‘Be Gentle’: How to Stay Healthy Emotionally During Social Isolation
“A moment like this, a pandemic moment, is a trauma moment,” says Teresa Mateus a trauma specialist and co-founder of
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“A moment like this, a pandemic moment, is a trauma moment,” says Teresa Mateus a trauma specialist and co-founder of Trauma Response & Crisis Care for Movements, which offers training, online support groups, and one-on-one peer- support sessions that are geared to activists but open to everyone. Mateus says that during a crisis like this, it’s normal to feel sadness, anger, and grief, and those emotions make us feel vulnerable.
During the pandemic, nonprofit workers have been particularly hard hit. On top of dealing with the virus on a personal level, fundraisers are grappling with canceled events and uncertainties about how to communicate with donors. Leaders are dealing with layoffs, curtailed programs, declining revenue, and increased demand for assistance. They’re having to reimagine in- person services and events as virtual offerings, and many are losing out on government loans.
“It’s not some kind of lack of capacity, of not being strong enough, that’s creating this sort of fragility that we’re all having right now,” Mateus says. “It’s a function of our stress response to a traumatic experience, which is being felt individually as well as collectively.”
We are entering a period of “complicated grief” that we don’t quite know how to manage, she says. Some people have experienced death in their families without any of the grieving rituals that help people cope with loss.
But even those who are not mourning a loved one have a communal sense of grief that Mateus calls “secondary grief.” It is similar to emotions people experience when a loved one is suffering, and it’s important to acknowledge the grief and permit yourself to feel it, she says.
Nonprofit employees at organizations that have undergone layoffs and furloughs who still have their jobs may feel a sense of survivor guilt, says Mateus, and that can create a sense of excessive responsibility, a feeling that we must do more.
“There’s been a lot of talk about productivity in this moment, feeling like you have to give more, you have to do more, the moment requires more,” she says. But that doesn’t allow much room for us to take care of ourselves, she cautions.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline1-800-273-8255available 24/7
Crisis Counseling from CrisisTextline.orgText HOME to 741741available 24/7
Tracc4Movements: Covid-19 Care Resource
National Association of Social Workers:Self-Care During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration Helpline
The key to getting through this tough time is to be “gentle and generous” with yourself. Here are some ways to do that.
Pay attention to your breathing; it’s a regulatory system for our bodies. Often when people are in distress, they either forget to breathe enough or they hyperventilate, Mateus says. Something as simple as slowing down your breathing can signal your mind and emotions to slow down, too. Try the three-part breath used in yoga, which involves the belly, the ribs and lungs, and the chest. This simple exercise involves “fully expansive breaths that we feel through the whole center of our bodies,” she says, to “decompress the stress that is building in our bodies on any given day.”
Find an activity that helps you slow down physically. “Whether it’s listening to music that you enjoy, taking time to read a book that you’ve been working your way through, whether it’s writing in a journal and reflecting on what you’re feeling and experiencing, or walking your pet if you have one,” Mateus says. The idea is to find something that helps you disconnect from the urgency of the moment.
Create pockets of calm and build rhythms into your day. Mateus suggests stopping to pay attention to the lunch you are eating or taking a break for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. Try not to succumb to the push to be productive all the time, she advises. Commit to a schedule, and close your laptop at a set time each day, for example.
“When you’re working from home, it can be very tempting to not set healthy work boundaries, but it’s really important that people set up a schedule for the day,” says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. “Set up your schedule in a way that everyone in your home is clear on what’s happening when,” she says. Schedule breaks and designate blocks of “no screen time” to ensure you get a break from the news and social media.
The Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective created a daily planner (available on philanthropy.com) that can help you build structure and self-care into your workday. It was designed to help remote employees avoid overworking.
For more tips on working from home, consult the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s guide “Working Remotely During Covid-19: Your Mental Health & Well-Being.”
Connect regularly with people who are important to you. Most people have maybe four or five intimate friends, people who could really rescue them in a time of crisis, says Peter Yellowlees, a practicing psychiatrist and chief wellness officer at University of California–Davis Health. “My message to people is actually reach out to them more than normal.” For example, he and his siblings are connecting by video during this period of isolation. “We’re having a weekly family call because we are spread around the world. So that’s a good thing that’s going to come out of this [isolation]. We will actually be closer.”
Focus on one or two tasks you want to do well each day. There are so many external factors we can’t control these days and hundreds of things we may feel compelled to do, Mateus says. To avoid being overwhelmed by all the tasks that need attention and feeling a lack of control, identify one or two goals each day and focus on them.
For example, Mateus says, in her role as a nonprofit leader, when the Covid-19 crisis hit, she felt tempted to create new online programming for her community, such as meditation sessions, but she soon realized that other groups already have that covered. So she focused on long-term goals instead.
Ask yourself what your nonprofit does well that will support the community in the long term, and focus on strengthening that program or activity, she says.
When to Get Help
It’s important to know what reactions are normal at a time like this and when you should seek professional help.
Anxiety is a normal response, says Yellowlees, but you shouldn’t spend all day worrying.
“It’s important to take care of your health and mental health on a day-to-day basis so that it doesn’t reach excessive levels, so that you can keep your stress under control,” says Gruttadaro. Many people experience interrupted sleep, and that is to be expected, says Yellowlees. People experience deep sleep only when they feel safe. But if you can’t sleep at all, if nightmares overwhelm you, or if you wake up with panic attacks, you may need more support, he advises.
The stress of a pandemic can also lead to agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder in which people avoid places and situations that frighten them. “They don’t want to go and walk the dog or get out and smell the daisies — all of which are good things to do,” Yellowlees says. People also may experience changes in appetite, concentration, or mood, he says. “They’re signs that you should seek professional help.”
“We need to address the things we have control over,” says Gruttadaro. “You have control over getting help for yourself.”
Gruttadaro suggests tapping into employee-assistance programs if your organization has one. “Now may be the time when you want to work with a counselor or a therapist to help you get through this difficult time,” she says. If you seek medical attention, though, consult your primary-care doctor first, she and Yellowlees advise.
People who have existing mental-health conditions like anxiety, depression, or substance use should keep following their treatment plans, Gruttadaro says. “You should check in with your mental-health provider if you notice that your symptoms are becoming more significant.”
Mateus offers an additional caution: If you have previous experiences of trauma, grief, or loss, traumatic feelings may resurface. “Moments of intensive stress in crisis can bring up past pains that we often think that we’ve worked through,” she says. “And we don’t expect it.
“For example, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the number of people calling sexual-assault hotlines spiked, Mateus says. “One would think that those two crises have nothing to do with each other,” she said, “but it was just a fact of people being in a collective place of stress that brought up past pain.”
Pay attention to your emotions, past memories of trauma or grief, and seek support for unresolved issues from the past.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, or text HOME to 741741 for free crisis counseling from Crisis Text Line. Both are available 24 hours a day.
One bright spot for people who need support right now: Almost all mental-health providers are offering therapy virtually. Yellowlees, who has been practicing telepsychiatry for 25 years, says that with the onset of social distancing, most doctors and therapists began offering video appointments — many for the first time.
Video therapy can be surprisingly intimate and more egalitarian, he says, likening it to when doctors made house calls. One benefit is that the patient is in comfortable and familiar surroundings, which puts the doctor and the patient on a more even playing field.
“I often encourage people to use their phones or iPads rather than a computer,” he says, “because then they can pick them up and show me around the house; they can show me the garden.”
Free and low-cost resources are more accessible now, too, because many providers are charging people according to their ability to pay during the crisis.
Many support sessions for people battling addiction have gone virtual. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous is offering meetings online now, which it hadn’t done before the pandemic, according to Mateus.
“There are a whole lot of very nice tools that you can literally put your earbuds in and have a therapist in your pocket,” says Yellowlees. For example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers a free app called Covid Coach that provides information to help people cope during the pandemic and has tools for self-care and to encourage emotional well-being.
He also recommends the VA’s CBT-I Coach, an app that addresses insomnia through cognitive behavioral therapy, an approach that helps change people’s negative patterns of thinking to improve their health. The apps, however, are not meant to replace professional care related to Covid-19 or mental-health conditions for people who have insomnia.
Unfortunately, we’re in this for the long haul, Mateus says. Public life and our emotional response to the pandemic aren’t going back to normal anytime soon.
“We’re going to need to be gentle with ourselves for a while,” she says. “There are parts of this that will linger beyond any kind of designated end point for the virus itself.”