood changes in individuals with certain underlying mental health conditions. If you are experiencing sudden mood changes, practice deep breathing and remove yourself from the environment (virtual or physical) in which you are experiencing them if possible. Recognize that your mood change is resultant of the stress you are experiencing and examine what specifically may have triggered it.
Limit news consumption. It may be tempting to check the news many times per day through a variety of platforms. Alternatively, it might already be second nature to have a cable news channel on throughout the day, even as you work from home or care for your children. These practices are not tenable for our mental well-being; we are in our third week of major coronavirus spread in the United States, and as much as we wish it weren’t so, it is going to continue for months. Make a pact with your family – or with yourself – that you will obtain news at certain points of the day instead of being subjected to repeated and stressful information all throughout the day.
Remember that physical distancing is not synonymous with social isolation. While “social distancing” is the phrase we hear repeated by experts and in the media, what the term actually instructs us to do is to maintain safe physical distance from others, especially groups of people, vulnerable individuals, and those who may have been exposed to COVID-19. However, we have many opportunities to maintain our social relationships in new ways and to reinforce them in ways to which we are already accustomed. Making a phone date with a good friend, using video platforms to have a virtual dinner with family members, or sharing recorded messages on social media platforms are all ways to strengthen our relationships in meaningful ways while we are physically separated.
Locate your gratitude and its sources. It is easy to lose sight of what is good in our lives as we experience fear, uncertainty, grief, and anxiety. It is helpful to remind ourselves of the components of our lives that we appreciate and be able to locate our gratitude. Who are you grateful to have in your life? What are you personally grateful for right now? Privately listing or journaling three points of gratitude each night can be a centering way to close the day and a means of reminding ourselves that, while the future is uncertain, we all still have people and experiences for which to be grateful. It can also be valuable to share your gratitude, especially with those who are bringing happiness and support to your life at this difficult time.
Demonstrate self-love. Those of us working in professions that are directly impacted by or involved in assisting in responses to the pandemic may find ourselves working far more hours than usual. Others who are experiencing job loss or are working reduced hours from home may be feeling frustrated by losses of their work lives, restlessness, or boredom. However, all of us are deserving of moments of self-love. Plan times in your day or week that solely revolve around doing something good for yourself. Whether you give yourself an at-home spa night, read a good book without interruption, or listen to your favorite music with your phone off, take time for yourself and reinforce that you are deserving of care.
Consider contacting a mental health professional. If you are experiencing feelings that are overwhelming or that inhibit your ability to engage in your daily life, please reach out to a trained professional. Across the country, licensed therapists have transitioned to tele-counseling for people in need of support. Now is the time to end any remaining stigma surrounding mental health care – this is a time of unprecedented nationwide stress, and there are resources available to you. If the pandemic is taking a toll on your mental health and self-care does not alleviate it, then the next step is to obtain the help that you sincerely deserve in this time of uncertainty.
Sara Murphy, PhD, CT, is a death educator, certified thanatologist (Association for Death Education and Counseling), and suicidologist. She teaches at the University of Rhode Island and conducts workshops and seminars on death, dying, and bereavement nationwide for professional organizations, schools, and community groups.