If you’ve been reading the news, you might be freaking out right now. For hypochondriacs, the coronavirus pandemic is like our Olympics, if there were a situation in which one would train for the Olympics with the hopes of never having to actually compete. My training is not actual strategies for preparedness, but rather, constantly pushing the boundaries of my brain’s ability to conceive of outcomes to worry about. I’m basically just living in the Charlie Day Pepe Silvia meme, but the points on the string board are new hypotheticals I can stress over. (But the crazed look in the eyes is the same.) And I gotta tell you, all that worrying is not doing anything positive for my health. I’m week two into social distancing and anyone who asks how I’m doing is treated to a page from Dorinda’s playbook: not well, bitch!
But we won’t be out of the woods just yet, and I’m told worrying doesn’t burn calories, so that means it is neither comforting nor useful to sit around all day, anxiety spiraling. So I spoke to Dr. Jenny Taitz, a certified psychologist and author of How To Be Single And Happy (thankfully, the least of my worries right now), about how to reduce anxiety in this incredibly stressful and anxiety-inducing time.
It’s at this time that I feel I must confess something to you all: I don’t like to travel. *Pauses for collective audible gasp* Yes, you read that correctly. I am one of those rare millennials who does not really like to travel. And you know why? No, it has nothing to do with coronavirus; it’s because this bitch loves her routine. And it appears there’s actually a reason why I and others find routine so comforting: because it f*cking is.
“There was a powerful research study that compared antidepressant medication to cognitive therapy to something called behavioral activation, which is basically like having a day planner and scheduling activities that may expose pleasure and mastery,” recalls Dr. Taitz. “Remarkably, the activity scheduling was found to be as helpful as antidepressants and more helpful than cognitive therapy.” Now, neither I nor Dr. Taitz is saying you should throw out your medication or fire your therapist (the opposite, please), but she says, “it just speaks to how incredibly therapeutic it is to have a routine.” And, in this time of, shall we call it, extreme spontaneity, I think we can all agree that a little predictability would be really f*cking nice right about now.
But trying to create a calendar for the next month (or even the next week) can feel overwhelming. (Even before COVID-19 laughed in the face of regularity. I was always intimidated by the idea of nailing down plans—call it commitment issues.) So instead, Dr. Taitz advises, “step one would be to think about what matters deeply to you, the values that you have for the next few months, and then create a schedule that maps onto that.” In other words, are your priorities health, productivity, and friendship? Start thinking about (virtual!!) activities that fit into those categories and create a loose schedule based off those values. Maybe you make a commitment to tune into that yoga livestream every day at 9am, then give yourself 45 minutes to answer emails, and schedule a FaceTime with your friend on what would be your lunch break. Literally open up your day planner (or iCal if you’re too cool) and block all these things out. Dr. Taitz adds, “the more you can plug in and make it so you’re not going to have to start from square one every day,” the more at ease you’ll eventually feel.
While you’re building your schedule, don’t just make time for the sh*t you have to do—that’s literally no fun. “This is a time where people could resume things that they have previously entertained but haven’t had time for,” says Dr. Taitz. The one downside is that you now officially have no excuse to not learn that thing or start that project you’ve been telling everyone you were totally going to do. Maybe, like a lot of Twitter, you’re going to go Paul Hollywood and learn how to bake bread (just make sure it’s not underproofed). For me, it’s the book I’ve spent the last two years talking a big game about wanting to write but not having the time. When it comes to planning activities, Dr. Taitz recommends “scheduling a lot of things that bring you pleasure… or expanding on something that you already do that gives you a sense of accomplishment.” For instance, do an activity you already like, or improve upon something you want to get better at. Like, if you already do 30 push-ups a day (brag), try to up it to 40.
She also recommends everyone practice mindfulness, which she explains is “the specific ability to learn to be present in the moment without judgment.” That means making a conscious effort to not let your thoughts spin off into a tornado of anxiety, as easy as that is to do.
“Especially right now during this type of crisis, it’s so tempting to think about like, ‘Oh my god, how long is this gonna go on?’ ‘I’m gonna go crazy’ ‘I can’t take one more day of this.’ It’s so overwhelming,” she admits. Instead, she advises to spend at least three to five minutes a day formally practicing mindfulness, whether that be watching your breath or trying to meditate—“doing something where you have to keep coming back to being present without judgment.”
And while the impulse is strong to try to bury your head in the sand and ignore the news, we all need to stay informed, for our safety and the safety of those around us. So how do you ride that fine line between keeping up to date with all the current information and going down a rabbit hole where you’re convinced you’re dying? (First of all, avoid WebMD.) Dr. Taitz says, “think about what’s the sweet spot where you’re taking in information that’s prudent and productive but not like drowning in a passive consumption of demoralizing or panic-inducing.” Like, if you know you can’t start your day without a quick news update, do that. But if you know that checking Twitter before bed will lead you down a dark path, probably avoid that. Going back to your routine, as you map out your schedule, you can carve out some time to check the news—just make sure you put a time limit on it and stick to it. “Really think about what kind of data is best for you and what’s the amount that is sensible,” she says. In other words, know yourself.
And in times like these, it’s important as ever to take care of your mental health. The good news is, Dr. Taitz says, “all psychologists should be able to offer some type of compliant video therapy, so if you’ve been wanting to try therapy but you haven’t had time, consider this as a time that you can really target your mental health.” However, with jobs on the line, paying for therapy may not be an option for many, so there is also the crisis text line if you’re anxious about coronavirus, which you can reach by texting HOME to 741741.
On top of therapy, Dr. Taitz says she “can’t speak to the power of social connection enough.” The good thing about us all being marooned in our homes now, as opposed to like, in 1918, is that we have so much technology to keep us all connected to our friends and loved ones so we don’t lose our sh*t. “If you could reach out to people, not just on text, but set up FaceTime dates like you would meeting people in person,” that’s the best because, “you’re not gonna get the same sense of empathy just over text.”
It’s pretty normal to feel nothing short of hopeless in a time like this, when so much is out of our control. When talking to my therapist last night, she told me to focus on the things I can control, and take those actions. Like, you may not be able to control living with someone who still has to go into work right now, but you can wash your hands more often, disinfect doorknobs and light switches like a maniac, and do your part to social distance. Dr. Taitz agrees, “taking action is a powerful remedy for hopelessness” and adds that we should “focus on replacing unhelpful thoughts with helpful ones.” Even though we’re in a time of absolute craziness right now, making it feel as normal as possible will bring you some comfort. Above all, I feel like we’re all going a very similar range of emotions, so don’t feel like you’re alone in this, and don’t suffer in silence. To quote High School Musical (my literary pinnacle), we’re all in this together.
Images: Joshua Rawson-Harris / Unsplash
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