Mentally healthy despite Corona stress?
The current Corona crisis is a challenge for all of us. We are afraid – afraid of getting sick, of losing loved ones and of the uncertainty of the situation. We don’t know what will happen, how long it will take and how the crisis will develop. We might suffer from the lack of control we experience over this situation. The term Corona stress was used in previous days to describe the fear we experience related to the Corona crisis. If you already suffer from psychological symptoms, this crisis can be an extra challenge for you. However, the Corona crisis can also have positive consequences for your mental health. How you can deal with your Corona stress and how to optimally use the positive effects of the crisis will be discussed in the following.
Do you suffer from Corona stress?
The Corona crisis can trigger two kinds of fears in you. Concrete fear, for example the fear of a cough when you walk on the street, is fine and makes you pay more attention. This fear makes you stick to the governmental rules and keep your physical distance from others. However, there is also abstract fear of the future: “What will happen next?”. Realise that this fear of uncertainty is normal, but also realise that, by definition, there is nothing you can do about abstract things like the future.
Epictetus: “We must make the best of those things that are in our power, and take the rest as nature gives it.”
According to Stephen Covey’s circle of influence and control, there are things that we can control, things that we can influence but cannot control, and things that we can neither control nor influence and still worry about. Applied to the Corona virus, this means: We can influence the spread of the virus by following governmental advice and rules, keeping our distance from each other and staying at home as much as possible, but we cannot control the spread of the virus. We cannot influence or control the further development of the future development of the Corona crisis and what this will mean for us and our dear ones.
How can I handle things that are beyond my control?
Tip 1: Challenge negative thoughts and train alternative thoughts
According to cognitive behavioural therapy, emotions such as fear interact with our thoughts and behaviour. Consider the circle of situation, thoughts, feelings, and behaviour below. Now, suppose the situation is the emergence of the Corona virus with all its consequences. Your thoughts might be ‘What a disaster’, ‘The health system is going to crash’, or ‘My family members will get infected’. Take a moment to consider how you feel when you think these kinds of thoughts. And how would you behave in response to this feeling? Maybe you will check on the news more frequently, maybe you will not leave the house anymore and you will not get to do anything because you feel inhibited by your fear?
Now, imagine the same situation, but now with thoughts like ‘I can’t change the situation. The future is uncertain, so anything is possible’, ‘It is better for everyone if I focus on things that I can influence’. How do you feel when you think this way? Maybe still a little concerned, but probably a little less inhibited. How do you behave now? Perhaps, now you can think about how to optimally take care of yourself and your loved ones. How you can support each other during this difficult time? Maybe you can even get something out of it for yourself. Maybe you can use the time you gained productively to do thinks you have wanted to do for a long time, but never had the time to do them.
Thus, you see that the way you think about something can determine how you deal with the situation and how you feel. This is something that you can influence. Dare to challenge automatic negative thoughts and formulate an alternative thought that is credible and helpful to you. You can write this helping thought down and hang it at a place where you will read it often to remind yourself of the helping thought. Your brain is used to the automatic negative thought and must first get used to the new helping thought. This requires some training and re-reading.
Tip 2: (Mindfulness) meditation
You can train yourself to accept uncertainties by practicing mindfulness meditation. In this form of meditation, you practice to be present in the present moment and to focus on your body and your breathing, for example. You accept thoughts that distract you and let them pass by. For example, you can imagine that your thoughts are clouds and that you will look at them from a distance. They are allowed to be there, but you do not have to do anything with them now. In this way, you can learn to be in contact with your body and the present moment. If mindfulness meditation does not suit you, you can also try progressive muscle relaxation. This is no meditation technique, but a relaxation exercise and is experienced by more practical and hands-on than (mindfulness) meditation. In this exercise, you will contract several muscles one by one and relax them again. It can help you relax and may be a good transition to start meditating.
Progressive muscle relaxation:
Tip 3: Limit checking news to 1-2 times a day
A possible response to the Corona stress that you may experience is to overly check the news or scroll through social media for hours and read things about the Corona virus. Such a hyper focus on this topic does no good to your mental health. In addition to the information by official news programs such as NOS, de Volkskrant, and RIVM, a lot of single case-based information is distributed about Corona that is not representative or sometimes even incorrect. Keeping up-to-date of recent developments is important, but with moderation. Therefore, the advice is to check the news once or twice a day and only on official news websites. Protect yourself and your loved ones from the information overflow of social media.
Positive effects of the Corona crisis on your psyche?
Although we are sad that many events cannot go ahead and we are limited in our social life, it can also be a relief to empty our agendas. The ‘fear of missing out’ that is normally amplified by social media suddenly disappears completely, which may secretly be a huge relief for many. There are less things we ‘have to’ do from ourselves and we can focus on things that really matter, such as family and self-care, e.g. This crisis can also wake us up and make us realize how much we usually force ourselves to do in our daily lives – both professionally and privately. The current crisis shows that things can also be done differently. In patients with burnout, the first step in therapy is to completely clear their agendas, which is usually experienced as difficult. The Corona crisis shows that it is indeed possible to clear your agenda – something that we all (and not just burnout patients) can benefit from and hopefully maintain in our lives after the Corona crisis.
How can I make the most of the positive effects?
Tip 1: Maintain routines
Routines protect us. Stories of people who went into hiding during World War II show that even in the most extreme situations people try to live a normal life and maintain their routines. This is important and can protect us from falling into a passive behavioural pattern. Passivity and apathy are risk factors for the development of mental health problems such as depression. Thus, try to maintain a normal daily rhythm by getting up around the same time every day, having breakfast, lunch, dinner and going to bed at approximately the same time every day. Think about your need and take care of yourself as you would in normal life. Perhaps, now you even have more capacity to take care of yourself because you have more time. Then, this is the time to build healthy routines such as eating healthy, exercising and possibly meditating.
Tip 2: Virtual contact with friends and family
Normally, as social beings, we tend to seek contact and support from our dear ones in crisis situations like this one. This is currently only possible to a limited extent because of the governmental advice to limit social contacts to an essential minimum. However, this does not mean that we should completely isolate ourselves from our friends and relatives. Virtually keep in touch with your friends and family members. This can be done via (video) calling, for example. Ask them how they are and try to discuss other topics than Corona with them. Especially people who belong to risk groups and are isolated from all real life social contacts will appreciate it when you contact them. For example, tell them about how you keep yourself busy at home. That way you can feel connected to others and help each other through this difficult time.
Programs that you can use for this: Skype, whatsapp, Zoom
Tip 3: Physical exercise and fresh air
If you suffer from worries and concerns, it can be good to get out of your head and into your body. You can achieve this by physical exercise. For example, you can do a body workout on YouTube for half an hour every day or take a walk outside. Fresh air and the sun are very good for your (mental) health. If you cannot go outside try to sit by the window to replenish your vitamin D supply and open the windows for fresh air. It can also make sense to build up routines for this. Walking at a set time every day or doing a workout on Youtube in the morning after getting up can protect you from becoming passive. This is also referred to as behavioural activation in cognitive behavioural therapy.
Tip 4: Use time productively
Finally, you can think about how you can use the time gained due to the Corona crisis productively. We humans like to have a mission or a project. We like to feel useful and do something meaningful. Are there things that you have been wanting to do but you have not been able to do them in recent times due to the business of daily life? Can you do these things at home now? Think, for example, of learning an instrument, a new language, meditation, painting, books that you have wanted to read, or redesigning your living room. There can be many ‘projects’ that feel meaningful and can give you satisfaction. Who knows, you might get out of this crisis as a rock star or as a fluent French speaker.