Taylor Swift’s “You Need To Calm Down” seems to play on a loop in my head. As a clinical psychologist, treating dozens of people paralyzed in panic over the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m thinking it might not be so bad to consider the psychological wisdom in the lyrics of this hit pop song.
We also might do well to recall words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
As the COVID-19 threatens our health, our financial stability, our ability to socialize and connect, it is the anxiety because of the disease that could be more damaging to our health than disease itself. Panic is spreading more rapidly than the actual virus.
So, alright, we need to calm down. But how? Here are seven strategies I share with my clients.
Limit your television news consumption. I am not suggesting that you should not stay informed. But there is a difference between getting information and being obsessed. Being glued to cable news coverage or your social media feed, with messages about just how bad it is and how it is going to get worse does nothing but fuel our anxieties. Give yourself a limit. I recommend no more than 30 minutes a day. And never watch the news or surf your newsfeed before going to sleep. You never see a headline that says, “Calming News.” It’s always “Breaking,” “Warning,” “Alert” – all of which make anxious bedfellows in your head as you are trying to get some sleep.
Get plenty of sleep. Exhaustion can compromise our physical immune system and our mental health. So, get at least seven hours of sleep each night.
Don’t buy into the hysteria. I know this is easier said than done. There is a drumbeat of “lack” and “not enough.” We hear the news that there is a shortage of toilet paper, bottled water and food so people flock to Costco, Walmart, and their local markets to have their worst fears come to life. The drama is alluring. “OMG! There is no Purell! We are all going to die!” I saw one woman in her pajamas frantically throwing items in her cart, terror stricken that someone else might get that last can of Pork ‘N Beans before she did. Breathe. Hysteria breeds hysteria. Avoid the supermarkets and superstores if you can. If you can’t, then make a regular shopping list, go shopping during non-peak hours, recognize in advance that you may not find what you are looking for today, and be kind to others. Also, ask yourself, why do you feel compelled to go shopping at this moment? Is it a real need or are you propelled by fear?
Take inventory. This is a good time to go through our shelves and our freezer and take stock of what we actually have. It will help reduce anxiety to know the facts. “Right now, I have four bars of soap, ten cans of soup, five packs of spaghetti, three frozen chicken breasts and a can of pumpkin pie filling.” Whatever it is, it is real; it is tangible; and that knowledge can be reassuring. It is also a good time to take inventory of the things you have to be grateful for. Taking inventory of the things that you appreciate — writing a gratitude list is always a good thing. It creates peace of mind.
Set a Schedule. Many working in the hospitality industry have been laid off, people are working from home, there is nothing normal about our current experience. Creating and keeping a schedule provides predictability. Some people react to stress stimuli by shutting down. This “one foot in front of the other” approach helps us keep going. It also helps our minds to stop spinning into a world of imagined “what might be” scenarios that only freak us out. Waking up at a certain time, lunch at a certain time, bed at a certain time helps create certainty in an uncertain world. It is also key to get showered and get dressed in the morning like you would normally do. We are creating behavioral anchors to generate stability and calm.
Stay connected. We are social animals. Therefore, social distancing can have devastating consequences. This is especially true for the elderly in the LGBTQ+ community who often feel isolated and alone anyway and may be scared as they hear the warnings that being of a certain age and having depressed immune systems put them at greater risk. Make a list of five to 10 people in your life who are your touchstones to humanity: your best friends, relatives, colleagues from work. Then, add to it, two or three others who might need someone: a friend who just moved away, an elderly neighbor, that guy from your AA meeting. Now, commit to yourself to call them, not texting, but calling, a few times a week just to touch base. Research shows that when we talk to another person and share our stories, the negative psychological impacts of challenging experiences are lessened. This will help you and those to whom you reach out remember we are not alone.
Cut yourself some slack. We did not wake up and suddenly become the Dalai Lama, so finding our inner peace in the Coronavirus chaos may elude us from time to time and that needs to be okay.
With the COVID-19 pandemic we are navigating uncharted territory and these are anxious times. Our goal is not perfect serenity but taking baby steps toward mental manageability. In other words, we need to calm down.