The coronavirus pandemic has added obstacles, but it hasn’t changed the things that make us happy and mentally healthy.
“We already know a lot of this stuff,” said Kim Schneiderman of NAMI Southwest Washington, a nonprofit peer-support agency. NAMI recently published a new booklet called “Resiliency During COVID-19 and Beyond” that is “pretty comprehensive but also pretty specific to our county,” Schneiderman said. NAMI also has a guide to talking about suicide. (Find both booklets at www.namiswwa.org.)
NAMI’s favorite example of resiliency — the ability to bounce back when things go wrong — is Thomas Edison, an inventor so successful he was called a wizard. But Edison burned through thousands of light bulb prototypes before he hit upon the formula that worked and changed the world.
“I have not failed,” Edison reportedly said. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Here are mental-health strategies that work, according to experts.
• Maintain a daily routine. “Get up in the morning at the same time, continue to eat a healthy breakfast,” said George Keepers, the chair of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University. “If you want to stay healthy, maintain those routines.”
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• Exercise. “It’s the first prescription most doctors give depressed people,” Keepers said. “Exercise is critical to mental health.”
Going outdoors to move your body is harder now, but that’s why indoor exercise equipment and videos exist. “When I was a kid, there was Jack LaLanne,” Keepers said. Today, all you have to do is explore YouTube to discover a vast variety of exercise styles and challenges, from gentle dance steps for overall fitness to targeted muscle and heart strengthening led by instructors who never stop cheering you along.
• Extra hugs. If you’re lucky enough to be locked down with people you love, don’t skimp on affectionate touches. Touch generates chemicals in the brain associated with well being, stress relief, bonding and pleasure, according to OHSU neuroscientist Larry Sherman.
• Stay social. Agreed, Zooming with your grandchildren is not the same as hugging them. Nonetheless, try to appreciate and employ the modern miracle of technology that still brings us face-to-face.
“The virtual modes may not be as satisfactory, but it’s so important to maintain social connections,” Keepers said.
As soon as the pandemic began, telecommunications giants like AT&T and Verizon reported huge rises in voice-to-voice phone calls and the duration of those calls, indications that people have turned back to good old spoken conversation for connection and comfort.
• Maintain your treatment. If there’s any surprise silver lining to the pandemic’s disruption of in-person mental health care, Keepers said, it’s that people are discovering the ease and convenience of online and telephone appointments.
“Going to the doctor is a pain in the neck,” he said. “There are some people who don’t respond well to virtual, but the great majority do.” Surprisingly, missed psychiatric appointments have dropped due to telemedicine, he said, and access is greatly improved for people in rural areas.
• Make meaning in your life. Take on projects, whether they’re home improvements or great books. Try an online class in whatever interests you: birdwatching, cooking, history, music, brewing beer.
“Take back a hobby or start a new one,” said Schneiderman. “People can stay about as busy as they want with support groups and classes, there’s so much out there now.”
“Keep moving forward,” Keepers said. “A sense of accomplishment is important for mental health. Keep your mind engaged.”
• Form a pandemic pod. Make a pact with certain family members and friends to stay more or less quarantined from the outside world in order to maintain easier, trustworthy connections and safety within the group. “We’re very comfortable interacting with each other because we know each one is being hyper-vigilant out there,” Schneiderman said.
• Don’t “hibernate.” “Move yourself. Do things. Don’t sit and watch TV,” Schneiderman said. “Life is still good. This is a moment with a lot of isolation and loneliness, and it impacts people in different ways. But the sun still shines and we still have hope for the future. You can’t achieve anything without hope.”