No one could have prepared for the impact coronavirus would have on our lives, our work, our families, or our mental health. In the last few weeks, there are three areas that have come up the most in my clinical practice: how to manage staying at home, how to be mindful in a crisis, and how to help people with eating disorders manage most effectively.
Mindfulness is not difficult, but it does require practice. It can help quiet the fear and help us become more aware, in the moment, of our thoughts and behaviors. Think about how often you touch your face. Think about the sensations that go with washing your hands. Think about what to do instead of shaking hands – perhaps this will encourage us to make eye contact and to think about our intentions more when interacting with other people. We can become aware of how connected we all really are when we think about our intentions and interactions. When you are afraid of something like getting sick from the coronavirus, really think about the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that make up that feeling and allow them, without judging. Keep moving through them, listen to them, and perhaps dissecting your fear will diminish its power. The behaviors of fear can also reinforce it – think about decisions you make regarding where you go or who you spend time with, what you buy at the grocery store, how much news you are watching and what other things you are doing with the extra time you have at this moment. If you are mindful of these thoughts, feelings, and decisions then you allow your values and needs (as opposed to wants and shoulds) to guide you.
How to manage stay-at-home
There are a lot of things that can make a positive difference, the first being awareness.
Most of us never think about what is healthiest for us; we go about our days and change things as something comes up. Right now, we are still in a pretty reactive phase when it comes to COVID-19 and its various impacts; however, being away from our normal routines affords us a great opportunity to increase our awareness in a way that everyday life would not. Maybe we can learn to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to managing our own stress.
What do you need? Do you need a dedicated workspace, a structured schedule, regular social interaction, daily naps, or something totally different to make staying and working from home bearable? A lot of us are in limbo, and likely will be for a while. It is important to figure out what makes you feel positive and productive. There is a lot of information published about how to make working from home a bit easier, but some of the things that seem to be universal are:
- Stick to your routine as closely as you can (get up at the same time, work at the same time, etc.) and simulate your work environment as closely as possible if you are working from home
- Put on pants (real ones, not PJ’s), brush your teeth and your hair, take a shower, etc. every day
- Get outside every day (weather permitting)
How to be mindful in a crisis
While it might seem stressful to add mindfulness to your list, it can help us manage the stress of this very unusual situation. After all, this is a time no one every expected to have.
Here are some ways to use mindfulness to cope with stress in general as well as some ways that we can all increase our mindful awareness.
- Practice gratitude and acceptance – If there is only one part of this list that you implement, let it be this. Practicing gratitude through journaling, affirmations, meditation or prayer has been proven over and over to increase general life satisfaction, improve medical outcomes, and elevate happiness scores. Just thinking about gratitude is enough to get the positive effects – even better if you are able to do it every day. Also, saying thanks to others helps you share that gift with the people you care about. Acceptance operates in much the same way, but it allows you to get un-stuck from the worries, demands, or people that might get you down. If you are able to identify those situations beyond your control that are getting you stuck, sometimes all it takes is acknowledgement to accept the situation and move through it. We cannot control what happened with coronavirus, but we can acknowledge a need to accept the situation as it is, not as we wish it would be. The same way you write, speak, or think gratitude works for acceptance. If you are having trouble with acceptance, consider backing off of watching or reading the news as often – things change every day with this situation, and the news is not necessarily helpful in managing our anxiety, especially when there are conflicting or changing messages.
- Be aware of your own needs – it is important to be open to and make space for your own needs, thoughts, and feelings. We all have different associations with staying at home – family, past experiences, loss – and need space to process them in our own ways. Do not forget to take care of yourself and be good to yourself. If you need your own space, alone time, social time, quiet time, now is the time to figure that out. Everyone also has different energy levels and preferences when it comes to productivity or creativity. Some people want to tackle projects they haven’t had time for, and some people want to learn to meditate or take up a new skill. All are reasonable – but try not to impose your preferences on others in your household.
- Allow yourself some peace – letting go of judgement, enjoying experiences and not focusing on the outcomes, doing less, unplugging, and spending some time alone are just some of the ways we can attain some peacefulness and space in our lives. Everyone on the planet needs that in their lives. But we need to remember that everyone has different levels of need for connection and it is important to give yourself and others in your household room to do that in their own ways.
- Play – having fun is sometimes lost in the midst of all this worry. Adults need playtime too! Think about something you liked as a child and do it with your own kids, your dog, or your partner. What makes you smile? Make it happen!
- Practice compassion – compassion and lovingkindness are two important concepts to apply to yourself as well as others. When we keep compassion in the forefront of our minds, it allows us to take care of ourselves, and be more attentive and more relaxed. Usually, that also makes us kinder and more open to others, keeping our spirits uplifted. Hope is hugely important in a crisis, and compassion is the quickest road to hope.
How to help yourself or a loved one manage eating disorder recovery during this crisis
For those whose loved ones are suffering with an eating disorder, here are some other ways to manage food stress:
- Don’t be the “food police” – for adults, it is not anyone else’s responsibility to manage their food choices, it is something each individual has to decide. If you have an eating disorder, try to stick with the plan that you and your therapist and dietitian have worked out. If you are supporting someone, talk about what would be helpful to them ahead of time and follow through.
- Pick your moments – walking on eggshells or avoiding difficult topics might let your family dinner be more peaceful, but some issues do need to be addressed. If you are concerned about someone’s eating behavior, or even just their stress level, it is important to talk about it (but probably not at the dinner table or in front of your friend on a virtual group chat who gossips about everyone all the time). If you do confront them or attempt to have a conversation, make sure you are being honest and saying what you mean to say. It might even be helpful to have a plan, especially if you have tried to talk about it before and it hasn’t gone well.
- Let go of judgment (and practice compassion) – mindfulness is all about not judging. There are lots of stereotypes that stigmatize eating disorders – do not assume you know what their experience is like (or vice versa). Family can sometimes trigger judgment and criticism – try to notice when you are judging yourself or internalizing messages from others. Next, take a step back and try to observe the feelings without judging them and you might be able to give yourself some much needed space for kindness, empathy, and compassion.
- Use “I” statements – eating disorder or not, it is never a good idea to assume you know where the other person is coming from. “I” statements – “I feel (an emotion) when you do this behavior or say this specific thing) .” help solve this problem. By expressing your own feelings, you increase your ability to connect and reduce defensiveness. Stick to pointing out what you have observed and keep your non-verbal communication calm and open.
- Here are some things that are never appropriate – “Just eat!” and “Just stop!” are not useful comments. Never comment on the weight or someone with an eating disorder or tell them they look” healthy” – try not to make any comments about that, especially when food is involved. Commenting on what they are eating, especially during a meal, is not helpful (unless they ask you for feedback directly).
Everyone is struggling with the “new normal” and no one knows what changes the virus will create when all is said and done. Take from this post what works for you. And remember that there are a lot of people who need help right now, and there are a lot of people willing to help others. Teletherapy is an option that was not available for everyone before and could be useful to manage the anxiety, stress, and uncertainty that comes not only from the coronavirus, but also from all the changes that will result from it.