If ever there was a time to end the stigma around mental health, it’s now. The entire country — the entire world — is coping with the coronavirus pandemic, and there is a collective vulnerability we are all experiencing. For many people, that means heightened levels of stress, worry, and anxiety. While it’s too soon to know the full impact on our long-term emotional well-being, some surveys already indicate that people feel their mental health is worsening.
And while I know “silver lining” is not the appropriate term, one positive outcome during this crisis is that people seem to be more willing to talk openly about their mental health struggles. The fact that we are all going through something, to one degree or another, is helping us realize that our challenges are not something to be ashamed of — they are experiences to be shared. I struggle with anxiety on a regular day, but the past several weeks have been very difficult for me. In the workplace, I’ve been very open and honest about my own mental health, and have spoken to thousands during all-hands calls in the past few weeks. And I’ve gotten so many messages from people saying, “Thank you for allowing that to be OK.”
Even government officials are helping to normalize the conversation around mental health. Take, for instance, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo: During one of his televised press briefings on the state of the coronavirus, he reminded Americans that staying mentally healthy is as important as staying physically well during this time. Huge public statements like that are helping to elevate the conversation around conditions like anxiety and depression and giving people “permission” to talk about them.
While breaking the stigma is a great start, we can go one step further — by looking for actionable ways to safeguard our mental well-being now and for the long term. Yes, humans are resilient — we’re good at powering through. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed (and encouraged) to get the support we need during tough times. Here are some strategies that have helped me and may help you, too.
Recently I’ve been talking with family and friends more than I ever have before. In fact, we’re all reaching out to each other more often, asking simple questions: “How are you doing? How can I support you?” — and genuinely wanting to know the answers.
On a societal level, we’re seeing and hearing about so many incredible acts of kindness and compassion. More people are helping others in their communities, whether that means buying groceries for a neighbor, or having their kids make cards and artwork for the elderly who may be alone during this time. These acts of selflessness offer mental health benefits for both the giver and receiver (and, frankly, for all of us who witness them!), and we can all keep this in mind in moments when we feel low.
Get creative about your “coping mechanisms”
Some of our go-to ways of staying emotionally well are not available to us during the pandemic. For me, physical exercise has always been essential to my mental health and well-being. Right now, with social distancing efforts, going to the gym is not an option. But that doesn’t mean I can’t get creative — in addition to taking a walk or run outside while keeping a safe distance, I’ve also been doing workouts in my condo parking lot. We all need to carve out time for ourselves, but what that looks like is different for everyone. It might be physical exercise, meditation, reading, or even watching a lighthearted comedy. Make time for whatever it is that gives you that much-needed pause, because that will allow you to show up and continue to function in this new normal.
Find a new routine
When life is uncertain and stressful, routine can help us to cope with change, provide comfort, and reduce anxiety. Yes, your routine right now may look different than it did before we all started socially distancing, and that’s OK — the important thing is to commit to something. Decide what’s doable, and try to stick to it as much as possible. My strategy is to put breakfast, lunch, dinner, movement, and sleep on my calendar. Those are non-negotiable appointments throughout my day. I need that structure right now, and I rely on those mental reminders — in the form of calendar notifications — to stick to my plan. Want to start small? One easy way to bring a sense of routine into your days is to wake up and go to bed around the same time.
As many offices across the country and around the world have transitioned to remote working, we’ve basically created a global pilot for life-work integration! Except that for many people, it’s not integrated: Work and life are sitting on top of each other. Now more than ever, boundaries are vital. Be open and honest with your co-workers about what you need and when you need it. As a team, talk about potential challenges and decide on normal working hours. Set expectations around response time to emails. And decide what conversations truly warrant a video call. I’m a big believer of quality over quantity — not every call needs to be a video conference. If you’re a manager, have these conversations as a team to understand what works for everyone before you put rules in place.
Let yourself be real (even if it’s “messy”)
In my own experience, I’ve seen that people are being refreshingly honest with their out-of-office messages these days. For instance: “I’m offline from 10 a.m. to noon, homeschooling my kid.” I get those OOO messages and I smile. Yes — we’ve got kids and puppies and families, and we don’t need to hide these parts of ourselves in order to do our jobs. In fact, trying to draw clear lines between work and life would make our situations a lot more stressful right now. I also love that many people aren’t putting on suit jackets and blazers for our video calls. Whatever we are wearing, we can often show up to the call that way. This crisis is allowing everyone opportunities to be as they are. This is exactly the kind of acceptance that can have a positive impact on our mental health. And if you are a leader — in your workplace, in your community, in your household — be open about the highs and lows you’re experiencing so you can create a safe space for those around you to do the same.
Set aside time to worry
Sleep is so important for your mental and physical health. But it’s hard to doze off and sleep soundly when you’re lying in bed and ruminating about the state of the world and what might happen next. Thrive talks about this all the time, and I think it’s such a great idea: Schedule your “worry time.’’ Give yourself a period of time — during the day — to worry about whatever it is you want to worry about. For me, there is something cathartic about getting my stress out on paper, so I combine worry time with journaling. Then, once I put down my journal, I am able to move on.
Recognize when you need more help
If your worry or anxiety or depression — or whatever you’re feeling — is getting in the way of your ability to show up for your daily life, it’s OK to need more help than you can give yourself. We especially shouldn’t be ashamed to reach out to professionals now, since what we’re going through is unprecedented. The good news is that an increasing number of mental health professionals are conducting telehealth video calls with patients. Help is there if you need it.
Make room for hope
Since this pandemic began, I’ve created a “future prediction jar” — and I fill it with things I think will come out of this experience that are really positive. I invite you to try it. Ask yourself: What will change for the better? What am I looking forward to the most? How will I live my life differently when things are back to “normal”? Hope and gratitude are very powerful, and there is still so much we can be grateful for right now. One of my biggest hopes is that we all realize how important it is to prioritize our self-care and mental and physical health. It shouldn’t be something we just do during a pandemic — it should be something we do at all times. After all, this situation is temporary. It might last a while — and we don’t yet know how long — but all things pass.
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