How to stay happy(ish) during COVID-19

With disruptions to work and school, social distancing rules, and conflicting advice on all sides, many of us are feeling confused, anxious, and overwhelmed. But living with a happiness expert means I have a pile of science-backed tactics to help you navigate these strange and difficult times. Here’s our best-of list of tips (BONUS: they apply to any difficult time!):

First, take care of your physical health. Being exhausted and rundown makes you more susceptible to illness and less able to fight off infection. And these physical health tips also have scientifically-proven benefits for your mental health, to help you endure (or even thrive) these wild times. So take care of the basics:

  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Set a bedtime and stick to it. Turn off screens 30 minutes before you go to bed. Remove your phone from the room.
  • Get exercise. Many gyms and exercise classes are closed so you may have to create a new routine. Go on long walks or runs and explore trails, parks, beaches or mountains. If you’re stuck inside, try free online yoga classes or the seven-minute workout (particularly easy and fun to do with kids).
  • Eat healthily. Sitting around at home turns many of us into snack monsters. Take advantage of extra time at home to cook healthy meals (bonus points for making extra and sharing with an isolated friend or neighbor). Cooking is also great for kids if you’re looking for ways to fill the (endless!) hours out of school. Have them plan meals. Teach them basic cutting, chopping, boiling, and frying techniques.

Sometimes, life gets in the way of these healthy habits. When that happens, don’t catastrophize (“I’ll never sleep again!”). Acknowledge the situation, let it go, and get back to your habit as soon as possible.

Taking care of your mental health is just as important. Here are some things to think about:

  • Stay connected to other people. We humans have a deep need for social connection (yes, even those introverts who are quietly celebrating that they have an excuse to stay home for the next three weeks!). Everyone should avoid crowded places, but that doesn’t mean you need to cut yourself off from all people. If you are not in a high-risk group and comfortable with it, have a (healthy) friend over for dinner. Join a few (symptom-free) friends for a walk in nature. Invite your neighbor for a cup of coffee or “quarantini” on the opposite side of your front stoop. Have a long Facetime or Skype chat with someone who is isolated.
  • Reframe the situation. Try to see this time as a gift. Many of us regularly say, “I wish I had more time to _____.” Maybe now is your chance. Having a sense of purpose is a core tenet of happiness; set aside time each day to feel like you accomplished something. With extra time at home, tackle projects you never get to; my teens will be using part of their “bonus vacation” to repaint our living room, weed and prune the backyard, and shovel out their closets. Learn to knit or speak another language. Take up an instrument or new hobby. Read the books or watch the movies on your “someday” list. Hopefully, we’ll never have a chance like this again, so see if you can enjoy (parts of) it.
  • Establish a routine. Most of us dream of vacation days with no schedules, but schedules are actually good for mental health (particularly for kids and teens). Give yourself a few days to loll around but then establish a routine. Stick to a bedtime and wake time. Eat at normal times. Exercise, shower and get out of your pajamas every day, even if you aren’t leaving the house.
  • Help others. Most of us think of good deeds as a benefit for the receiver, but research proves that the giver benefits just as much. Doing something nice for someone else gives us a happiness burst that can re-energize and re-direct our minds, even when we feel overwhelmed or hopeless. Set a goal to do one nice thing for someone else each day. Some ideas: babysit for a few hours to give exhausted parents a break, deliver a meal or two to someone self-quarantined, offer to pick things up for neighbors if you go to the store, schedule a call or Skype with an older relative or friend, text or call someone you suspect is struggling.
  • Limit your media consumption. It’s anxiety-producing out there with experts providing conflicting advice, graphs and tables of infection rates, and friends posting apocalyptic statements. All of this drama triggers your amygdala, the “lizard” part of your brain focused on survival. Staying in a constant state of fight-flight-or-freeze is deeply unhealthy. Although the 24-hour news cycle would like us to believe otherwise, you really only need to check the news once a day to know what’s going on. Pick a time you will check on the outside world and then spend the rest of your day on activities that help you stay healthy.
  • Be okay with feeling scared, sad or anxious. Most of us don’t like feeling negative emotions, so we work to escape those emotions immediately, often through unhealthy methods like eating, shopping, drugs or alcohol, or not-always-healthy methods like binge-watching Netflix. Know that feeling frightened, overwhelmed or anxious is a healthy, normal reaction in times like these. When you get a wave of these emotions, let it in. Start by simply acknowledging, “I’m feeling ____ right now.” Be mindful for a few minutes where you feel it in your body. Giving the emotion some space to grow or change can help you get more comfortable with it and allows you to decide whether or how to respond in a healthy way. Mindfulness, meditation and prayer practices have all been shown to help manage the negative emotions that are a natural part of being human; and now we all have time to learn and practice them (hooray?).
  • Get help when you need it. If you are stuck in a negative thought cycle or experiencing significant mental distress, get help. Reach out to a friend or find a professional. Your health insurance (if you have it) likely covers mental health  and many employers also offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that can provide short-term counseling and help find a longer-term solution.

The uncertainty of how long these social distancing and quarantine rules will last – as well as anxiety about their long-term effects on our lives personally, nationally and internationally – can make this time seem overwhelming. But investing in your physical and mental health improves our chances of coming out the other end happy and healthy. And maybe with a re-painted living room and a new hobby.

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