coronavirus Russian dolls masks

The world feels upside down as COVID-19 affects jobs, families and our day-to-day lives globally. When the coronavirus first emerged, I had an unsettling feeling of déjà vu. During the SARS epidemic in 2003, I was living in Hong Kong. I was 11 and it felt surreal when my fifth grade teacher sent us home indefinitely with papers for schoolwork.

The two months I spent in isolation with my parents were some of the most mundane days of my life, and yet it was a monumental life experience. As we adjusted to the “new normal,” I went through phases – from feeling confused and annoyed, to extremely upset, to finally feeling like I could see the silver lining. I wrote about my mental health recovery from it two years later in a story published by Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul

I live in New York City now and recently re-read my piece. Seventeen years later, it’s clear that SARS taught me a few lessons about how to cope in times of uncertainty and I’d like to share them with you. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean the current situation has been easier. It’s been emotionally exhausting, as it has been for many. However, I hope this helps keep your spirits up. Because that’s the best thing you can do for yourself – and even though it’s hard to believe right now, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

1. Stay in close touch with people you love – and reach out to at least 3 people a day.

It’s hard to feel emotionally fulfilled when you aren’t spending time with people in person. That’s exactly why it’s crucial to reach out to family, friends, coworkers, your significant other and anyone else in your support system. Make it a goal to connect with at least three people you don’t live with each day.

One of the biggest differences I’ve felt between SARS and COVID-19 is that SARS came before social media and virtual communication took off. I remember using Neopets chat to keep in touch with my friends from school, and sending handwritten letters to family that my dad took to the post office. I also had a landline to fax and call family in Japan but social distancing was truly limiting back then.

Now, we have many digital tools to stay connected. Schedule a virtual date with your friends or relatives. Some of my friends and I have a recurring video call every Saturday where we drink wine together (from our homes) and catch up. When else will you have so much time where everyone’s calendars sync up? Chatting with someone who makes you laugh for a few minutes can do wonders. 

Also if you haven’t reached out to someone in a while, check in with them. I’m not advocating for texting a bad ex, but if there’s a friend or family member who you haven’t said hi to in a while, chances are they’ll appreciate you reaching out. It’s nice to remind others and to be reminded in return that people care about you. Don’t underestimate the power of simply saying, “Hey, are you hanging in there?”.

2. Maintain a workout regimen at home.

It’s tempting to stay horizontal, but resist the urge. I’ve found that at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity helps me stay fit and destress. If possible, find a workout buddy so you can keep each other motivated. Put reminders to exercise on your calendar too if it helps.

During SARS, my workout buddy was my mom and we played badminton and table tennis inside our apartment – it was cramped, but we got our heart rates up and it was fun. In 2020, we have more choices online to get creative at home! Many fitness studios are offering free digital services at the moment, from Barre3 to 305 Fitness. Even those that don’t typically offer an online experience, like my favorite boxing studio, Shadowbox, have organized virtual classes via Zoom and Instagram Live. All you need is floor space (and ideally a yoga mat to cushion), and a device to stream the workout. I also enjoy Pamela Reif‘s 10 minute workouts on YouTube to switch it up.

If you live in a city where you can safely go on an outdoor run or walk, that’s also a way to get fresh air and diversify your fitness routine. You’ll feel great from the rush of endorphins. I use the Map My Run app to keep track – and you can share your progress with friends there too.

3. Deep clean a physical or mental space.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that “Marie Kondo-ing” my apartment is perpetually on my to-do list and I don’t make time for it. Now you can finally cross that off the to-do list.

During SARS, cleaning my room was a project to clear my head and sort items that were collecting dust. This time, I’ve been able to organize my closet which has been bursting out of its seams the past year. You can easily earn a little cash with this. I ordered clean out kits from ThredUp which sells and donates your clothes for you, and I scheduled a FedEx pickup from my apartment. It was seamless and required no interaction with others.

Additionally, the extra time spent in solitude might make some of us more self-reflective. I wrote in a journal every night during SARS to document how I was feeling, and jot encouraging notes to myself. I also took a hard look at my habits to address those that I wanted to change. For me, that meant training myself to become a more optimistic person by learning how to pivot my negative thoughts. For example, if I was getting upset about not being able to see my friends, I would shift my mindset to – I can’t wait to see my friends because I have an idea for a new game to play during recess that they’d enjoy. Most people today would say one of my defining characteristics is my positivity, and I truly believe I developed this trait as a coping mechanism during SARS.

Whether it’s deep cleaning your house or mind (or both!), have an honest conversation with yourself about areas you want to work on. Start with one goal, and break it down into smaller tasks you can complete each day. Tiny new habits can make a big difference throughout weeks of confinement. When you accomplish your goal, celebrate – I’d open up a bottle of champagne or bake myself a cake with a heapful of sprinkles.

4. Do activities that are (literally) hands-on, like cooking, for a rewarding break.

One of my fondest memories from SARS was spending time in the kitchen with my mom. Even with the uncertainty outside, I could rely on her to cook delicious meals. I loved watching and helping her cook. Now, COVID-19 has given me an excuse to finally try new recipes, including some of my mom’s classics. My boyfriend and I plan meals to cook for each other, and it’s been a fulfilling and productive way for us to spend more quality time. 

Cooking is a great indulgence because not only is it fun and makes your house smell amazing, but it also provides a distraction since the tactile activity requires you to focus on the task at hand. It’s also a break from screen time and the results are tangible (and edible!) so you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. Having these small wins in your day matters!

5. Allow yourself to feel all the feels.

This is probably the most important thing to remember: it’s perfectly OK to feel emotional. We’re living through a stressful time and frankly, things are going to be a bit scary for a while. 

Forcing yourself to bury your feelings might seem like a good idea, but that’s a recipe for disaster. The reality of my life being disturbed during SARS hit me very hard one day, and I remember lying in bed as tears rolled down uncontrollably. I had a similar moment when COVID-19 began to spread. In some ways, this pandemic has felt more intense because of how connected our world is – every second, there’s a new article or social media post about the death toll, medical shortage and unemployment rates. Sometimes it seems impossible to escape thinking about the virus.

One way to overcome this is to give yourself the space to acknowledge what you’re feeling, or even let out a tear if needed. I’ve found that a daily self check-in helps. I designate about 15 minutes each to the first and second half of the day to catch up on the news. Then, I do my best to focus on other things and read positive newsletters such as Blue Door Media for the rest of the day. This balance allows me to stay informed which gives me a sense of control, and it also helps me maintain a healthy head space to address my fears, anxiety and sadness for a couple minutes each day. I highly encourage you to try it out. And remember that whatever you’re feeling, you are absolutely not alone.