8 Suggestions for Combating Anxiety & Depression in Extraordinary Circumstances
As a U.S. Army psychologist deployed to combat in Afghanistan, I treated a lot of behavioral health issues rooted in external surroundings that are normally less prevalent among the civilian population in the United States. That was before the coronavirus hit. Since then we have been protecting ourselves from this virus at home through limitations somewhat similar to how we protect combat bases in war. Specifically, we have restricted movement because we are aware of a threat outside the walls.
Now that we have been social distancing and sheltering at home for a few weeks, we are starting to see that it takes concerted effort to maintain the normal productive flow of communication that keeps us connected to each other. This is nothing new to military service members who have deployed. It might seem like a luxury situation in comparison to deployment, until we realize that our entire support network of family and friends is similarly restricted. In addition to isolating while trying to maintain social connections, we are all now expected to keep ourselves in great physical and mental shape to fight COVID-19.
If you are like most of the world, you have loved ones who live with anxiety and/or depression even in the best of times. Coping through a pandemic is challenging for all of us, but it can seem like a herculean task with depression or anxiety in the mix. Anxiety hammers the brain with messages that promote a hyper-focus on fear-based reports, of which there are many in our current media environment. A fearful and misinformed brain focuses heavily on what it cannot control, which contributes to psychological stress.
What are you doing in your family and social network to mitigate the behavioral health risks than can increase during times of social, behavioral, and environmental restriction?
Here are 8 simple tips to fight anxiety and depression in these unprecedented times:
- Focus on what you can control, beginning with your own thoughts and behaviors. What behaviors have you used before to relax and stay calm during times of stress? What are your favorite things to occupy your brain?
- Manage your sources of information and limit your surfing of social media and TV. Don’t give your brain anything but evidence-based reality to feed on and respond to. In the United States, that means using CDC COVID-19 or coronavirus.gov for guidelines and updates. Don’t obsess about new cases and statistics that you can’t control. Even reliable sources don’t need to be checked more than once per day. Ask yourself, “What will I do differently with this information?” If the answer is “nothing”, then you probably don’t need it.
- Follow social distancing guidelines and other CDC recommendations. Once you’ve applied these risk-mitigation behaviors, remind yourself that you are doing all you can. Make peace with that fact. Most others will follow these guidelines too, but try to apply grace and compassion if some do not. You can’t control others, but you can control how you respond.
- Get plenty of sleep each night even if you think you don’t need it. Prolonged sleep deprivation contributes to cognitive and emotional dysregulation, thereby feeding depression and anxiety. You may think that you are fine with 5 hours of sleep each night, but adaptation to significant changes in your environment is stressful and it will demand more of you.
- Keep regular routines and rituals that feel “normal”. Walk the dog, work on a household project, have game or movie times with the family, eat meals at regular times, etc. When we aren’t out of the house as much, these things may become easier to control. Use that to your advantage.
- Stay active. The gym may be closed, but the street, the bike path, and the park probably aren’t. Get physical exercise to stay healthy and keep your mind fit as well. If working out is not your thing, maybe this could be a good time to pick up a hobby that gets you moving around in other ways.
- Stay social despite social distancing. We humans need social interaction, and that doesn’t have to stop at the end of our 6-foot space bubble. Increasing the frequency of phone calls, video chats, and other means of social interaction can make up for some of the interactions that are unavailable under “stay at home” restrictions.
- Don’t forget to laugh. If there are kids in your household, leverage their remarkable abilities to make humor happen. Just because we are working through some tough circumstances together doesn’t mean we can’t laugh together. Ask anyone who has deployed to combat, and I’ll bet they can think of some funny moments that helped make it go by fast.
This is a temporary situation that we are facing together. On the other side of it, we will emerge better prepared and more resilient in the face of future challenges. Let’s make sure we shore each other up, lend a hand or a laugh when someone needs it, and emerge stronger for what we learned along the way.