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How to cope with anxiety while social distancing


March 22, 2020
By Rutgers University

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Photo by Andrew Tanglao on Unsplash

There are ways you can keep yourself engaged and avoid anxiety while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say.

Social distancing is crucial to slow the spread of COVID-19, but can put individuals at risk for mental health problems.

It also has serious implications for those already suffering from psychological distress.

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Here, Elissa Kozlov, a licensed clinical psychologist and instructor at Rutgers University’s School of Public Health, discusses strategies for taking care of your mental health while staying at home.

Q: How can we stay socially engaged?

A: It is essential that people stay active and socially engaged during periods of social distancing and isolation. Use technology! For example, schedule regular video chat and phone dates with friends and family. Get creative. Watch movies together, play online games, eat dinner with family and friends, or participate in virtual book clubs.

Reach out to friends and relatives who are especially at risk during this time. Call older adults and people with chronic health conditions to give them meaningful social contact during these trying times.

Q: How can I reduce my anxiety about getting sick?

A: There are several strategies to help with anxiety. One strategy is distraction. If you find yourself thinking continuously about risk of illness, try to distract yourself by getting involved in an engaging activity or by picking up the phone to talk with a friend. Take advantage of nice weather and go for a walk in an open space. Get outside as much as possible if it’s safe to do so.

You can also try mindfulness meditation. There are several excellent mobile apps that can teach you how to practice meditation, such as the free app Mindfulness Coach, which was developed by a team of psychologists at the Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD research. It walks users through the basics of mindfulness  meditation.

If you are having trouble sleeping, check out the Veterans Affairs’ app CBT-I Coach (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia), which takes you through different strategies to help quiet your mind at night. If you find that the anxiety or insomnia is interfering with your ability to function during the day, seek professional help to reduce the impact of anxiety.

If you or a loved one develops persistent feelings of sadness or loses interest in pleasurable events, find a therapist who conducts video sessions.

Q: What else can I do for my mental health?

Staying active is key to good mental health. It may seem like a great time to catch up on sleep, binge watch TV, and embrace a couch potato lifestyle, but the motto “Do more, feel better” is an evidence-based way to reduce feelings of depression. Here are some ideas:

If you’re working from home, stick to your usual schedule and keep your kids on their regular school schedules to the extent possible. Do not sleep in; get dressed every day; do not work from your bed. If there is a coworker you usually chat with during the day, keep a video chat with them open on your screen for micro chats during the day.

Engage in a hobby: Read, complete a puzzle, play board games, do crafts, and have family join you.

Use this time to cross off the chores in your house you’ve been putting off like fixing things; organizing your closet, pantry, and basement; getting outside to weed or prune plants. This will give you a sense of accomplishment and a mood boost when the tasks are complete.

Exercise by taking a walk or run or look on YouTube for free exercise videos. Many gym instructors are conducting virtual classes.

Look for ways to volunteer safely. Connect with your local Area Agency on Aging to see if there’s a way to make friendly phone calls or deliver resources to people who can’t get out to stores right now.