Preserving mental health in a time of uncertainty

April 19, 2020
  • Professional Well-Being
  • covid-19
woman sitting near window with headphones on and drinking tea

Everyone feels down once in a while, even when the going is easy. But in this time of prolonged disquiet, our typical coping mechanisms may become less accessible or less effective. If that's the case, don't be hard on yourself — this time isn't easy for anybody.

Below are a few research-based techniques you can add to your toolbox, from people who know what they’re talking about. Note: If what you’re feeling goes beyond the blues, please reach out to a mental health professional or your primary care provider. 

Rethink 

First of all, be kind to yourself.* Research shows that it’s important to turn up the volume on the loving voice in your head. Acknowledge that you’re having a hard time, but you’re doing your best—or whatever supportive, validating message is appropriate at that moment.

Second, identify what’s going well. Tune into the present moment and see what you can see, smell, hear, touch, or taste that’s O.K.

Third, change what you can. If possible, one you’ve given yourself the chance to acknowledge your feelings and re-ground your senses, take a few minutes for a calming breath exercise, guided visualization, or walk outside. Music can be a powerful ally for shifting our mindset. Make a personalized playlist to boost your mood, or check out the curated playlists below.

* Hat-tip to Professors John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan, University of Montana, for the “Happy Habits for Hard Times” series which informs these tips. Check out more positive psychology resources here.

Catharsis, creativity, and service

One of the keys to our mental well-being is feeling connected to others. Physical distancing has changed how and with whom we can do that. So how do we cope?

It’s possible to learn from those who have gone before us. The Snap Judgment podcast series “Letters from Lockdown” showcases brief, poignant anecdotes from people around the world who have experienced lockdown in various contexts. 

“In other parts of the world, the concept of lockdown isn’t new at all—being forced to stay inside a room, a building, or a closed territory is a familiar experience,” says host Glynn Washington. “What can we learn from people who have been under lockdown before, whether in a war zone, in prison or another setting?”

In the first episode, people share stories of how strategies including catharsis, creativity, and service helped them through prolonged periods of stress and isolation. 

To try any of the above, consider the following, or pursue what inspires you.

  • Catharsis. Read books or poetry, check out podcasts like the one above, watch meaningful movies, or listen to music that helps you move through your feelings.

    Shake your groove thang to this AACRAO Boogies playlist on Spotify, curated by Connect editor Brooke Barnett, for upbeat music made for dancing, working out, or house cleaning. Or check out this Pandemic playlist DJed by Talea Collins, Academic Advisor, Pace University, for 10 hours of classic and topical tunes. 

  • Creativity. What explorations, hobbies, or crafts help you to feel like you’re in the flow? Research shows that creative self-expression can help us cope with difficult emotions.

    But don’t force it. The key to the experience is in the doing. Find an art that feels fun and playful; it’s more about the process than the final product. Here are a few unique ideas from old school public broadcasting and five easy art projects from NPR.

  • Service. Finding a way to help others can increase our sense of connection, meaningfulness, and purpose in the world. How can you help, advocate, or volunteer for causes or people who matter to you right now? Give time or money to that which aligns with your values, find a local organization, or see if you can help your neighbors or friends in need in ways that honor physical distancing guidelines and protect their health.

Do nothing

Finally, remember that it's O.K. — even necessary — to do nothing. Take inspiration from performance artist Pilvi Takala and let your attention wander. Turn away from screens, books, and to-do lists, and accept the awkwardness, boredom or peace, as it comes. 

Tune in to the AACRAO Chill Vibes playlist, also curated by Barnett. At turns quirky, wistful, winsome, and wise, this multilingual compilation is an invitation to pour a cuppa, look at the birds out the window, snuggle with your cat, and chill.