How to get a grip on your mental health amid the coronavirus outbreak
For the last 3 days, I have kept inside my apartment. No one forced me to do this, but circumstances certainly called for it: my employer has sternly requested that everyone work from home, events around the world are being cancelled in favor of “social distancing,” and a combination of existent germophobia and a new, rapidly-spreading disease does not a comfortable woman make. So aside from a couple workouts, I’ve kept myself on house arrest.
I am not the type of person who benefits from staying inside. During a normal week, I’ll spread out my errands so I always have somewhere to go; I write at coffee shops when possible, not on the couch; and I strive to hang out with a friend or with my partner a few times a week. If I find that I’ve stayed inside the whole day, I also find that I’m feeling at best bummed and at worst very, very sad. I’ve never known what causes this—I’m guessing it’s a blend of extroversion, a plant-like need for sunlight, and a desire to stay busy so that my depression doesn’t take me down. Needless to say, when the coronavirus became serious and it started to look like people would need to stay home as much as possible, I experienced a lot of anxiety.
When a close friend of mine reached out this morning and asked if I’d want to hang out in the afternoon, I was relieved. Maybe the earth would keep on spinning! Maybe a few hours of in-person socialization wouldn’t kill anyone—maybe, just maybe, I could ride the high of hanging out with someone in a real-life eating establishment for the next three days. A life of cautiously avoiding this new disease wouldn’t be so bad, after all!
I agreed, and we met later at her place, then drove together to a local coffee shop-slash-restaurant-slash-bar. There, we found a sign advertising a special cocktail dubbed “The Coronavirus Vaccine.” Weird, funny, maybe a cute attempt at keeping things light and finding silver linings. We chatted and we ate, and things felt good. I knew from stumbling upon dozens of headlines that the world around us was suffering really, really badly (and that plenty of people were making it worse by stealing hand sanitizer from hospitals and fighting over toilet paper), but I was grateful for a bit of normalcy.
Then, on my way home, I made a huge mistake: I decided to stop at the grocery store for milk.
Safeway was desolate. The TP, cleaning supply, and bottled water aisles were wiped clean. The lines to each cash register were obscenely long, snaking through frozen food aisles and behind stacked displays of canned beans. Two aisles were blocked off with caution tape, their floors flooded thanks to a failing roof and two straight days of rain (not the virus’s fault, but still depressing). When I reached for a half-gallon of milk, my foot accidentally bumped a bucket of rainwater on the floor, which sent a small splash onto some guy’s shoe. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I had no idea that was there,” I said. “Huh. Be careful,” the guy grumbled. Human kindness had left with the bottled water.
A not-so-quick trip to the grocery store for some 2% milk had turned into a coin for my depression piggy bank. In the bank with it were countless news articles, tweets containing obvious yet upsetting misinformation, and the knowledge that no matter how you twisted it, thousands of people were dying and many more were in some sort of pain. I left Safeway feeling angry and exasperated, and with my milk I carried a conviction not to leave my apartment anymore unless it was absolutely necessary.
If my own mental health is suffering under the weight of the coronavirus, I cannot imagine what people are going through in Italy as they’re quarantined alongside the corpses of their loved ones. I don’t know what it’s like for those who work retail or food service and fear for their jobs, or what it’s like for those who won’t get to walk at their graduation ceremony this spring. Yet I feel like we are stuck in a nightmare or a pre-apocalypse movie scene, and my depression and anxiety are eating it right up.
When I feel like this, I have to let myself throw a short pity-party to get it out of my system. But after that, I must move on to how to move forward. If I feel like the world is a terrible place right now, how do I help make it a little bit better? If I’m in tears at my desk because the news says this virus is getting worse and worse, how do I take care of myself? How can I show a bit of love and support to my family and my friends?
It’s at this point that I make a list. A list based on emotional survival but also humanitarian damage control.
- Stop reading the news, and unfollow those on social media who are focusing on the coronavirus. It’s good to be informed, but vital information should come from trusted sources, like the CDC, your local or state government, or your employer.
- Communicate. Be open and upfront with your family, your partner, your employer, and anyone or anything else that matters about what might happen should this situation get worse. Is working from home an option? How will the family address childcare? Does a romantic getaway need to be postponed? A lot of the stress that comes from these issues also stems from not having spoken about them out loud.
- Engage in physical activity. It is not mentally healthy to stay still in a single environment all day, for multiple days at a time. If you are not in a busy area or one that is under quarantine, go for a walk, a hike, or a bike ride—the virus isn’t airborne, and you’d have to be in close proximity to someone who has it (or touch something they’ve just touched) to catch it. If you’re uncomfortable with going outside or you can’t do so, turn on some music and dance. Follow an instructional yoga video on YouTube. Grab some hand weights and do some shadow-boxing. Plank.
- Journal. No one’s going to read it unless you make them. You need to put your fears, stressors, and frustrations somewhere, and giving them to a blank page eases their weight.
- Talk to loved ones. I know we like to gripe about technology, but Facetime is a godsend. It allows you to stay in touch with someone without sharing germs, and keeping up a conversation keeps you too busy to spiral deeper into depression.
- Get obsessed with some form of media. Animal Crossing: New Horizons couldn’t be coming out at a better time. If you have a daunting TBR (to-be-read) stack, crack it open. Fall back in love with your favorite TV show. If you’re going to be stuck inside, it’s better to think about Schitt’s Creek than the panic going on around—or inside—you.
- Create art. Who cares if it’s bad. It’ll keep your mind busy, and now is a prime opportunity to try out that hobby you’ve been considering since like, 9th grade.
- Commit acts of kindness. If the world is anything like me, it needs reminders that humans are not inherently selfish and prone to madness. Plus, many organizations need more help right now than they usually do. Donate to a cause near and dear to your heart, if you can. Complete training to become a suicide hotline volunteer and do shifts from home. Write letters to your elected officials about things that matter to your community. Order flowers to be delivered to a loved one’s home. Give a few of the 25 bottles of hand sanitizer in your shopping cart to the frazzled mom next to you at Target. What would help you right now? Do that for someone else.
I am not going to tell you that this will be over soon, or that in the end this’ll all be a story we laugh at—real lives and livelihoods are at risk. But you cannot pour out of an empty cup, stress weakens the immune system, and most of all, you deserve to feel okay. You might not feel great, but I hope you feel okay.