Combating Stress During Quarantine:
Tools for Emotional Wellness
This is an unprecedented time and it’s causing all kinds of challenges for people. In my practice, I’ve noticed some patterns in the challenges people are experiencing while in quarantine. I want to share 5 of those challenges and tools to address them.
This blog is longer than my past blogs. Feel free to read the whole thing or just jump to the parts that speak to you. It’s organized in the following way: Intro, list of patterns, description of each pattern followed by tools to help.
The Light in the Middle of the Tunnel
Before I jump into the meat of the blog, I want to share something that really hit me recently. Priya Parker on her Together Apart Podcast, talked about “The Light in the middle of the tunnel”. It’s natural to want to know where the end of the tunnel is. To look for the point to focus on, to move towards. One really challenging thing about this situation is that this is not clear. It can be unsettling to not have this to hold on to. This quote communicates an idea that really inspired me – to find ways to access or offer light in the middle of the tunnel. Metaphors and images can be really powerful and this one had a positive effect on me and I wanted to share it.
Fight, Flight or Freeze Response
Our bodies have built in threat detection systems. COVID-19 is “threatening, invisible, unfamiliar and unpredictable.” All factors that can stir your brain’s feeling that there is a threat. Primitive parts or the brain take over when there is a perceived threat and the following happens:
- Logic center of brain is suppressed, reasoning is more difficult
- Fight or flight – increased heart rate, muscles tense, alert, anxious
- Freeze – alertness, anxiety, less access to mobility, restricted breathing
It’s important to keep in mind the underlying physiological responses that we are all managing right now. Everyone deals with this differently but understanding what’s going on in your system can help.
Five Quarantine Patterns
- Illusion of “Free Time” and over expectation of what you can accomplish.
- Difficulty in switching roles (eg. parenting, teaching, working) without changing your physical space (not leaving the house!).
- Old coping mechanisms popping up like old college friends (kinda nice to see them at first but not for this long).
- Significant change in movement patterns leading changes in sleep, mood, anxiety, energy level, patience (I could go on…).
- How to set boundaries with news updates.
Pattern 1: Illusion of Free Time
Here are two quotes that I read that speak to the difficulty of trying to remain as “productive” as you’re used to being during this period of time.
“I tried to write an essay about Quarantine and it took me a month.” Constance Grady
“You don’t have to ‘make the most’ of a global pandemic.” Haley Nahman
Just because you’re home doesn’t mean you have a lot of time! We’ll discuss this more in the next point, but your attention is likely being pulled in many directions. It can be hard to focus and sustained attention is difficult. There’s a lot of underlying anxiety and uncertainty that can make it difficult to sustain your attention and be present. RECOGNIZE all of these and offer yourself some compassion and grace.
Tools (Illusion of Free Time)
- Grace, Self-compassion – Trade ‘Could’ for ‘Should’
- Less comparison – Intentional with Social Media
- Create a Menu not a To-Do List – Trade ‘Productive’ for ‘What would help right now’
- Take time to find your unique rhythm, routine
There’s enough pressure and stress right, be aware of when you’re adding it on yourself. This is a great time to offer yourself more GRACE. This is a practice. Be conscious of the amount of comparison you’re doing. Especially right now. There are great things about social media but there are some really detrimental things as well. YOU GET TO DECIDE WHAT WORKS FOR YOU RIGHT NOW. We are all running our own race. What works for one person may not work for another.
If TO-DO lists help you, great. If they’re an opportunity for more pressure then SWITCH to a MENU of OPTIONS. It’s helpful to have options and to think of these ahead of time – meals, school work, exercise but it’s easy to get unrealistic about TO-DO lists.
Take the time to try to tune into WHAT YOU WANT TO DO. What your rhythm is. Not what works for other people. LET GO OF THE IMAGINARY STANDARD you may be judging yourself by which can be so LOUD that it’s hard to hear yourself.
Maybe you need a gentle start to the day that involves getting outside. Maybe you need to get up and move to start your day. Maybe you’re thinking – this isn’t my choice – my kids get up at 5:30am! Not all of this may be under your control but a lot of it is, and this can be a chance to look at how it makes sense to approach things that work for you and your family. Make choices that are within your control.
Pattern 2: Shifting Roles without leaving your house
Many of us are wearing more hats (parent, professional, home-school teacher, partner) but have less help (lack of daycare, no school or afterschool, no sports, grandparents are not able to help). You may be feeling like you’re not doing any of these roles very well. It’s easy to have unrealistic expectations of yourself right now. You may be hearing things like “just make a schedule,” “have set work times” and maybe that helps some people but maybe you’re struggling to pull that off. As I said in the previous point, FIND WHAT WORKS FOR YOU.
When you are home this much and not switching your physical location throughout the day, there is a lack of contrast. It’s harder to reset and find a respite. It can be difficult during “normal” times to change gears from one role to another. Transitioning to being home after a long work day, balancing being a student with being an athlete, trying to fit in being social amidst all of the other responsibilities of your life. Now it’s become even harder because most of us are not leaving to go to work, or go to the gym or go be with our friends. So what to do about this…
Tools (Role Shifting)
- Find Ways to Create Mindset Shifts
- Reset Expectations (read this as LOWER expectations)
- Identify Footholds for Structure (eg. Meal times)
- Ideal vs. Reality – endless chances for flexibility
- Identify your sense of Purpose (however ‘small’ it might feel)
Even though you may not be able to physically leave the house to go to work (or maybe you can) or send your kids to school, there are ways to help adjust your mindset as you go from one role to another. Granted this may be fluid and require a lot of creativity – but it’s worth trying. I recognize that you may have tried these but sometimes you need to keep trying. Here are some ideas for creating mindset shifts in order to help you shift roles.
Choose a part of the house to work, kids – school
Shower, change clothes as if you’re going to work
Headphones, white noise, music to create boundaries
I joked about set work times but that’s worth attempting even if it needs to be loose
Reset expectations. Especially if you are a high achiever this time may be difficult in feeling like you’re not doing anything particularly well. This may be an opportunity to let go a little and reset what you can expect from yourself in each role. This is EASY TO SAY, HARD TO DO but worth considering as a practice. Talk to your partner or roommate about this and support each other in reminding each other that it’s ok if lunch consists of Mac and Cheese a very high percentage of the time.
It may not be realistic to keep a set structure day to day, but it can be helpful to have some things that keep things in somewhat of a rhythm – meal times, times when your kids can access tech and times when they can’t, having certain days that you do zoom calls every week, appointments with friends to talk. It doesn’t have to be much to provide some really helpful structure (a few things/day).
Back to the Facebook conundrum. Be really careful of how much you’re buying into other people’s glowing reports of the house projects they’ve accomplished or the really cool creative projects their kids have done. Picture a Geometric figure with straight, clean lines and equal angles. This is the ideal that you may think you can achieve. Then there is a shifting, flowing image with a similar shape (like the image projected on a screen behind the stage at a concert). This is the reality. Having goals is fine but understand that it may not work perfectly like you thought it would. Keep reminding yourself to adjust your expectations.
Pattern 3: Old Coping Mechanisms Popping Up
Like an old college friend stopping by for a visit, you may find that some old coping mechanisms may have popped up. This may be in the form of sugar, substances, technology, food, exercise or others. You have less access to your normal coping mechanisms and higher stress. This is a perfect storm for leaning into some of these old patterns. It can feel ‘easier’ to just kind of sink into them. My guess is most or all of you are thinking of a few right now! Or maybe you’re reminiscing about a friend from college. THE KEY IS FINDING BALANCE. And LOOKS DIFFERENTLY FOR EACH PERSON.
At first this seemed like it may be a short period of time (in the realm of weeks). Now it’s stretching on and there can be a creep effect of how this coping mechanism affects us. What was sustainable for days may not be for weeks or months. It was fun to have your friend here for the weekend and you remember all the wonderful things about them but by Monday you realize it’s time for them to go.
What does balance look like for you right now? Do any of these need to go away entirely? Can you be compassionate towards yourself about some that aren’t so bad? Take a bit to think about these questions and be INTENTIONAL about which habits you choose. If you need a reset, take some time after this to think about what you’d like to change.
Tools (Coping Mechanisms)
- Be curious not judgy – what need are you trying to meet through that behavior?
- What does balance look like right now?
- Can they stay for the weekend, visit for a bit, or do they need to go entirely?
- Focus on what you want to do (not just what you don’t want).
- Find something that’s just for you – You’re GO-TO (project, place in the house where you find respite, going for a run).
Pattern 4: Changes in Movement Patterns
Being in quarantine has changed the way all of us MOVE through our lives and I think it’s difficult to really conceive of all of the effects that this is having. The way we work, socialize, exercise and recreate. Our day to day movement patterns have changed significantly and abruptly. Movement is a powerful way to discharge stress and when we can’t move in the same ways it can really affect our stress and anxiety level and mood. Some of you may be leaning into exercise more than usual to cope with the stress of this. If that’s you, keep in mind what balance looks like and how you can reduce your risk of injury – finding slower, rejuvenating activities to offset the rigorous exercise.
Tools (Movement Patterns)
- Keep doing something, anything – settle for the 4th best option for exercise!
- Two birds, one stone (walk the dog).
- Don’t compare! Find what works FOR YOU!
- Try not to compare – it’s great to get ideas but other people’s methods may not work for you.
Pattern 5: Boundaries with the News
How much news is enough? Where to get your news from? You like checking social media but then you get a flood of news that you weren’t looking for. One point I want to make from a bird’s eye view is that for any society, the political system is an important structure. When it is in a chaotic state and there is lack of agreement about how to address a really important and scary situation, it creates mistrust in the effectiveness of the system. This can be very unsettling and destabilizing for people.
It calls for each of us to find footholds, things that help us feel more grounded and settled, in order to manage this uncertainty. How to moderate how much news you are consuming is really tricky right now. This is a personal decision for everyone. Here are some ideas to consider.
- Consciously choose where you’re getting your news.
- You decide when to check – boundaries with phone alerts.
- Intentional screen free time eg. Leave phone in room.
- Personal choice that is different for everyone.
Take Aways: If you forget it all, remember this!
- This is a pandemic, give yourself some grace! (less pressure)
- Do what works (reality not ideal)
- Find footholds to structure your day (simple structures, daily habits)
- Less Comparison (we all run our own race)
Links and Resources
Article “I tried to write an essay about Quarantine and it took me a month”
How To Stop Feeling Guilty For Not Being Productive During Quarantine
Fight, flight, freeze
Together Apart Podcast, Priya Parker
Please feel free to let me know if you have questions or comments!
Andrew Bednarzik, Owner of Riverbank Counseling in Asheville, NC