I wanted to write an informative text about the psychological effects of Covid-19, but I’m too paralysed by the constant influx of new information and emotions. Instead you will have to make do with a personal essay about how a Danish, German-based therapist is experiencing the situation from her couch. So bear with me while I gather my thoughts in this surreal time.
The world is in crisis, and our individual psyches are under pressure. Today Denmark, my home country, closed its borders. This means I’ve essentially been separated from my family. My daughter’s Kita will be closed with other public institutions from Monday here in Germany, but we have already been self-quarantining for more than a week, due to her four-day fever and ensuing cold symptoms. The difference is that now the rest of the country, and an increasing part of the world, is in the same boat as us for more than a month to come.
For even the most fortunate, the next many weeks will be a challenge. We will go through periods of cabin fever and claustrophobia, we will struggle with feelings of loneliness and anxiety, and be sick and tired of the people we are isolated with. But if we take appropriate measures to stay in good physical health, while also taking our mental health seriously, we might get through this with some new learnings. That’s what I have to tell myself, to keep the optimism afloat. “Let’s get the best out of this,” might seem provokingly jolly, but how else would we approach this unprecedented situation?
The political landscape is polarised as usual, and in the news and in my surroundings, I’ve seen two opposing standpoints: There are the individualists who mockingly asks their peers not to “catastrophize” and “magnify the negatives” as if the current problem has more to do with individual cognitive biases than the exponential spread of a deadly virus. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the moralistic person, who is busy shaming everyone from food hoarders to those who still brought their kids to daycare and school before the government closed them. These are the ones who will label you forever as a selfish, life-threatening idiot, if you don’t put the community first with every single one of your actions.
I, myself, am like most people: a confused middleway’er, who understands both the need to put the panic into perspective, but also understands the urgency of social distancing, for the love of the vulnerable and to prevent the medical system from further overload.
The lockdown here in Germany will continue until the end of spring vacation, which means that I am to care for a 4 month old and a 3,5 year old in my rather small apartment for over a month, while my partner attempts to work from home. I’ve already told him that to keep sane, I will need to work from home, which brings me to…
What we each can do to care for ourselves in these exceptional times.
In regards to prioritising your mental health, I’ve listed six techniques and tips to help manage the difficult feelings that most of us are experiencing more of lately:
- Drop anchor by noticing five things en your surroundings: A picture, a cup, a lamp, etc. This exercise is about directing your attention outward, and then returning to yourself more centred and connected.
- Breathe into your stomach, and exhale as slowly as possible until the lungs are completely empty. Imagine that you are breathing into the anxiety and exhaling it out.
- When you catch yourself ruminating about certain things, say out loud “I am having the thought that…. I have caught the corona virus,” for instance. This is a variety of the technique called “defusion”, which can help us to see our anxious thoughts from a distance.
- Create a designated “worry period”. When there is an endless stream of news articles being published about the coronavirus, it’s hard not to experience information fatigue and constant alarm mode. That’s why WHO advised to turn down your intake of information a notch, seeking information updates only at specific times. Taking it one step further is to deliberately plan your “worry time”. Then, whenever you worry in between, you make a note, and remind yourself that you’ll have time to think about it later.
- Try to prioritise good sleep and practice good sleep hygiene (i.e. don’t bring coronavirus news into bed).
- Even in quarantine, try not to withdraw completely. Connect with loved ones online. Try also to engage yourself in meaningful activities. Maybe you used to like drawing but haven’t had time in ages? Focusing on things that instil a sense of meaning can be very helpful to manage anxiety.
Of course, if you want to get extra support through therapy, many counsellors also work online. Like I said, this is what I will have to do to ensure my mental health from going down the drain: I’ll be taking my work online, and I’ll also be writing. I’ll be video-calling my close ones, and then I might take up drawing. And finish a bunch of half-read books (if my daughters allow it).
If you’re a talk therapist like me, online therapy can be a way to continue working. The coronavirus is triggering many mental health issues, so your service is in high demand. As a result of self-isolation, quarantine, decreased financial security and job security, people all over the world are experiencing feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, despair, health anxiety, and fear for the lives of their loved ones. When the outer world becomes uncertain, it is only normal for our inner world to become more vulnerable. As a trained mental health practitioner, you can help others during this volatile period. If you need support in bringing your practice online, feel free to contact the It’s Complicated team that I’m a part of.
Finally, without sounding like a mindfulness fascist, maybe this could even be the chance to slow down everything – our work, conversations, thinking, and even breathing. What could be a better time than now, when the world is forcing us to collectively retreat. It won’t be easy, and we will probably be confronted with a lot of bagage that was happily suppressed by the daily grind of life. But I have to belief that mutual, collective hibernation could also bring something with it.
People are dying and systems are crashing, and so regardless of the end result, this pandemic won’t have been worth it. All I’m saying is, let’s try to see if we together can make it worth something by responding to the shared suffering with humanity and solidarity.