It’s February 2021 and in the first seconds of waking up, I forget for a fleeting moment we’ve been living in a pandemic for a year. In those drowsy seconds where I haven’t got my bearings, I think it’s just a normal day in my apartment. Except then I remember it’s been an abnormal day in my apartment for a year now. And it doesn’t look like that’s letting up any time soon.
It’s a challenge to stay positive after a year of COVID-19. It’s also hard to make sense of all the challenges set before us. How can we understand the implications of a pandemic when we’re still inside of it? The vaccine offers some hope, but there’s still a long way to go for us to safely return to normal life. In the past year, our lives have not only been turned upside down by a pandemic, but also by social justice reckoning, and intense political news around the election. So how do we hold out hope and maintain some degree of stable mental health amid the continuing COVID-19 crisis and all that’s come with it? How can we process what we’re still experiencing?
Processing Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
A year ago we thought combatting the coronavirus was going to take a focused effort for a limited time — a few weeks, a month, a few months. Now we know that’s far from the case, we must continue following health and safety protocol for the long-haul.
Talkspace therapist Dr. Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC, describes how “this is an endurance race rather than a quick sprint of hardships.” She says this mindset “alleviates the expectation that this will pass sooner rather than later. Without expectation, we can also alleviate disappointment.” Acknowledging and accepting that we are dealing with the pandemic for the foreseeable future is an important mindset shift. This change in thought process allows us to have grace for ourselves and others.
Dr. Rice adds that “it’s more important that we cross the finish line than it is to compare ourselves to the other competitors along the way.” Making it through the last year and continuing to do so is a blessing and accomplishment in and of itself. Turning inwards and focusing on our own steady pace in surviving this marathon is one of the best ways to cope in 2021.
In the age of 24/7 news and social media, it’s easy to get caught up in what’s going on around us. Staying informed is important of course, but being constantly plugged into the news leaves us feeling drained.
We may want answers as to why this is happening, how we got here, who’s to blame. However, Dr. Rice says we need “to stop trying to make sense of it all. The more we get absorbed in analyzing what the right answer is — either politically, socially, globally, economically, cognitively, the more we lose touch of our individual purposes.”
Overthinking all that’s occurred since the pandemic started can only get us so far. We have to focus on taking care of ourselves and our loved ones. Historians will be analyzing this time for decades to come, it’s not your moral responsibility to do so every day.
If being too plugged in is something you struggle with, it can be helpful to set app time limits on your phone for checking news or social media. Losing track of time when scrolling happens, so if you can allow yourself time to engage with a clear cut-off, this can help you feel informed but not at the expense of your mental health.
Focus on What You Can Control
There’s no doubt most of our current problems are beyond our individual control. We have to put our faith in the leaders addressing the health crisis and political turmoil. As you avert your attention from over-analyzing, focus instead on what you can control. This can give us a renewed sense of stability and meaning in a time when we crave it desperately.
“Our happiness depends on our ability to stay in our own lane enough that we can invest in ourselves and then our cup overflows to our community,” Dr. Rice says. What we can control are the habits and behaviors that structure our days.
Dr. Rice encourages engaging in habits that make us feel good or productive. “Maybe this means that we don’t scroll until we exercise,” she says. “Maybe this means that we spend time with friends on a live video session rather than binge watching TV. Maybe this means that we ask for help and reach out if we get stuck.” These little things that you can control in daily life can make a large impact on how you feel overall.
Prioritize Physical Self-Care
When you feel low, as so many of us have at various points during the pandemic, it can be hard to be proactive about taking care of yourself. However, neglecting yourself is a dangerous prospect for your well-being and can lead to further spiralling. Use these tips to keep physically well, which can also help keep you mentally strong as you continue processing all that’s taken place in the last year.
Keep up with physical hygiene
It’s tempting to stay in the same pajama bottoms for a week when no one will see us below the shoulders. This rarely makes us feel better though. It’s magical how refreshing a good shower at your favorite temperature is, even if you don’t feel like taking it when you drag yourself to the bathroom. Taking care of your physical hygiene makes a difference in maintaining your mental health. Plus your quarantine pod will appreciate it!
Because many of us are stuck at home, we’re moving about far less than during pre-COVID times. Living in New York City, I used to walk several miles a day, now it’s a good day if I even walk one mile. But prioritizing some sort of movement makes a difference. I feel better if I leave the apartment to at least get that mile walk around my neighborhood. Listen to what your body needs in terms of movement, especially if you’re spending all day at your WFH desk. Going for a walk outside, an out-home HIIT workout in your living room, or yoga before bed are all great options to incorporate movement.
Keep a balanced diet
If you haven’t already, cooking balanced meals at home can be a great practice to implement right now, too. With decreased commutes, many of us have more time around breakfast and dinner hours. No one is saying you need to become a Michelin chef, but balancing the take-out meals with some quality home-cooked fare is a great physical self-care practice.
Connect Virtually with Others
Ever since COVID-19 made our world unrecognizable, my extended family hops on a Zoom call every Saturday afternoon to check-in. The locations span from Hawaii to NYC, showing how video calls do offer a great opportunity to connect across geography. Many of these people I would only see once a year normally, so it’s been great to keep in better touch. These calls help us feel connected to family and a larger support system during these trying times.
Zoom fatigue is real though, so constant video calls may not be the answer. Be thoughtful in connecting with those who lift you up as we continue hunkering down for COVID-19. If you’re over video calls, games like Among Us and Animal Crossing have grown in popularity for a reason. It’s nice to have an escape other than talking about the news. Virtually connecting provides support at a time when many of us desperately need it, both in our work and personal lives.
Engage with Healthy Hobbies
Like virtual calls, quarantine hobbies are popular for good reason too — we all need something to keep our minds off stressors. Some friends picked up embroidery and cross-stitching, others paint by numbers and coloring. These simple hobbies can be so refreshing, especially as a way to escape the Zoom screen for a little while. It’s nice to do something for the sake of refilling your cup when we have so many demands in our life.
Since the pandemic started, I’ve gotten back in touch with my musical hobbies, playing the cello and piano more. It’s been a great way to do something that inspires me and connects me to my childhood when I spent hours playing these instruments. Pre-COVID my life was so busy I rarely found the time to make music, but it’s energizing to take a work-from-home break to do so.
Even some hobbies that might seem frivolous can bring us joy. TikTok and other fun sites can be a healthy escape from doom scrolling. I’ve certainly spent many hours on BuzzFeed quizzes or scrolling TikTok during the pandemic — and they can actually be a healthy escape from doom scrolling. It feels good to find time to get in touch with old pastimes or find new ones that take us on unexpected journeys.
Look Out for Negative Coping Mechanisms
In tense, uncertain times like these, it’s tempting to engage in behaviors that make us feel better in the moment, but sadly will make us feel worse in the long run. Many of us have go-to unhealthy coping mechanisms we must be on the lookout for in these prolonged periods of stress.
“Let’s keep a lookout for anything that is creating impairments in our ability to function appropriately,” Dr. Rice says. This could be “drinking/using drugs to the point of blackout. Socially isolating. Excessive screen time to the point where we are skipping our regular responsibilities. Excessive spending (i.e. can’t pay our regular bills). Significantly controlling our food input vs. output. Reckless sexual engagements that are destroying our relationships with others. Within moderation, these things can be healthy. But, they can just as easily spin out of control without us consciously being able to identify it.”
For me, this looks like under-eating because stress suppresses my appetite, as it does for many people. I have to make a conscious effort to prioritize routinely eating enough meals and snacks throughout the day, even when stuck at home. Whatever your Achilles heel is, you likely know it’s there, so find a way to increase your accountability, whether to yourself or those you trust.
Check-In on Priorities
Many of us face several daily competing demands, all within the same four walls. Balancing work and childcare is a challenge faced by so many families right now. Grieving the loss of a loved one is the reality for almost half a million people. Dealing with the emotions brought up by social justice movements and political insurrection is also very present. These are all extreme challenges that weigh on us, so we must prioritize what deserves our attention, energy, and emotions.
Checking in not only with our priorities, but our purpose can help, according to Dr. Rice. “Our purpose links right into all the things we have control over, all the things that have real, actionable, measurable steps wrapped up in them.” She says you can ask yourself, where was I headed pre-COVID? This can help us remember who we are and what we are striving for outside of the historic time we are living in.
“We can always guarantee that life will present us with the most outrageous of obstacles,” Dr. Rice says. “But, I think it’s way more interesting to focus on how we reroute and get back to the pre-Covid plan with all the new obstacles included.” There will certainly always be life stressors in some way. What matters is how we approach and deal with them, staying true to our own needs and priorities.
While we are still limited in what we can do day to day, focusing on our mental and physical health helps us continue running this marathon. Rely on your support system. Take care of yourself and those close to you. Find a balance between your daily WFH habits and recharging.
These are by no means simple tasks, but focusing on what we have control over will help us cope as we continue to process the ramifications of a life-altering pandemic.