May is Mental Health Awareness Month
As a result of national social distancing efforts, spaces we usually turn to for in-person connections — schools, churches, gyms, cafes, restaurants — have been closed mandatorily.
While we all should absolutely abide by these guidelines and each do our part to “flatten the curve,” we have to acknowledge that isolating yourself, hunkering down in your home and staying away from people — especially the people and communities you love and on which you depend — can have an effect on us emotionally as human beings, who are wired to connect.
“From birth, we humans are wired to connect, and our mental and physical health suffers when our social connections are frayed or cut,” said Robin D. Stone, a licensed mental health counselor at Positive Psychology Associates in Manhattan. “Through touch, we have the capacity to co-regulate our emotional responses. That’s why a hug or holding a loved one’s hand through a distressing experience can help to instill a sense of calm.”
Stone said that for those of us of African descent, this need for community and connection runs even deeper.
“We live in a country that prizes individualism, but we people of African descent embrace community, often through rituals that connect us to one another and our ancestors. For us, it’s not survival of the fittest as much as it is survival of the most connected, the most nurtured and the most loved.”
While most of us will welcome this time of self-quarantine as a chance to spend time with our families for the first time in a long time or binge-watch a few TV shows, some of us may feel a bit of anxiety about losing our sense of connection to the outside world. We’re not sure how long this need for isolation will last, and that uncertainty can be unnerving if we feel cut off from our community lifelines.
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To help you survive this time of social distancing, here are some ideas for how to stay connected and protect not only your physical health but also your mental health.
1. Establish a new routine for yourself and your family. The first few days of having everyone at home were likely tough and may have been chaotic. (I’ve seen parents, who are homeschooling their children for the first time, say that teachers should be paid millions for what they do for kids for hours each day.) But now that you know this is going to be our new normal for at least a couple of weeks, establish a new routine at home, so that everyone knows what the expectations are and you have some guidelines for you all to follow.
This can be effective whether you have a family or if you’re living alone. Try to get up at the same time each morning, have scheduled meal times, work hours, school work time, playtime, exercise time, etc. Post the schedule in your home so that you and anyone else in the house can see. This way you have some sense of structure, which will help provide a feeling of stability.
2. Schedule virtual playdates for children and adults. While you should cancel in-person playdates with the neighborhood kids and brunch dates with the girls in order to maintain social distancing, you can still keep in touch and stay connected virtually. Reach out to your friends and to your kids’ classmates and schedule times for you to connect via video chats with tools like FaceTime, Zoom or Skype.
My close girlfriends and I are scheduling what I call “Wine Downs”—where, you guessed it, we’ll each have a glass of wine nearby and hop on Zoom at a scheduled time to catch up with each other, check in and—most importantly—ask for support if needed. Seeing other folks, even for a few minutes online, can maintain a sense of connection.
3. Still show affection (after washing your hands). Washing your hands much more frequently than usual is important, as is being aware of surfaces you touch. That said, there are people in your life who still need that loving touch, from your children to your partners. After you’ve made sure you are all as clean and sanitized as possible, don’t forget to make time for love and affection. Touch can be healing and has been found to reduce levels of stress, lower blood pressure and release hormones that boost healthy emotions.
4. Keep doing the things that support your overall health. Healthy practices like meditation, regular exercise and yoga are vital to your wellness at all times; but they are even more important during times of potential stress and anxiety. “Two feelings I’m hearing most from clients are overwhelmed and afraid,” Stone said.
“It’s not surprising [since] our lives abruptly changed in fundamental ways. Some ways to counterbalance some of those disturbing feelings include prayer and meditation, deep breathing [and] movement.” If you’re struggling with what to do from home, you can find guided meditations, workout routines, and yoga videos online.
5. Pick up the phone and call loved ones, especially the elderly. While video chatting is simple and easy for most of us, don’t forget about your elderly relatives, neighbors and other people in the community—many of whom will struggle with isolation and being cut off from the interactions they may seriously depend on to stay engaged.
So even if it’s not advisable that you stop by their home because the Coronavirus is a great threat to those 65 and older, you can still pick up the phone and give them a call to check on them, ask if they need anything and let them know they’re not alone. This isn’t only something that’s kind and compassionate for you to do, but helping others helps you feel better, too.
6. Work on “that thing.” Perhaps there are books you’ve been wanting to read, a project that you put on hold because everything else got in the way, or a business idea that you’ve been wanting to start. Now is the time! Why not use this period when you don’t have to commute to the office or you’re not stuck in unnecessary meetings to work on that thing that’s important for you.
Don’t sit around and sulk, decide to get started! Looking for new books (outside of Amazon)? Support an indie book store like Uncle Bobbie’s in Philadelphia, where you can buy their top picks and kids’ favorites online. Need a jumping-off point for your new business? Check out the Small Business Administration web site for guidance. Working on a new project or accomplishing a goal keeps your mind stimulated and keeps you motivated.
7. Turn off the news. Yes, of course, you want to stay informed; but watching the news (most of it bad news) constantly, or receiving notifications from your phone each time there’s a new update, is enough to stress anyone out. Instead of being constantly plugged in, determine a certain time you’ll either watch the news for updates or read info from sources like the CDC or World Health Organization, and then turn it off. It’s not healthy for you to have a constant stream of frightening information fed into your brain for hours on end. Get the updates you need and then change the channel, literally and figuratively.
For the safety of all of us living in the United States, we have to accept that it’s crucial that we continue to practice social distancing as requested, that we continue to properly wash your hands, and that we continue to stay safe and stay informed. As much as you can though, for your mental health, remember to continue to stay connected as well.
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