Strengthening Your Mental Health during the Global Pandemic

There are no known mental health experts in pandemics right now – because all of the people alive at this moment have never lived through one. In one sense, we are all grappling through this together and figuring it out one day at a time.

However, there are some genius experts in the field of trauma. A pandemic is categorized as a trauma, and there things that we can do proactively right now to maintain our mental health during this unprecedented time.

On Thursday, I attended a webcast put on by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of “The Body Keeps the Score” and one of the leading trauma experts in the world. This post is a summary of what I learned in this training, and 99% of these ideas are credited to Dr. van der Kolk. I hope this offers you a sense of validation about things you have been thinking about, while also providing you with practical tools that can help you to remain active, empowered, and hopeful.

Disclaimer: Doctors, nurses, others on the front lines, and people whose families or businesses have been directly touched by Coronovirus are experiencing something that far surpasses the what I’m writing about today. While these tips can still be helpful, I think it’s worth noting that there are varying levels of how this pandemic is impacting people. For the heroes who are out there on the front lines, your experience is going to be vastly different from those of us at home, playing the waiting game. There are supports available to you tailored to your unique experience, and I would recommend looking into EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy). You can search for therapists on that specialize in this- there are plenty out there.

Bessel explained that much of the world is in a pretraumatic state; that is, a state of “holding our breath.” We know what’s coming, we know social distancing and isolation is taking a toll on us, but we are in the eye of the storm right now and don’t know exactly what is on the other side. It’s actually quite unusual to have the complete cognitive awareness that you are in the midst of something that could traumatize you. This pandemic is a drawn-out process. While this is undoubtedly a disorienting experience, it’s also positive that we are afforded the ability to have this awareness and proactively do things to buffer the impact of this event on our mental health.

A friend of mine talked to me yesterday about anticipatory anxiety: “I’m okay right now, but will I be so obsessed with germs that it creates distance between me and other people when this is all over? Is this experience going to have long-term consequences such that we don’t want to shake hands with new colleagues or hug old friends anymore?” She has never had anxiety and this has never been a thought for her. The uncertainty and not knowing is a really uncomfortable place to be right now.

Not knowing exactly how this will fully impact us yet is hard to wrap our minds around. Especially when our day-to-day is usually planned with such meticulous attention to detail. Google calendar runs our lives, and the calendar has gone blank. We force our lives to be just so, and then in an event like this, we realize that much of the control we think we have is illusory.

Whew, so that’s a lot to digest.

But stay with me: here’s where hope comes in. There are things we can be doing every single day to maintain resilience, strength, connection, and health that will help us all to recover from this, mentally and physically, when this is all over. And it will eventually be over.

First, we must develop awareness of what is happening.

Then, we must put it into words.

Lastly, we make intentional choices.

Dr. van der Kolk identifies seven preconditions for trauma that we are experiencing right now. Below, you’ll see a brief summary of each condition, and then some specific tools that Bessel recommends to empower you and protect your emotional, physical, and social well-being.

Preconditions for trauma and action steps:

  1. Lack of predictability. Routine, order, and plans are very stabilizing to our psyche. For many of us, our routine has completely turned upside down.
    • Action steps you can control to make things more predictable:
      • Plan your day and plan your week. Print off a paper calendar you can decorate and hang up. Make dinner plans with your family or virtually with friends and family, plan a hike, plan your exercise times and virtual workout or yoga classes. Create schedules that include things you can look forward to, even if it’s just one week at a time.
  2. Immobility. Our stress hormones are up. Usually when this happens, our body prepares to fight or flight. Our movement is limited right now due to staying home and less ability to “do.” These means that the stress hormones need a place to go and we have to get creative about how we can do that.
    • Actions steps you can control to increase movement:
      • Cook meals, build things, run, walk, yoga, cleaning projects, yoga.
      • Dance parties!! Turn on your favorite music and just dance around, either alone or with your “quan-team.” There are plenty of virtual dance workouts that are streaming live so that you can feel connection to others while also moving around.
        • Online Yoga Resources: virtual classes through local studios to support local, Yoga with Adriene, Nike Training App (Alex Silver Fagan)
  3. Loss of connection. It is unnatural to be staying in your house or apartment for days and weeks on end. We exist in contexts of our relationships with other people. Trauma always involves a sense of not being seen and not being heard. This is why it is so important to make regular video contact with family, colleagues, classmates, friends and neighbors.
    • Actions steps you can control to increase connection:
      • Visual connections are recommended as opposed to just audio – using apps like Facetime or Zoom. On a biological level, comfort and safety is found in the rhythm of conversation and attunement through facial expressions.
      • Wave to your neighbor and make eye contact while you are out walking (even from 6+ feet apart!)
      • Tactile connections, like petting your animals
      • Family meals, games, dress up, story telling, music making (creating music and share it on social media!)
      • Meditate on peace and healing for the world
  4. Numbing out and spacing out. It is natural when overwhelmed by terrible to things to numb through TV, drugs, or alcohol.
    • Action steps you can control to reconnect to yourself:
      • The way to feel alive is via your body- Moving, breathing, dancing, singing to music.
      • Mindfulness and meditation help you to notice and observe what is going on, both in and outside of yourself. Without noticing, you are just reacting.
      • Once you can notice yourself, you have the ability to observe and make choices.
      • Friendships, relationships, and therapy can also help you find words for the internal experience when you are having trouble on your own.
        • Meditation and mindfulness resources: Insight Timer (Sarah Blondin’s meditations are great), Sanvello, Mindsight.
  5. Loss of sense of time. A core trauma state is a sense of timelessness and feeling like this will last forever. Our spring and summer plans are all up in the air, and when every day feels the same, this can be really disorienting.
    • Action steps you can control to reconnect to yourself:
      • Write a few lines in a journal each day. Write about five lines, including: what happened that day, something your grateful for, something that troubles you, or anything else on your mind.
      • We must live with a sense that every moment is different from the next. Light a candle, open the window and let a warm breeze come through. Notice how the wick burns down and light changes as it gets later in the day.
      • As you walk through your yard or walk down your street at dusk, notice flowers blooming.
      • When you meditate, notice uncomfortable sensations (ow my leg hurts) and thoughts (I’m bored). Then you notice thoughts shift to something else (the leg cramp went away) and (when I breathe deeply, I feel a little better).
      • Time may feel like it is standing still in the world with absence of plans, but we can create this sense of changing time in very small ways within our own homes and our internal being.
  6. Loss of safety. The pandemic is a threat of illness and safety. When we feel unsafe, it is hard to focus on anything else.
    • Action steps you can control to increase sense of safety:
      • Being connected to those in your household, and also having privacy and boundaries. Have a designated space where you can withdraw when you need alone time.
      • Pay attention to good news. People are recovering and getting better. Google acts of kindness.
      • Take good care of your health through basic things like getting enough rest, eating well, and hydrating.
  7. Loss of sense of purpose. Much of our lives are built around our work and career. Many of us spend more time at work than with our families. Now working from home, or perhaps not even working at all, many are are left with the question: “Who am I without the role of who I am in my workplace, among coworkers and colleagues?”
    • Action steps you can control to increase sense of purpose:
      • Think about how your role extends beyond your job. Parent, sister, brother, friend, spouse, creator, music maker, writer, etc.
      • Identify things you can get lost in, and do more of those things to feed your soul. Reading, music, writing, knitting, cooking, whatever it may be.
      • Can you use this time to uncover more about who you really are, what you want, where you’re going, where you need in the future?

In summary, I read a quote on Instagram yesterday that really resonated with me.

“We are all in the same boat, but we are not in the same storm.”

We are all in this together, but each of us is experiencing this pandemic to varying degrees. For some, working from home feels like a break. For others, the anxiety about the virus is crippling. Then there are the frontline heroes, it’s every waking moment of their day. There is no “right” or “wrong” experience, but it is important to reflect on how you honor your own experience while also honoring and respecting your neighbor, community, and the world.

“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”

Nelson Mandela

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