How to survive isolation from someone who has overcome anxiety and depression.
Yesterday, for the first time in a week, I ventured out farther than the supermarket. I decided to take a walk. Every day a new article emerges about the mental health repercussions of COVID-19 and the dangers of isolation on our psyche. I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling stir-crazy in isolation, so when my friend Gabriel invited me for a walk I decided, for the sake of my own mental health, to say yes.
We walked along the coastline in Malmö, Sweden, surprised by how many people were out socializing in the rare March sun, despite the mandate for social distancing. Living in Sweden, you are so incredibly desperate for the sun, that after four months of total grayness, a pandemic can’t even stop you from soaking up a few extra rays. That said, Gabriel and I avoided crowds and kept our distance as we caught up on each other’s lives and enjoyed the landscape.
Earlier that morning I had read an article about how so many couples and families were struggling to co-exist in containment, and how COVID-19 is putting relationships to the test. I myself had experienced the first road bumps in my own new relationship with my boyfriend, and so I asked Gabriel how he and his partner were enduring life in close quarters and in general how he was feeling mentally about the entire situation.
Gabriel started to confess that despite all the free time, he couldn’t bring himself to pursue any of his side projects or favorite hobbies. He felt lazy. He felt stuck. The mental burden of isolation, a feeling that was truly foreign to him until now, was starting to feel real. As I listened, I came to realize, that so many of the stories I’ve encountered about mental health struggles, are coming from people who have never struggled with mental health challenges before.
COVID-19 has opened up a pandora’s box where mentally stable people are suddenly experiencing for the first time how it feels to struggle with your mental health.
I soon came to realize that the tools and coping mechanisms I had built to tackle my own depression and anxiety for the last 20 years and to maintain my stability as the founder of a tech startup, had provided me an advantage over those who have never faced mental health challenges before.
Therefore, I would like to share my own strategies on how to stay mentally balanced in times of stress, in hopes that those who are questioning their sanity for the first time, might begin to build their own arsenal of health tips and tricks to make it through these uncertain times:
Insert small routines into your day
As a passionate person I’m sometimes inclined to act on how I feel rather than what I think. As a startup founder I’ve learned that this behavior can dig you into some pretty deep holes, so I’ve had to adjust. For those with spontaneous tendencies, creating routines can feel like a chore. However, by nature, we are creatures of habit and we actually need stability to survive. While being stuck at home might feel like too much stability, adding small repetitive tasks into your day can keep you from falling into the endless depths of your couch.
Four years ago, I started making my bed every morning. This helped me establish a routine from the moment I got out of bed. I realized that the mere act of making my bed helped build momentum for the rest of my routines–exercising, eating breakfast, taking vitamins, cleaning the house, etc.
Exercise a little bit every day
I am the queen of signing up for gym memberships then becoming too lazy to go. I then discovered that building new habits are more sustainable if I approach them more realistically and with less pressure on myself. Look at your own inclinations and shape your habits around what you know about yourself.
For one, I know that I hate gyms (I’m somewhat of a germaphobe and that was before COVID-19!). Two, I am lazy when it comes to leaving my house to do something I dread. So I came up with this plan to be kind to myself and to exercise in a way that doesn’t add too much pressure to my life. I decided to work out at home. I decided to start with 5 minutes per day and to work my way up to 20. When I met myself halfway, and didn’t pressure myself to make a drastic change, I was able to build a new sustainable routine. I have spent the last 4.5 years doing yoga or pilates almost every morning for 15–20 minutes and I feel like a completely different person. My favorite online yoga instructors are Boho Beautiful and Yoga with Adriene.
Write things down
Our memories are shit. We are bombarded with information from all directions. Writing things down or making lists of what you want to do and what you need to remember takes the burden off of your mind and lets you file away things you feel you need to remember so you can stop worrying but also stay committed. It’s pretty simple but makes a big impact on the state of your mind.
There is an abundance of studies that show that being social face-to-face not only improves brain function but reduces anxiety and depression. As the founder of Panion, I’ve read one too many of these studies. As a human being who has struggled with anxiety and depression, I can very clearly feel the difference between a night at home alone on social media and a game night with a group of friends. The difference in the quality of my sleep alone is enough to prove those articles speak some truth.
However, during quarantine staying social can be tough. That’s why on Panion we’ve created Virtual Gatherings– interest and location-based chat groups to connect you to people in your area for solidarity and co-survival. Once we begin face-to-face socializing again, you’ll have a whole host of new people in your neighborhood, with whom you can start getting to know offline.
Create rules around your screen time
Out of necessity, I’ve made my bedroom an electronics-free zone and it’s worked wonders for my sleep. I’ve tried to stick to the rule of only interacting with one screen at a time (no texting while watching TV) to further break my addiction to my screens. I consciously make an effort to have down time from my devices where they are completely out of sight for prolonged periods of time. When you let your brain sit with itself or focus on something more manual, you become more intuitively aware of how your screens are affecting your mental health. Take some distance and recalibrate in order to find the right balance for your own mind.
Try to stabilize your mood naturally
One of my favorite hobbies, or you might call obsessions, is reading about bacteria and the bacterial communities we rely on for our bodies to function in our environments. Yes it’s nerdy, but Google it sometime, you will be fascinated! I then stumbled upon quite a bit of research linking mental health to gut bacteria. Eventually I found myself ordering what some may call ‘psychobiotics’, specific strains of healthy bacteria that can directly affect your mood and overall mental wellbeing. One probiotic a day helps me feel a lot more stable and my digestion has never been better!
Avoid your own traps
Everyone has their own mental triggers for what makes them have a bad day or feel anxiety. Getting to know yours can help you face them head on or avoid circumstances that might set you off. For example, I know that more than one day in the house without any human contact sends me spiraling downward. So even before corona, if I were home on a weekend or during a holiday, I made sure to take walks and check in with my loved ones. I build it into my schedule because I know it’s a necessity. Get to know the little extras you need to build into your schedule.
Seek additional perspectives
Your brain is really sneaky and can create all sorts of cognitive distortions that veer you away from the reality of a situation you’ve experienced. Like when your partner does something annoying, perhaps for the first time, but then you immediately begin your accusatory sentence with “You always… " Recognizing these distortions, these tricks of the mind, help you step back and assess which situations are real and which situations are figments of your imagination. Mindfulness exercises and speaking to a therapist are two great ways to gain perspective on the thoughts and feelings that are truly eating at your brain. My favorite mindfulness app is Insight Timer and I’ve recently started speaking to a therapist using BetterHelp.
Science shows that imposed positivity actually makes you feel happier. Reframing thoughts with new perspectives can train your brain to be more positive and in turn can make you feel happier even during stressful or uncertain circumstances. Instead of imagining all the “what if’s” try counting the “I’m lucky for’s” instead. I for one, feel grateful that my entire team at Panion is healthy, and that we are supporting each other every morning by checking in virtually on Google Hangouts.
In a time when the world feels especially terrifying and unpredictable, let’s focus on one positive outcome of this experience:
The mental challenges that so many are facing due to COVID-19 could, in the long run, incite more empathy for those with mental health conditions. The pandemic has already started to instigate a global dialogue about the fragility of the mind. With mental health now in the limelight, it’s my hope that we can begin to recognize how equally important it is to take care of your mental health as it is to take care of your physical health and that we begin to improve corporate and governmental policies around providing better mental health services to those in need.
Our own experiences are valuable and often prepare us for similar experiences that might occur in the future. So why not collectively pool our learnings to stand stronger together against difficult times? If you’ve developed a mental health codebook or a set of strategies for coping with your own mental health challenges, now’s the time to reach out and share with a less experienced friend in need.