Feel like you’ve been walking around with a constant pit in your stomach for the past few days? Us, too. With many of our normal routines disrupted, and frequent unsettling news alerts about the unrelenting spread of COVID-19, it’s no wonder we’re living in a state of collective anxiety.
But good news: we don’t have to suffer through those uncomfortable feelings. We talked to three mental health experts, and it turns out there are actually a lot of things we can do (from the comfort of our own homes, no less) that will help to put our minds at ease. Here are eight expert-recommended ways to mitigate anxiety in these uncertain times.
1. Focus on Your Breath
“I recommend sitting quietly, upright and focusing on your breath to feel present in the moment,” says Irina Firstein, LCSW, a licensed individual and couple’s therapist. “As soon as thoughts come in, focus on the breath again,” she says. This is a form of mindfulness meditation, and Firstein recommends doing it for at least ten minutes to truly feel the benefits. Science also supports this approach; researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that mindful meditation can help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Not super keen on sitting in silence? You can also use a guided meditation app like Headspace or search YouTube for guided meditation tracks to get started.
2. Distract Yourself
Start a new show on Netflix, listen to some music, try that new recipe you’ve had flagged for weeks—whatever sounds appealing that will take your mind off of current events. “I think it is very important to distract ourselves right now,” explains Firstein. She also points out that it’s a great time to tackle a project around the house that you’ve been meaning to get done. Who’s ready to reorganize the basement?
3. Maintain Your Healthy Habits
While it may be tempting to use working from home as an excuse to stay in your pajamas all day, or let the kids eat ice cream for lunch while they’re out of school, it might not help those anxious feelings. It’s best to stick to your routine, says John Torous, MD, director of the digital psychiatry division, in the Department of Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Pamela Peck, Psy.D., assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who collaborated on their answers. “As much as possible maintain your healthy habits: eat well, sleep, exercise and keep washing your hands to avoid the spread of the illness,” they explain. During unpredictable times, they note, it can feel comforting to do something familiar.
4. That Said, Be Open to Trying New Things
According to Torous and Peck, this is also a good time to be open to trying something different. “Broaden your exercise regimen. Even if the gym is closed, there is still [a lot] you can do,” they advise, from signing up for a workout app to finding a class you love on YouTube. Rather than feeling anxious about the disruption from your everyday routine, get creative about how you can still do the things that make you feel good. Whether it’s cooking dinner every night, practicing and nailing a headstand or simply doing a cat-eye every morning before opening your laptop, enjoy the feeling of getting a little out of your comfort zone.
5. Stay Connected to Your Friends and Family
Keep in touch with your loved ones while maintaining social distancing, suggest Torous and Peck. “Texting and video chat options can reinforce ‘we are not in this alone,’” they say. And the conversations definitely don’t have to be centered around how you’re doing (although that can be helpful). Torous and Peck recommend discussing a book you both just read, or a show you’ve recently finished—yes, another excuse to talk about Love Is Blind. This will help establish a sense of normalcy.
6. Limit Your Social Media and News Intake
It's important to stay up to date, but if you find yourself compulsively checking the news or scrolling through social media for new info, it’s time to set some boundaries. “Check the news over coffee in the morning, midday and early evening. Or just twice a day. Park your phone for periods of time, too,” say Torous and Peck. Firstien agrees that it's important to limit exposure to the media and social media “it only stokes panic,” she explains. Create concrete rules and stick to them—have a family member hold you accountable, if you need to.
7. Adopt a Calming Mantra
“Loving mantras like ‘I am safe and loved’ that can be repeated over and over can drown out fears,” advises Satya Doyle Byock, MA, LPC, founder of Quarterlife. Pick one that feels reassuring to you like ‘all is well’ or ‘inhale calm, exhale worry’ and repeat it to yourself when you start to feel anxious. You can also write it down and hang it somewhere you’ll see it regularly for a little reminder.
8. Reframe Your Circumstances
Byock has been encouraging her clients to view social distancing as an opportunity to read the books they’ve been meaning to read (like Such a Fun Age), pick up the hobbies they’ve always wanted to start, journal more, sleep more—all the things they’ve been putting off. “We have space now to collectively engage in all sorts of play, creativity, and rest that we’ve always found excuses to put off,” she explains. And doing those things you’ve been meaning to get around to will probably make you feel better, she adds.