8 Strategies for Self-Care and Emotional Well-being

My husband’s employer just announced mandatory telework for three more months, through the end of June. They’re following the science, they say, and the science tells them it won’t be safe to gather until at least then.

Three. More. Months.

I know I’m extraordinarily fortunate. I’m so grateful that my family is safe and healthy, and that my husband and I have steady employment. We’re not on the frontlines like nurses and doctors and police officers and grocery store workers, to whom I’m so very grateful. But still, I’ve only been getting through these last few weeks one day at a time — What work deadlines do I have today? Whose turn is it to attempt to homeschool? How many toilet paper rolls are left? Did everyone shower? — then going to bed and starting over again.

Three more months of this seems overwhelming. And even three months is an optimistic timeline. Historians measure the “1918” influenza pandemic in years not weeks, with outbreaks that flared up again and again. The horizon of home isolation seems long and unsustainable.

An article in the Harvard Business Review says the discomfort we’re all feeling is grief.

“We’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has…The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” — David Kessler, Founder of Grief.com

I recognize these emotions. It’s how I felt during my mother’s time in hospice, where I bounced between trying to cope and feeling overwhelmed, often several times a day. I felt sad, angry, fearful, and anxious, both before and after her death. But the COVID pandemic is on a scale and timeline I struggle to comprehend. The CDC estimates we should brace ourselves for a world where millions will become infected and many thousands will die, including people we love. There’s no magic ending where everyone will be okay. It seems completely overwhelming.

How to cope?

Looking back to the time during my mother’s illness, I realize there are things I did that helped me build emotional resiliency and withstand the ongoing stress and trauma. Many are basics of self-care, while others are mindshifts that allowed me to not become paralyzed by fear.

I’ve been thinking back to that time and how I coped. Here’s what worked for me:

1. Take positive steps within my control. I did everything I could to manage my mom’s home hospice care to make her more comfortable and give me a sense of control. During the COVID pandemic, I’m implementing practical advice from public health experts: stay home as much as possible, practice physical distancing, and wash hands thoroughly. It gives me comfort knowing I am doing everything I can to prevent my family from getting sick and “flatten the curve” of the virus’s spread, keeping others healthy. We also check in on neighbors and friends, and are donating to community food drives. These are all simple steps within my control that help me feel less powerless.

2. Allow myself to experience grief and sadness in real time. The American Psychological Association says managing stress in real-time leads to better mental health outcomes. But I’m a put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of person; my default setting is to stay pragmatic and positive, which for me often means I suppress sadness and ignore stress. I remember talking to a counselor during my mom’s illness, fighting back tears at one point when trying to explain how I was feeling, when he told me, “What would happen if you just allowed yourself to cry? This sucks and will continue to suck. You’re going to have to be okay with being sad.” The COVID crisis feels similar. I’m practicing my ability to experience grief in real time so I can acknowledge my feelings and then move on. It’s an imperfect journey.

3. Establish routines to create normalcy. Every morning at 9:30 I think of my mom, because that’s when I used to call her during her home hospice care. After she died, my dad came to our house most Sunday evenings for dinner. These routines reassured them and me while my parents were alive, and I now find comfort in thinking about them at those times. Today, our family is taming the chaos of our upended lives by establishing a stay-at-home schedule with consistent work times and break times and new routines. We’ve even instituted a daily tea break at 3pm, when we drop what we’re doing and connect. Routines are second nature for some families, but not for us. It’s been super helpful.

4. Find big and small ways to experience joy. Cornell University Professor Karl Pillemer’s research with elderly Americans found that experiencing small daily pleasures was one of their most valuable coping mechanisms during crisis times, like the prior influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II and beyond. What brings you joy? Can you still carve out time for that in your life, even in this moment of crisis? Every morning my daughter and I go for an hour-long walk, something that felt like a luxury before but now feels essential to our daily mental health. My husband is an avid reader and continues to find escape in books. My spirits are also lifted daily by many artists performing on Twitter and Instagram (Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andrew Lloyd Weber in a Twitter face off? Bring it on).

5. Give yourself permission to fall apart at times. I see many people on social media right now who seem to be more together than I am. Are there really that many people who seamlessly transitioned to homeschooling or who have the mental capacity to learn a new language or write a book right now? Not me. This is a scary time and I’m giving myself permission to not feel especially creative or to be my most productive. When my mom was dying there were many days I could barely shower. It’s okay to have some of those days.

“Do you feel pressure to ‘make the most’ out of lockdown? Let it go… If you’re feeling like all of this is too much, it’s because it is.” — Dr. Susan Biali Haas in Psychology Today

6. Recognize people are all stressed and doing their best. One of my friends has a brother whose entire family has been infected with COVID. A neighbor’s restaurant has been shut down. Another neighbor is an ER nurse who is experiencing the daily trauma of caring for sick patients. Many of us are carrying stress and worries with us unrelated to the current pandemic. When I get frustrated — for example, that I don’t have all the information I’d like from my daughter’s school system about their distance learning plans — it’s helpful for me to remember that leaders within her school district are being asked to shift and respond during extraordinary times, while balancing their own worries.

7. The corollary: some people are jerks. Avoid them. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all pulled together during times of trauma and stress? I kept waiting for everyone to step up and be their best selves when my mother was dying. It didn’t happen. And it’s not happening now — just look at President Trump. As women, we are often socialized to believe it’s our job to hold families together. But I made choices during my mother’s illness about who to be around and who to avoid, keeping my distance from truly toxic family members (and full disclosure: I’m still practicing “social distancing” from a couple of these folks). I’ve given myself permission to prioritize my mental health over toxic people. It’s liberating.

8. Recognize that this will end. When I was my daughter’s age, my father was stuck in Iran and couldn’t return home for many months. It was 1980, just after the Iranian revolution, American diplomats had been taken hostage, and the country was on lockdown. I was worried I would never see my father again. It’s hard to believe that was 40 years ago. My daughter will one day look back on the time of COVID like I do about the Iranian revolution; the present crisis will be a memory. Thinking about the long view gives me comfort and, it turns out, that’s true for many others who have lived through crises.

Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive. I haven’t included some critical basics of self-care that are commonly shared (eg, try to get as much sleep as you can, get exercise, and eat as best as you can). And study after study show that maintaining social connections are key to good mental health, a reason why we should be focused on physical distancing and not social distancing (I’m looking at you, Facetime, Zoom, and Google Hangout).

But these eight coping strategies are what are working for me during this time of anxiety and uncertainty.

How have you been coping with your grief and anxiety during this pandemic?

Ketayoun — a Tehrani-Buckeye — believes black eyeliner is an essential life companion. And you should always do the most good you can.

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