- Develop new habits.
COVID-19 has thrown all our old routines in the air, and habits are essential to being productive. Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at USC, suggests that creating new routines and habits for our new circumstances can help us regain stability and focus. Pay attention to how you start each day. What is your exercise routine? What habits can you build to support your online academic work? Habits are the building blocks that help us automate healthy ways of eating, working, connecting with friends, keeping our home environments clean and orderly, and even relaxing.
“Habits also allow our brains to conserve energy for bigger, more challenging decisions,” says Parenting Specialist, LCSW Cristina Young, “If we don’t have to think about micro-decisions all day long, we will have more energy to devote to more important thoughts.”
- Be careful about the news you’re consuming.
Mental health experts seem unanimous in their advice that we should limit our news intake these days. And be judicious with our news sources, sticking to reputable journalism or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Get enough sleep.
Sleep regular hours if possible. Putting your phone or other devices down several hours before bedtime can help deepen your sleep.
- Connect with friends and loved ones.
Throw on your ear buds and go for a walk while catching up with a college friend. Use FaceTime, Zoom, and other tools to reach out and stay in touch with those who lift your spirits. Young suggests planning to budget at least 30 minutes a day for connecting with friends.
Exercise will make you feel better. Breaking a sweat is like a booster shot of serotonin. Throw on your sneakers, ride your bike, or do an online workout. Peloton is currently offering 3 months free on their app, which has a library of awesome classes from weight training to yoga to running. Some of them are short, like 10 minutes. “Exercise is like a car wash for our brain,” says Young, “It releases a chemical, which is found (synthetically) in most anti-depressants.”
- If possible, drill down on your specific causes of anxiety.
Is it the loss of special events, like graduation? Is it the stress of going to school online? Is it missing your friends? Is it fear of getting sick or having loved ones get sick? Sometimes just naming the central anxiety you’re feeling can help you tame it.
Young suggests reminding yourself that while this situation is uncomfortable, it is only temporary. She adds that it might be helpful to come up with a mantra to fall back on, such as “I can do hard things” or “This, too, shall pass.” Mantras allow our brains to return to a soothing, well-trodden path that calms our central nervous system when quietly repeated. The repetition of the words is soothing, and our brain begins to associate these words with feeling quiet and still.
- Fresh air daily.
Even short amounts of it. Research shows that this can significantly improve depression and anxiety. According to studies, the critical amount is 2 hours per week. Interestingly, nature seems more important than ever to humans because the trees, the flowers, and the birds are not sick. They are continuing with their normal schedule, which is reassuring and comforting when all else seems to be off or abnormal.
- Find accountability partner/s.
Share your plans and routines with a friend or family member who can help you stay on track. Miss your roommate? Plan daily Zoom chats where you can run through what you got done that day.
- Treat yourself.
When you’re feeling down — which is totally understandable right now — it can help to have seratonin-boosting “treats” to look forward to. Maybe it’s as simple as watching your favorite show. Maybe it’s a hot bath. Maybe it’s exploring new music online and putting together an amazing playlist. Maybe it’s making brownies from scratch and sharing them with your family.
- Read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.
Make your own cost-benefit analysis of social media in your own life. Is it serving you and making you happy to spend time on these platforms? Does time on social media make you feel more or less anxious?
- How to know if you need outside help.
If you find that you are having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, if you no longer have interest in things you used to enjoy, or if you are having trouble sleeping or have lost your appetite, a red flag should go up. If you used to share your highs and lows with a friend or a romantic partner, but you are keeping everything to yourself now, a red flag should go up. If you feel hopeless about the future or helpless about how to help yourself feel better, a red flag should go up. If you find yourself thinking about hurting yourself or someone else, please seek help immediately.
- How to find outside help.
Start with your pediatrician, general practitioner, or gynecologist, if you know and trust that person. They usually have a good list of local referrals. Check www.psychologytoday.com to read about local clinicians and to see information about their training, background, and even see a photo. Call the counseling center that is part of your university’s health center. Check Family Services, Catholic Charities, or Big Brother, Big Sister for sliding scale services.
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