Emerging from a Pandemic: How to Take Care of Your Mental Health
It has been a long fifteen months. Like, interminably long. For over a year now, we've hunkered down, stayed in, kept our distance. We shut ourselves down, cleared the calendars, said no to everything. We relearned how to exist with our partners and families and cohabitators. As we all slowly begin to emerge from our hobbit caves, one question hangs over many of us: how will I maintain my mental health now?
The past year-plus has taken a heavy toll on our collective mental health. Anxiety, depression, stress, and trauma have skyrocketed amidst a pandemic, systemic violence against and murder of BIPOC, restrictive reproductive rights laws and voting rights rollbacks, rampant unemployment, isolation, and a parade of unimaginable horribles. This CDC report found "Elevated levels of adverse mental health conditions, substance use, and suicidal ideation were reported by adults in the United States in June 2020. The prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%)."
For many, if not most, of us, the systems of mental health care that we'd carefully curated fell apart. Gone were our routines, small pleasures, socialization, and our usual outlets. For me, that meant no more team sports, which was a huge part of my exercise routine as well as my social life. I could no longer be in the same physical space as my various communities; I was on my own (with my husband alongside me, of course). I'm more fortunate than many; I still had a loving and considerate partner to weather the storm with. But, still. No more team beers after my weekly soccer and hockey games. We didn't even go snowboarding this past year, due to our fears of COVID. While we still had XC-skiing, I missed the feeling of flying on my snowboard, the freedom and joy it gives me. No more after-work drinks and venting with friends. No more appetizers and drinks at book clubs and writers groups. No more in-person therapy sessions. No more random chatting with co-workers. Some of these things, fortunately, were able to continue virtually, but something was lost.
Now, a year after adjusting to these new norms, we're starting to come out of our isolation and reenter something resembling the pre-pandemic normal. We need to relearn how to be social, how to exist in public, how to connect with others again. I worry that being back in a social environment for eight hours a day will be uncomfortable and trigger my anxiety, that focusing on one thing for hours at a time without distractions from my dogs or cat or husband or things at home that need attention will be impossible. As we ease back into a previous version of our lives, it's important to try to maintain the self-care you may have had to engage in over the past year.
Stick to Your Routine
My husband and I have gotten into a sort of rhythm over the past year, a new structure for our lonely days. He gets up first, hops on the Peloton, makes the first pot of coffee; I get up, hop on the Peloton, and make the second pot (half decaf). I settle down, usually at the kitchen table these days because my loft/office desk is a nightmare, he in the upstairs bedroom he converted into an office. When the coffee's finished, we take the dogs for a long walk down our dirt road. We usually eat lunch together. We take breaks to tell each other about what awesome or aggravating or hilarious thing just happened. A lot of this will change when we go back to work, at least part-time. Our work schedules and habits will change. But I don't want to lose the morning workouts or long walks together. We'll just have to figure out new ways to incorporate the things that have been working for us.
Don't Forget Your Coping Mechanisms
Many of us, particularly those who live with mental illness or neurodivergence, have had to develop new coping mechanisms over the past year. Maybe it's a Zoom with a friend, meditation, a walk. Whatever it is that keeps you grounded, don't lose it when you go back to work and appointments and all the other stuff that gets in the way.
Talk to Someone
I believe everyone could benefit from therapy and examining their thought patterns and behaviors and the effects of trauma on their bodies and minds. But, OK, maybe therapy's not for everyone. One nice thing from the pandemic is that most therapists are offering virtual sessions and there are options like Talk Space and Better Help (full disclosure: I have not used either of these services, so can't speak to their effectiveness). I've been fortunate to do therapy sessions form my bed this year, which has cut down two-to-four hours a week in driving and gifted me more time. I might ask my therapist if we can keep doing this. But, if therapy's not your thing, find somebody in your life who you can check in with regularly, perhaps a scheduled chat over Zoom (or maybe even in person!) to see how things are really going. Setting aside time with your partner, if you have one, or other family members to offer the time and understanding to get anything out, which we all need to do after this past year or so, can be critical to maintaining your mental health. Open a line of communication and be honest with yourself and the people in your life whom you can trust. It's OK if things are hard right now. Admitting that is the first step in getting help. Build a support system that can buoy you.
Now that I'm fully vaccinated and can see friends and family again, I've been busy pretty much every day doing something with someone I haven't seen in ages. It's been great, but I know I need to take things a little more slowly so I don't get burned out. Going from pretty much no social interaction to something nearly every night is kind of a lot. I need to be sure not to forgo my much-needed alone time, creative time, since I've gotten used to so much of it these past months. I can't just flip a switch and go from hermit to social butterfly all summer long. I want to do everything all at once! And I know that I can overdo it sometimes. It's going to be a process of finding a balance between social and quiet time.
Focus on All the Positives
There still is a lot of uncertainty about what this new world will look like, how work/employment will change, how social interaction and education and and mental health will change, how we'll all adjust yet again. There's so much political and social unrest all over the world. But there's also a lot to look forward to and be excited about, from big events to small pleasures. Celebrating with family and friends, live music, going out for a cold, draft beer. Remember the little things you've missed that bring you joy.
Be well, friends, as we enter this strange new world together.