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Two California clinical psychologists share their tips on how to be happy and how to stay positive, even when times are tough.
8 min read
April 07, 2020
All Californians—nearly 40 million people—and many other communities across the world have been told to stay inside to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. While hunkering down at home might not have been so bad at first (no more sitting in traffic or putting on real pants, right?), the realities of social distancing and sheltering in place are starting to take a toll on nearly everyone—not to mention the economy, with a record 6.6 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits last week.
Given the sudden, unexpected life changes; financial insecurities; constant stream of COVID-19 news; and global economic uncertainty, it is easy to feel stressed and fearful right now. While the California.com team shared some insights on how we’re staying positive during COVID-19, we also spoke with two clinical psychologists to get their professional tips on ways to reduce anxiety and boost happiness during such a difficult, chaotic time.
Both based in Sacramento, Dr. Tameka Jackson and Dr. Sheetal Shah have 20 years of collective experience helping adolescents and adults cope with everything from depression and anxiety to relationship issues and anger management. Here’s what they want you to know.
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Self-love isn’t selfish. Prioritizing your physical and mental health actually makes you better equipped to perform well at work, care for your family, help your community, and deal with challenging circumstances. Self-care doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming, either.
“I always tell my clients to make sure their basic needs are met,” Dr. Jackson says. “Whether they’re stressed out about COVID or something going on in their relationship, people can deal with stress so much better when they’re sleeping well, eating well, and taking care of their spiritual health.”
Dr. Shah advises people to practice self-care by connecting with nature, too. Soak up the sun in your backyard, go for a walk around your neighborhood, or explore a new hiking trail (all while staying six feet away from others, of course). “It’s important to get outside during this quarantine,” she says. “I think the visual stimulation of nature brings you back into the present moment.”
Connecting with the present moment is known as “grounding,” a type of coping strategy that can help during times of distress by pulling you away from negative emotions. Aside from outdoor excursions, Dr. Shah also suggests guided meditation as a grounding technique, especially since free apps (such as Calm and Insight Timer) make it easy to redirect your energy elsewhere and feel a sense of comfort. Another tactic is the 5-4-3-2-1 method, which involves using your senses to ground yourself when you start to feel panicked: Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
No matter which grounding method you try, it’s beneficial to focus on your breath while you do it. “Incorporating your breath with [a grounding] activity can be a way to further bring you into the present moment and get you outside of your mind when it’s racing,” Dr. Shah explains.
Simply setting aside five minutes a day to focus on deep breathing is also incredibly impactful. Redirecting your attention to your breath will help you calm down and get into a better headspace. According to Dr. Shah, “When we’re anxious, we’re breathing really quickly, which means our brain is getting less oxygen, and that makes us more anxious and susceptible to that feeling of panic. So, take a moment to slow down your breathing.”
When in doubt, breathe it out.
Social distancing and staying indoors can be very difficult for people, especially extroverts, and can lead to feelings of loneliness and sadness. But physical separation doesn’t mean you should emotionally disconnect from your social network.
“I think we need to reframe this idea of social distancing,” Dr. Jackson says. “Social distancing is about physical distancing—we want to keep that six feet of separation and we want to make sure folks are not gathering in groups—but not about losing social connectedness.”
Thanks to technology, it’s possible to connect with people virtually using platforms like Zoom or Google Hangouts, so schedule regular video calls with your coworkers, friends, and family members. You can also connect the good ’ol fashioned way by writing letters to the people you miss and becoming pen pals.
“This is a time to be a bit more divergent in your thinking about, How can I still be socially connected with folks?” Dr. Jackson says. “So, finding ways to connect with people that don’t always seem normal. It doesn’t always have to be going to work or going to a restaurant; it could be doing a cooking class together online or doing a virtual happy hour.”
Those who have the ability to stay home and work right now—which is a privilege—know how big of an adjustment it can be (especially once the perk of sleeping in and the novelty of wearing sweats all day wear off). It can feel weird. It can be lonely. The change of your usual schedule can be a reminder of what’s going on in the world, making it difficult for you to concentrate or causing you to bury yourself in work. So, it’s crucial to create a routine that allows you to set yourself up for a productive day and enjoy some sense of normalcy in uncertain times.
“When building a routine, it’s important to recognize the things you need to do on a daily basis in order to get ready for work, even if you’re not physically leaving your space,” Dr. Shah says. “For example, for me, I need to be able to shower in the morning and put on a nice top to prepare mentally and physically for work. The days I don’t shower in the mornings, I feel more lazy and just want to lay around.”
To stay focused and motivated, ensure you’re setting boundaries, too. You shouldn’t be working into the evenings and eating lunch at your makeshift desk. Take real, mindful breaks and make time to connect with nature, loved ones, and yourself.
“We’re all adjusting to this new normal, so it may feel a little bit chaotic for a little while, and what works for you this week might feel very different than what works for you next week. You need to remind yourself: I am doing the best that I can, and my best might not look the same every single day,” Dr. Jackson says. “Allow some time for stillness, where you can really check in with yourself and ask yourself: How am I doing right now? What is it that I need? Because what you need in that moment might be to listen to music, put work to the side, or push through and get work done in one more hour so you can devote the rest of the evening to your family.”
It may take some time to figure out what your balance is going to look like, but go easy on yourself and see what works best given your current situation.
During this time, those in happy and stable relationships may still find that social distancing can present some serious challenges—especially couples confined to small spaces. Many individuals are balancing work life and personal life, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Throw young children (or teenagers) into the mix, and it can be a recipe for disaster. But there are ways to make sure your relationship doesn’t suffer during the coronavirus pandemic.
While communication has always been the key to any healthy relationship, it is now more vital than ever. So, check in with your partner to see how she or he is feeling—both mentally and physically—on a daily basis. “This is a hard situation and it is novel in many different ways,” Dr. Shah says, “so take a moment and say to your partner: ‘Gosh this is hard. It’s really hard for me, so it must be really hard for you, too.’ Allow yourselves to have more of those types of conversations about what you might each be feeling in the moment. … Try to figure out the ways you can support your partner and the ways your partner might be able to support you.”
For instance, if your partner is an introvert, it may be important for them to have their own space at times. So, consider going on a solo walk for 20 minutes or working in another room so they can have that alone time. Just make sure you check in with yourself and communicate what you need in the partnership, too, so you’re getting what you need to recharge.
Even when you and your partner find yourselves in a squabble, ensure you’re still practicing compassion and empathy for one another—and don’t assume the tension will last forever. “We’re all in a pressure cooker right now, and we may not always be showing the best version of ourselves, so just be mindful that that’s at play,” Dr. Jackson says. “I think it’s important to normalize that things will feel heightened, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something wrong with the relationship. It just means that we’re experiencing something that we’ve never experienced before in a way we’ve never experienced it before, so just expect those moments when we fall out of line with our best selves.”
Note: If you find yourself in an unsafe situation with your partner, contact authorities immediately. You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233 or visit The Hotline.
There’s always something to be thankful for, even during hard times. Practicing gratitude is a simple but impactful way to keep things in perspective, and there’s no better time than now to make it a habit. Dr. Jackson suggests naming three things you’re grateful for every day—whether it’s having the privilege of working from home, having a healthy family, or having a roof over your head—by writing them down in a journal or sharing them at the dinner table: “It’s a way to stay grounded, share positivity, and allow people to not become so consumed with the negative impact [coronavirus] is having,” she says.
Making it an intention to find joy or a moment of joy in each day will also inject positive energy into challenging circumstances. “Maybe that’s something that turns into a daily conversation with your family—asking, ‘What was your moment of joy today?’ ” Dr. Jackson suggests. “Just really try to bring that energy into the mix of a really difficult situation.”
In addition to experiencing anxiety, many are grieving the freedom, control, and normalcy of how things were before the COVID-19 pandemic. So if you’re feeling the whiplash, know that you’re not alone and that you’re having a normal reaction to an abnormal circumstance. While it’s good to make space to allow yourself to cry or sulk occasionally, it’s also important to recognize the need for balance and the need to intentionally seek activities that lift your spirits.
All of this advice is a solid place to start, but for more comprehensive assistance, contact a professional clinical psychologist. Therapy can help you work through particularly tough life situations and cope with heightened existing conditions such as anxiety, depression, and cancer—and you don’t even have to leave the house, thanks to various teletherapy options.
“Now that the coronavirus is center stage, everybody is being consumed with anxiety around it, so for a lot of people who were already struggling or facing issues—like health ailments or marital difficulties—just before coronavirus hit the scene, it may feel like there’s not a lot of space to talk about that now because everyone is feeling burdened,” Dr. Jackson says. “I think it’s an invitation to reach out to mental health providers so that you allow yourself a safe space to honor the things that are still weighing you down that may not be coronavirus but are still very impactful in terms of your day-to-day life.”
Again, remember to continually practice kindness and compassion with yourself—and others—during this time. We are all in this together and will get through it together.
What has kept you positive and motivated during COVID-19? Let us know in the comments below.
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