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 psychologytoday.com 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.

New Year, Same You: Tips on Being You with Better Habits

A new year (or even better, new decade) promises a fresh start, a blank page, and a chance to do things better this time around the sun. From a mindfulness perspective. January 1st could be considered just another day. While I can get on board with that idea in some aspects, I personally am gung-ho about joining in on the collective goal-setting energy that exists this time of year. I love the idea that other people are sitting home with their journal right now and sipping their coffee while they, too, reflect on their hopes for the coming year.

It can be both exciting and overwhelming when you sit down to set your intentions for the new year.

As you scroll through Pinterest and self-help blogs, you might end up feeling like you have to overhaul your entire life. What started out as hopeful intention-setting can quickly deflate into self-doubt, comparison, and maybe even “why bother.”

You know you have a desire to do things differently this year. Maybe you want to be healthier, or kinder, or find a job that makes you happier. You have an idea about the direction you want to go, but how to take the first step to get there feels really daunting.

“Do I have to start over completely? Do I have to change who I am to get the things I want this year? What if I’m doing it all wrong?”

It’s a tall order to examine every aspect of your life and make long-term goals. When we make lofty goals, like “get healthy” or “get the dream job,” we can start to trend toward “all or nothing” or “black and white” thinking, which generally isn’t very helpful. It sets us up to feel like we have failed when we don’t achieve what we set out to do. More often than not, we really haven’t failed; we just need to take a step back and start with simple steps first.

The solution to these problems can be summed up in a few simple words: New Year, Same You, Better Habits.

YOU have gotten yourself through 100% of your bad days up until this point. You have learned from experience and heartbreak. You have cried (hard), and also probably laughed a lot. You’ve celebrated amazing victories and grieved losses. You’ve made mistakes but have also learned immensely from those mistakes. You’ve taken risks and given life your all. You’ve done your best with what you have in every moment.

You need the “same you” to continue to be the backbone of the hard work you are doing to grow and evolve, day after day, year after year.

So now that we are clear on the fact that you don’t need to be an entirely “new you” this year, you might be thinking, “okay, but if I’m the ‘same me,’ how will I do things differently this year? How will I progress?”

Fair question, and it’s a simple answer. It starts with your daily habits.

Writer Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Whoa. How true is that though?! It’s not about the workout you’ll do tomorrow, or the book you’ll read next month, or the phone call you’ll make to someone you love when there’s “enough time.” It’s about what you’re doing now- like, right this moment.

Look around you- what’s in your environment? Are the things and people around you supporting the life you want to live? What’s your plan for tonight? Is it to do something that nourishes you, relaxes you and makes you feel connected and alive?

Again: How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

If your goal this year is to “be healthier,” think about how you can take small steps every single hour of the day to be healthier. A bit more water to drink, a piece of fruit in between meetings, stretching after getting out of the car at the end of the day, a larger portion of veggies at dinner, or going to bed 15 minutes earlier.

If your goal is to “be kinder,” think about how many opportunities you have to be kind during the day: smiling and chatting with the barista at your coffee spot instead of scrolling through your phone and ignoring them, giving your coworker a compliment, writing thank you cards, or taking out the garbage when you get home to help lighten your significant other’s load (even though you really just want to lay down).

In summary:

Start small- AND continue with small.

Small steps end up achieving big goals.

Allow small steps in the right direction, to be the direction.

I’ve spent a lot of 2019 doing research on how to develop (and stick to) good habits that support the lives we desire- and I can’t wait to share it with you! Stay tuned for another post coming soon with some great resources to build better habits, which include books, apps, and tips about your morning routine.

Happy New Year!

You’ve raided Bed Bath and Beyond, the car is packed up, and you’re ready to take the first step toward your future and adult life. Going away to college can bring on a mix of emotions. It can be one of the most exciting times as you step into a world full of adventure, freedom, new experiences, and self-discovery- and it can also be extremely stressful and make you feel like your world has turned upside down.

You are now living in a tiny room with someone you don’t know very well. That’s on top of figuring out how to navigate your class schedule; meeting new friends; figuring out where and when and what to eat; oh yeah, and fighting back tears 24/7. There’s a lot of intense stuff happening as a college freshman, and it can leaving you feeling totally overwhelmed.

What you’re feeling is not only TOTALLY normal, but it will get better- and there are some things you can do for yourself during your first few weeks to help you feel more calm, in control, and confident.

  1. Take control of your routine. Get a planner and chart out your weekly schedule, including the following: class schedule, work schedule, wake up times, and lunch times. It also might be helpful to scan your emails and write down any events going on on campus the first week that you would like to attend. To make things more fun, use gel pens, bright colored highlighters, or even chose an inspirational quote or two to write along the edges. Make two copies: one to hang up in your dorm, and one to keep with you in a planner or notebook.
  2. Explore the resources you have available to you on campus. What’s awesome about a college campus is that there is always someone available to help you with whatever you need. It’s a good idea to make a list of all of these key people, including where to find them, their emails, and phone numbers. That way if you’re in a bind, you can easily access them. Everyone knows that it’s hard being a freshman, and they are totally familiar with students in tears showing up to their door. They are here to help you and will honestly make your life a lot easier if you reach out to them. Here a few people you should include on your list: your adviser, the health center, the counseling center, and financial aid.
  3. Keep your door open. One of the best ways to meet people is in your dorm. Don’t be shy about stopping in other people’s rooms on your floor and leave your door open too so that people can pop in. Chances are, everyone on your floor is also feeling stressed out and scared, and one of the best ways to work through this is to make connections and figure things out together. Say yes to the movie nights, homework dates at the library, and getting lunch. Remember that everyone feels the same way that you do, and that you’re in it together.
  4. Let yourself feel your feels, and write about it. Journaling is a good way to center yourself and let emotions drain off. Traditional pen to paper has some evidence that supports the physical act of writing as being cathartic. If you’re more into using your phone for this, there is a really cool app called Sanvello that allows you to chart your mood every day, journal, do guided meditations, read inspirational quotes, and practice gratitude. This can be a great way to tune into your feelings rather than pushing them down.
  5. Take care of your body. It can be easy to lose sight of simple things when you’re stressed and trying to stay afloat. Getting in the habit of eating three healthy meals a day and hydrating can put your body and mind in a better position to handle stress. Get a big water bottle that you bring to class with you and refill a few times a day. Don’t skip breakfast- even just eating a bowl of oatmeal or banana can set your day off on the right foot. There might be a lot that feels like it’s out of your control right now, but you can control taking care of yourself.
  6. Get familiar with the fitness center. Exercise is a great way to combat stress. It releases endorphins, reduces stress hormones, and clears your mind. Even just going for a walk on the tread mill for 30 minutes a few times per week can be a great gift to yourself. Or, if you prefer, grab your headphones and throw on your sneakers as you take a big loop around campus and blast your favorite music while you do it.
  7. Establish a nighttime ritual. Sleep can be really evasive when you are sleeping in a new place. Try to get in the habit of going to bed at the same time. One really helpful way to wind down is to listen to one of the increasingly popular “Sleep Stories” on the “Calm App.” You can choose from hundreds of stories that can help you drift off to sleep. You might also like to invest in a pair of earplugs and an eye mask if you dorm is particularly loud or bright.
  8. Talk to someone. Visit the college counseling center or research therapists in your area on Psychology Today. There are a lot of counselors who specialize in working with college students who are going through exactly what you are. Not having your parents with you is hard, and having the support of a therapist can be a huge relief. Even if you just need to go and have a good cry once a week, that’s what your therapist is there for- and it can make you feel a whole lot better. If you don’t have a car, many therapists also offer video sessions so you can chat with them in the comfort of your dorm.
  9. Remember how strong and resilient you really are. Make a list of other times you did something really hard that you didn’t think you could do. It could be another time that you went through a difficult experience in high school or within your family. Or it might be sports related, like that impossible goal you made. You’ve done hard things before, and you can do it again.
  10. Trust that it’s all going to be okay. It is NORMAL to be scared to death. Some days you might feel really excited, and other days you might just want to sob into your pillow. What you’re going through is a massive change, and it’s hard. Remember that this is to be expected- and the good news is, if you take care of yourself, make connections, and reach out for help, it will all get easier over time. You’ve got this!

If you do find yourself needing some extra support and someone to talk to, email me at barbshepard@cousnelingsecure.com to talk about setting up a therapy appointment (in person or video, if you’re in NYS).

Believe in yourself and all that you are. Know that there is something inside you that is greater than any obstacle.

Christian Larson