The Self-Care Essentials You Need to Cope with Coronavirus Stress

May 1, 2020

By Joe Grasso, PhD

There’s a reason why you keep hearing so much about self-care–it can be a powerful buffer against the mental and physical health impacts of stress, which is in no short supply lately. While taking care of yourself has always been important, it’s even more essential as you deal with the mental and emotional toll during the coronavirus pandemic.

Unfortunately, many people think of self-care as indulgent, or even selfish. In reality, self-care simply refers to engaging in the activities that tend to your basic needs. It can be easy to neglect self-care when you need it most, such as periods of heightened stress like the one we’re collectively experiencing. Common reasons for forgoing self-care include being too busy, too tired, or too focused on others. But in order to nurture what matters most to you, such as your relationships, health, and career, you should prioritize taking care of yourself. Doing this on a regular basis is what enables us to take care of others to the best of our abilities.

While self-care can differ depending on each person’s unique circumstances, the following guidelines promote healthy behaviors and overall wellbeing during these unprecedented times. 

Maintain a daily routine

With the life disruptions spurred by the COVID-19 outbreak, an especially important self-care strategy right now is keeping a daily routine. Millions of employees at hospitals, grocery stores, farms, and post offices across the United States are unable to work remotely as they deliver the essential services that keep our society running. But those who can work remotely are now spending nearly all of their time at home without the usual environmental cues that punctuate the workday, like commuting to and from work. This can blur the lines between work and home and lead us to lose track of time and boundaries.

To counter these disorienting effects, maintain a sense of routine in your work week. That means waking up at the same time as usual, doing the typical morning activities of getting dressed for work and eating breakfast, taking a regular lunch break, and ending the workday at a reasonable time. These activities help maintain a sense of normalcy, not to mention needed separation between work and home.

Invest in your physical health

A growing body of research points to links between mental and physical health, with numerous studies reinforcing the impact of nutrition, exercise, and sleep on our mental states. And according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “Improving your physical wellbeing is one of the most comprehensive ways you can support your mental health. You’ll have an easier time maintaining good mental habits when your body is a strong, resilient foundation.” Now more than ever, it’s important to promote your physical wellness in the following ways.

Eat mindfully: It can be easy to neglect the need for regularly occurring meals during stressful times. Prioritizing nutritious meals around the same times each day will help support your overall wellness. In addition to being a source of sustenance, food is also something to be enjoyed. When eating, try to be mindful by pacing yourself and taking the time to savor your food. Instead of allowing your meals to be autopilot activities, be present during those moments and slow down to notice the flavors, aromas, and textures. 

Get moving: In addition to the list of benefits to our physical health, exercise increases feel-good endorphins and decreases stress hormones like cortisol. Whether walking or running outside (while maintaining a 6-foot distance from others), or following an online yoga or dance routine, staying physically active is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health in stressful times. As an added bonus, you can pair these activities with your favorite music, which can trigger the release of dopamine and help further boost your mood.

Put sleep first: Not getting enough sleep (about seven to nine hours for most adults) can worsen your mood and negatively impact your ability to think clearly and make good decisions. Healthy sleep hygiene habits such as going to bed and waking around the same time each day, cutting out screen time at least an hour before bedtime, and limiting substances like caffeine and alcohol can help significantly. If you notice that anxiety or worry is making it difficult to fall or stay asleep, try practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, before bed to help promote a sense of calm.

Stay connected (even in small ways)

Research studies have repeatedly found a strong relationship between social connections and well-being. Connecting with loved ones is an important way to get emotional support and avoid feeling isolated while socially distancing. While stay-at-home orders throughout much of the U.S. limit our ability to see friends and relatives in person, reaching out through other means can still bring us closer together. 

Try scheduling phone calls with friends and family, having a virtual reunion over coffee or dinner using online video, or even just sending brief text messages to let people know you’re thinking about them. You might even consider bringing back old-fashioned ways of reaching out, such as writing handwritten letters or sending postcards, to add more novelty to your communication. Building these outreach efforts into your daily routine or scheduling them in advance can help ensure that you follow through and give social connection the priority status it deserves.

Be mindful of screen time and media consumption

It’s understandable if you’re glued to screens throughout the day as you complete work tasks, follow the news, and stay in touch with loved ones from home. While screens enable us to stay connected and entertained, they can also be depleting and exhausting. Make sure that you’re not spending time in front of screens as a “default” activity and that, instead, you are making mindful choices by pausing to weigh the value of additional screen time versus alternative activities that support your wellbeing.

On a related note, it’s important to evaluate your news and social media consumption during this pandemic. Authoritative sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or your county’s department of public health can provide the latest coronavirus-related updates without sensationalized interpretations. And if you find that your media consumption only serves to fuel your anxiety versus helping you take better precautions, consider limiting your media check-ins to a couple of times per day.

Keep perspective on the facts

When interpreting incoming information about COVID-19, you’ll want to make sure you’re keeping a healthy perspective on the facts. That means not allowing your mind to distort facts into catastrophic, fear-based beliefs that are inaccurate and don’t serve you. 

For example, according to the CDC, “Most people with Covid-19 have mild illness and can recover at home without medical care.”This does not mean we shouldn’t do everything we can to prevent the spread of this illness, nor does it negate the virus’s potential to harm vulnerable populations and people of all ages. However, if you’re noticing overwhelming fears about how this illness could affect you, and you’re not in a vulnerable group, then you might consider whether you may be thinking in terms of worst-case scenarios rather than adopting a realistic perspective using the available facts.

Be compassionate with yourself

People often shame themselves for unwanted emotional reactions, such as fear or sadness. Or they may feel guilty for being stressed or anxious considering that other people are facing tougher circumstances. 

Keep in mind that your emotions are not “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”. Ultimately, you don’t get to control what you feel, and comparing your emotions to someone else’s is unhelpful and unfair.

Instead, show yourself the same compassion you would show to a friend or family member during this challenging time. Studies on self-compassion show that this approach is linked to a significant drop in distressing emotions. Just as you would reassure a loved one that their reactions are valid and offer them kind gestures during times of struggle, respond to your own struggle with similar compassion.  

One of the best ways you can do this is through compassionate self-talk, such as, “This is a stressful situation and I’m doing my best.” Make sure to show yourself this compassion and be kind to yourself by prioritizing the activities that help you feel a sense of joy, meaning, or connection to others. Be especially self compassionate during times when self care or productive activities feel difficult to carry out, or in moments when you feel that you’ve fallen short.

Limit potentially addictive substances 

If recent sales figures are any indication, many Americans appear to be stockpiling caffeine and alcohol during the pandemic. Both caffeine and alcohol can disrupt your sleep, and consuming either regularly can lead to dependence. In a recent report, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that people minimize their alcohol use during this time, since it “compromises the body’s immune system and increases the risk of adverse health outcomes.” Excess caffeine can add to already plentiful feelings of anxiety and stress. And illicit drugs should always be avoided given the threats they pose to physical and mental health–but especially during this pandemic when people may be more vulnerable to increased use.

So while it may be tempting to reach for substances to alter your energy level or mood, try instead focusing on getting better sleep if that’s what’s needed, or use of healthier relaxing activities such as meditation, a hot bath, or curling up with a book.

Let your values guide self-care

As you prioritize self-care, aim to align your actions with what matters most to you in life, even during hard times. Certain things are beneficial to everyone, such as quality sleep, physical activity, and good nutrition. But how you take care of yourself otherwise is best guided by what really matters to you in life—in other words, your values. Make sure that the time you spend outside of work and home obligations is time spent on activities that will have the greatest pay-off for your wellness.

To identify your values, ask yourself, “What are three things that give my life joy, meaning, or purpose?” Then, dedicate time each day to activities that bring you closer to those values. For example, if your friendships are a top value, you might prioritize daily outreach to a friend via phone call or text. Focusing on your values can help you weather this pandemic in a way that can lead to personal growth.

Ask for help when you need it

Just because we’re physically apart, doesn’t mean that we should struggle in isolation. Make your struggle more visible and ask for help from trusted loved ones, or from your manager in a work context. If you notice you’re starting to feel the effects of anxiety, loneliness, or other distressing feelings, be proactive about letting people know that you’re having a difficult time and what they can do to best support you. Your friends and loved ones can help by offering empathy, giving you an alternative perspective, helping your problem solve, or simply taking your mind off of stressors. But if you notice that your worries or strong emotions are making it difficult to function, consider connecting to professional mental health support. 

 

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Grasso, PhD, is the Clinical Director of Partnerships at Lyra Health and a licensed clinical psychologist. He specializes in mixed-methods research and evaluation, health care quality improvement and implementation science, and program development. Dr. Grasso also provides evidence-based psychotherapy for adults in San Francisco.