Kate Cox

How to keep your sanity when you feel like the world is going crazy

We here at the Ars Orbiting HQ are used to working from home, but even so our feline and canine coworkers are perhaps the only ones <em>not</em> feeling socially distanced these days.
Enlarge / We here at the Ars Orbiting HQ are used to working from home, but even so our feline and canine coworkers are perhaps the only ones not feeling socially distanced these days.
Getty / Aurich Lawson

Hi there. How are you feeling today?

It’s a loaded question right now. Many of us are having extraordinary feelings in response to extraordinary times. Hundreds of millions of people here in the United States and around the world are doing their best to help contain the spread of novel coronavirus disease COVID-19 by following World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control guidelines and, bluntly, staying the heck away from other people.

Even for a born introvert like yours truly, the era of prolonged, enforced social distancing is hard. Folks are either stuck at home alone, stuck at home with their families, or still having to go out into the world every day to work—either because their work is vital or their employers are being stubborn—and all the while, we’re being buffeted by government warnings and endless waves of frightening news.

In short: right now, we’re all exchanging some measure of our mental health in order to preserve our own and others’ physical health, and that has limits. We’re all in this together, for several weeks and months, if not longer, and basically, we need to avoid driving ourselves and each other crazy if we’re going to get through it.

That, of course, is easier said than done. To that end, we called up mental health experts to ask what, realistically, we should all be doing to help ourselves and others.

Your feelings are OK. Be gentle.

Emotions really are all over the map. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers report feeling twitchy, anxious, or worried. Almost everyone I posed the question to this week—how do you feel?—responded with some variation of tired or exhausted. “Constant low-grade anxiety,” more than one friend replied. Many, many folks answered that they’re having trouble focusing on anything, even when it’s important (that also goes for some of us here at Ars) and that they feel useless, angry, resigned, or despairing. Others, though, say they feel optimistic that the problems, now identified, can be solved.

Almost anything you’re feeling right now, including anxiety, is “a normal response,” Dr. Lauren Hallion, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, told Ars. Hallion, whose background includes studying anxiety and worry, emphasized that the best way to handle it is by “being gentle with yourself and with other people for feeling that way.”

She added:

All these emotions are a normal reaction. This is not a normal situation. We’re having to deal with a lot, and a lot of stress, and people are a lot of times going to have strong and maybe hard feelings, and they may be all over the map. And it’s OK that you feel that way.

We’re all going through some very difficult feelings at the moment, and those feelings are going to change rapidly. One moment, we may feel great, and another moment, we may find ourselves in tears. Just be as understanding and as generous as we can with ourselves and with other people.

The key to managing it is acceptance, she said. “And by acceptance, I don’t mean that ‘it’s OK.'” Because, she pointed out, many things are scary, and not at all OK. “I mean that [anxiety] is a normal response.”

Acceptance

One way of mitigating anxiety is to imagine and accept realistic negative outcomes, said Dr. Bradley Olson, a licensed clinical psychologist practicing at the Arlington Center in Chicago.

“If I can consider and accept the worst possible outcome, I’ll freak out less about what’s going on,” Olson suggested. Mapping out the series of, “All right, then what?” decisions that would follow a negative outcome can help you regain a sense of control.

“The [scenarios] we make up in our head rarely ever happen—’oh, we’re all gonna die!’ That’s not going to happen,” he went on. But bad things can happen, and might, and outlining those can help.

The sky is not literally falling—but things are pretty grim. People are getting sick, and millions of others are losing work hours or jobs, and the money concerns that flow from there are realistic. So rather than contemplate the end of the world, Olson suggested, think about the literal, concrete next steps you would take if you did receive the news you’re afraid of.

“If I won’t be able to work for two months, what could happen? OK, I won’t be able to afford my house. We’ll lose the house. OK, that will really suck. I don’t want to do that. But could you live with it?” Olson said.

Whatever your personal worst-case scenario is… imagine what, specifically, you would do about it if it happened. That makes it less of a fear and more of an actual plan.

This is Guybrush. This photo is here for the sole purpose of being soothing. If you have a cat or a dog nearby to pet, experts recommend: go give some ear scritches.
Enlarge / This is Guybrush. This photo is here for the sole purpose of being soothing. If you have a cat or a dog nearby to pet, experts recommend: go give some ear scritches.

Take control

Anxiety comes, in many ways, from a loss of control, and most of us are probably deeply feeling that lack right now. Unless you are a sitting member of government (in which case, thanks for reading), you can’t actually do anything tangible about the state or federal response to this crisis. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything; participation just looks a little different at the individual level.

Be a helper!

Compassion and good works, of course, help others. But they help you, too, by giving you something you can control.

Hallion lives in Pittsburgh, she told Ars. “I actually live in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood,” she admitted with a chuckle. “And his famous quote, you know, is ‘Look for the helpers.’ But I want to flip that and I want us to be a helper. Try to find ways to help other people and to reach out—to be one of the people who can help those who are in greater need.”

Hallion had concrete suggestions for ways to help: “If you can, run errands for elderly neighbors or people in your community who need the help. If you can think of ways to do outreach to people who need it, to get to folks who are alone. Plug in people who are willing to dedicate their spare time to have a constructive project that is actually also helping people. I can’t think of a better solution for stress isolation for anybody.” She added that children who want to help could be writing cards and making phone calls (or video calls) to elderly family members, but also sending cards to nursing homes to reach older folks who are at risk, alone, and scared.

“Opportunities for reaching out can help take us out of our own heads and out of our own worried spirals and help put our attention elsewhere and help us feel like we’re doing a good thing, because we are,” she added.

Many communities are using tools like Nextdoor, Facebook groups, email listservs, and even good old-fashioned phone trees to connect neighbors who can help to neighbors who need help. Some even have more custom solutions connecting hundreds of families. If your building, neighborhood, or town isn’t organized yet, consider becoming the organizer.

There are some other key ways to contribute to communal well-being if you can. For those who are healthy and physically able, the US Surgeon General is all but begging for more blood donors to step up, as supplies have crashed at the same time as hospitalizations are expected to increase.

And if you have any to spare, money is always a welcome help. Food pantries need extra cash donations right now, while groceries are hard to come by, schools are closed, and millions of workers, especially at the low end of the wage scale, are facing layoffs and reductions in hours. Small local businesses, too, will be reaching out to loyal customers for support.

Your body and your feelings

Your mind and your body are not separate and never have been. That means stress and anxiety can give you physical symptoms—but on the flip side, it also means you can do an end-run around your brain by changing what you’re doing with your body.

Go for a walk. Right now. We’ll wait.

It is officially spring in the United States, and in many parts of the country the weather is gorgeous. If you are physically able and not under active quarantine, one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health both is to get outside and go for a walk every day the weather allows.

Folks who already have running, jogging, or cycling routines outdoors can of course keep on keeping on. But even if you have an indoor workout routine going for you, getting outside and getting moving—no matter how slowly—is incredibly important for everyone right now, perhaps especially those of us who haven’t typically done so before.

“Social distancing doesn’t mean, ‘stay in your 10 by 10 bedroom forever,’ or your apartment, condo, or home,” Olson said. “We’re not going into gathering spaces, like stores and bars and restaurants. But now is the perfect time, if people have more time available, for them to step out.”

“Exercise is probably the best behavioral intervention there is for anxiety or depression,” he added, suggesting everyone get out for an hour or so if they can. “Fresh air, oxygen, exercise—even if just moderately paced—is helpful to our bodies in terms of calming that physiological response that happens with anxiety.”

“Taking a regular walk is essential,” Hallion stressed, both for those feeling cramped in close quarters and people living on their own. “Get out, get fresh air, get exercise every day.” Keep at least six feet away from the neighbors when you pass them, “but if you’re not fully under quarantine, and you’re social distancing, absolutely go for walks if you can.”

Deep breathing works

You know how your mom always told you to take a deep breath? She was right: it works. But deep breathing is something to practice before you’re well and truly panicked.

There are untold numbers of apps, websites, and YouTube videos that can guide you through deep breathing exercises. The trick is to find something you can stick to, and to do it regularly—especially when you’re feeling fine.

“Breathing exercises take practice, and they take more practice than people think,” Olson said. “Practice deep breathing exercises throughout the day when you’re not anxious, because that’s when you’re learning how to calm somebody.”

He suggested a four-times-per-day routine: “Do it in the morning, do it at lunch, do it at dinner time, and do it before you go to bed.” The routine he suggested is all sets of ten:

  • Inhale slowly over the count of 10
  • Hold for the count of 10
  • Release slowly for the count of 10
  • Hold for the count of 10
  • Repeat 10 times

“Oh, that’s too much work,” he said many people end up saying. “But that’s what deep breathing exercises are. Not just practicing it when you’re anxious and need to do something.”

Meditation, prayer, and visualization exercises can all have the same effect of calming senses and thoughts, he added. Many local yoga studios, gyms, and fitness centers in your area are probably now offering online classes to follow along with at home, and several wellness apps are offering free, reduced cost, or extended trial services to folks who may need a little help getting moving and getting out of their own heads at home.

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