The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic is a big, potentially scary situation. If you’re feeling stressed—or tired, sad, angry, confused, overwhelmed or a weird mix of all the above—you’re not alone.
While the situation that we face now is unique, the ways we can care for ourselves and our communities are not. As a social worker at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, I spend a lot of time helping young people rebuild a sense of safety after big, stressful, traumatic events.
In his webinar Steering Ourselves and our Clients Through New and Developing Traumas, Bessel van der Kolk, MD outlines some of the ways we are most affected by traumatic situations like the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve used some of these ideas to outline 4 main things that can help us manage stress and other intense emotions in this particularly chaotic time. Below, I break those down with tips for how to build each into your life in these (choose one: challenging / stressful / uncertain / heartbreaking / absolutely WILD) times.
People are experiencing stress on many different levels right now. That might include:
- Worry about the health of loved ones, or your own health.
- The loss of loved ones.
- Stress about finances, food and job security.
- Stress from working on the front lines as a health care provider, grocery store clerk, food delivery person or other essential positions.
- Physical isolation from friends, co-workers, classmates, family, partners and more.
- Loss of routine.
- The uncertainty of the future.
- Figuring out how to live your life with new limitations. (How do you safely go grocery shopping, or get your medicine?)
- Grief over the loss of the life you were living, or specific events like graduations, weddings, birthday parties, prom and more.
- Added stress to relationships.
- Complications with mental health conditions.
How to Create Structure | Tips for Staying Connected | How to Stay Mindful & Engaged | Using Skills | More Tips | Staying Safe
As Dr. van der Kolk discusses, the loss of predictability can have a major impact on how we react to trauma. However, we can rebuild predictability and structure by creating routine. Try to...
- Sleep. Go to sleep and wake up at around the same time every day. Here’s how.
- Eat at regular intervals, whether it’s three full meals each day or multiple smaller meals.
- Organize your space. If you can, try not to sleep, eat and work/study in the same place. At the very least, leave your bed to eat your meals.
- Make a schedule for yourself and follow it.
Think about what’s in your control and what’s out of your control.
- Concentrate on what’s in your control: what and when you eat, when you sleep and wake up, what you wear, etc.
- Be purposeful and intentional with your decisions, instead of just falling into them. Think to yourself, “I am choosing to get dressed now.”
- With COVID-19, it may feel like more than usual is out of your control. But you can still control the actions you take to stay safe, like washing your hands, staying home as much as possible, and keeping 6 feet away from other people if you have to leave the house.
Having structure in your life doesn’t mean that you can’t be flexible. It’s not the end of the world if you stay in your PJs all day. Instead, think about these decisions as an opportunity to check in with yourself. How do you feel when you wear pajamas all day? How do you feel when you dress for school or work instead?
Dr. van der Kolk emphasizes that feeling connected to others is fundamental to our well-being. When you’ve been through an overwhelming situation, you may feel like you can’t connect with the people around you. And now, social distancing and quarantine measures are currently making this even more challenging than normal. But feeling connected to others can have a major impact on our sense of well-being and how we handle stressful situations.
Thankfully, there are still many ways to stay connected with people who aren’t members of your household and who you’re (hopefully!) social distancing from:
- Use video to see friends and family. Let’s start with the most basic: Use FaceTime, Google Hangouts or other video technologies to speak face to face. Body language and facial expressions are important ways we relate with others, so being able to see each other can help you feel more connected.
- Not everyone’s internet connection is good enough for video chats. That’s ok! Talk on the phone or text message instead.
- Sharing is caring. Share your life with each other. Share photos of your outfits or makeup. Do your nails together. Bake or cook together or share photos of your food. Send each other photos of the view outside your window. As much as you can, share regular life things.
- Don’t JUST talk about coronavirus. Play games, be silly, and have fun! Try a question game (like these from Teen Vogue) or look for games you can play online (like these 8 online games from Elite Daily).
- When you’re talking with someone, do something at the same time to help you feel like you’re together. For example, you could both light a candle, or hold a pillow while you talk. If you both have cats, you could both pet your cat.
- Watch TV or a movie together using Netflix Party. Or just chat or FaceTime while you’re both watching the same thing.
- Intentionally connect with people who listen to you and make you feel calm, supported and good about yourself.
- Think about your relationship and communication habits. Are you being a good friend and/or partner, and treating the people in your life with respect?
What if you don’t have many people you’re close with to reach out to?
- Connection can also come from shared interests or activities. Find activities that you’re interested in and explore those activities!
- For example, if you love a band, see if they’re doing any live shows on social media. If you play basketball, learn more about your favorite teams, or the sport’s history.
Connecting with people in your household:
- Talk about boundaries. You’re spending a lot of time together, and it’s normal to feel tense or get on each other’s nerves. Find a way to communicate when you need some time alone. It’s ok to say, “Hey, I need some space right now.”
- Be intentional about your time together. Being in the same space physically isn’t the same as connecting with someone.
- Do things that are fun! Play games, watch a movie, or do something else you both enjoy.
- Think about your own relationship and communication habits. Are you being a good roommate/partner/family member to the people you’re living with? Are they being good roommates/partners/family members to you?
When you’ve experienced trauma (or are feeling anxious, stressed or another negative emotion), it’s common to disconnect and try to numb yourself. This could be something like watching TV or drinking or using drugs.
In small doses, disconnecting isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
For example, if you’re on the verge of a panic attack but a TV show distracts you enough to calm down, that’s great! But if we’re constantly disconnecting from ourselves, it can eventually become debilitating. Disconnecting can also lead to other unhealthy or dangerous habits, like drinking too much or using drugs.
Dr. van der Kolk points out that it’s important to balance distraction with mindfulness and engagement. Engagement includes being mindful, moving your body and intentionally connecting with yourself. It can help you focus on the present moment (instead of the uncertain future) and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.
Here are some ways to engage:
- Practice mindfulness. As you go about your day, occasionally check in with yourself. How does your body feel? What are you hearing, smelling, feeling and seeing? What does breathing in and out feel like? You can do this while you’re in the shower, brushing your teeth, cooking dinner, or doing anything else. Certain activities can also make mindfulness easier. For example, coloring, doing a puzzle or painting your nails all encourage you to stay in the moment.
- Meditate. One common way to meditate is to concentrate on your breathing. Breathe slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth, thinking “in” as you breathe in and “out” as you breathe out.
- Belly breathing. Place one hand on your stomach and another on your chest. As you breathe in, try to “fill up” your belly with air and push that hand out, while the hand on your chest stays still. This type of breathing is a great way to help calm anxiety.
- There isn’t just one way to meditate. There are a lot of free meditation apps and exercises out there. HeadSpace and Balance are currently offering free subscriptions, as are many other mindfulness apps. If you’ve never meditated before, using guided meditations or apps can make it much easier!
- Yoga involves mindfulness and focus on the breath, but also engages your body more and lets you stretch and work your muscles. If you have the space, try out a free yoga lesson or tutorial online (just search “free online yoga”). You don’t need any extra equipment.
- Stretching. If you don’t have the space for yoga, do some simple standing or seated stretches while focusing on your breathing.
- Exercise. In addition to connecting with your body, exercise is a great way to release stress and tension. Exercise might be difficult for you right now, but just doing a few crunches or push-ups or taking a short walk around your apartment can be useful. You don’t need a lot of space. Look for free online classes to see what appeals to you and makes the most sense for your living situation. Just keep in mind that now probably isn’t the time to start a brand new, intense workout routine if you didn’t exercise much before—the last thing you want is to unintentionally injure yourself.
- Self-touch. Physical touch can be very soothing, and you don’t need another person to get the benefits. Give yourself a foot, hand or arm massage. Stretch and massage your jaw (especially if you clench or grind your teeth). Wrap your arms around yourself and give yourself a warm hug.
- Pamper yourself. Take a long shower or bath, do a face mask, brush your hair or put on body lotion. Be mindful and pay attention to how your body feels.
When we’re feeling low, it can be easy to forget that we are competent human beings who are good at things and have a purpose in life! In his webinar, Dr. van der Kolk emphasizes the role of purpose, skills and goals in helping us stay resilient and handle stress in a healthy way. You can stay confident and focused by regularly doing things that you’re good at. This could be anything from drawing to baking to doing math problems to organizing to writing to braiding hair to doing a specific kind of puzzle or game. Try to work these activities into your routine. For example, set aside 10 minutes to write or do a puzzle every day, or plan to bake something once a week.
- Stay resourceful. It’s difficult to take care of your mental health when you’re worried about finances, losing your job, where to get food, and meeting other basic needs. Remember that you’re not in this alone. There are many resources available to support you. Check out our resources list to find out where to get free food, how to get financial help and public assistance, and find other support.
- No one has all the answers. We’ve never lived through something quite like this, and we’re all doing the best that we can. Be gentle and patient with yourself. It may be difficult to imagine now, but we will get through this. You are not alone.
- These are all suggestions to help you stay balanced and in control. Not every suggestion will click with everyone! Try some out and see how they make you feel. If other activities or habits not listed here help you stay positive and balanced, that’s great!
- Limit your coronavirus news. In addition to the tips listed above, I want to encourage you to limit how much news you consume about COVID-19 (coronavirus). You can stay informed without reading about coronavirus all day long. Maybe you can make a habit of checking a reliable source of information (like Mount Sinai or the CDC) once a day, for example.
- If you are overwhelmed and want to talk to someone about what you’re going through, consider talking to a counselor. Many therapists are currently offering remote therapy options, so you can access care without leaving your home. If you want to talk to a counselor, you can use NYC Well. Text WELL to 65173, call 1-888-NYC-WELL or go to their website to use their online chat feature.
Not everyone is quarantined with people who are loving and supportive. If you are quarantined with someone who is not safe, it’s important to stay connected to resources that can help. Remember: You are not alone.
- If you are in immediate danger, call 911.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 1-800-799-7233 or use the chat feature on their website.
- LoveisRespect: Call 1-866-331-9474 or text loveis to 22522
- Use LoveisRespect’s Safety Planning Guide for high school and college students to create or change your safety plan.
- If you already have a safety plan, think through changes you may need to make during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The Trevor Project: For LGBTQ youth; connect with a trained counselor by calling 1-866-488-7386, texting START to 678678, or using the TrevorChat service on their website.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860
- NYC Well: Text WELL to 65173, call 1-888-NYC-WELL or go to their website to use their online chat feature.
- COVID-19 Resource List for Young People in NYC
Many of these ideas are inspired by or adapted from the webinar Steering Ourselves and our Clients Through New and Developing Traumas from Bessel van der Kolk, MD.
Kaitlin Klipsch-Abudu, LCSW is a trauma therapist at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, specializing in work with adolescents and children who have experienced sexual or family violence. Kaitlin has previously worked in court- and school-based settings, providing trauma-informed care and advocacy from an intersectional perspective.