Maintain Good Habits
How to Maintain Good Habits Now That Coronavirus Has Blown up Your Routine
Spending all day at home is not exactly conducive to mental health, so we asked psychologists for advice.
By Anna Callaghan. March 18, 2020. From GQ Magazine
The age of social distancing is here, and cabin fever is already setting in. Whether you’ve lost your job or are one of the lucky ones simply confined to work from home for the foreseeable future, the daily lives of most people already look vastly different than they did a week ago. And if you’ve been isolated for even a few days, it will not come as news that being stuck inside during an already stressful time can make it easy to slip into bad habits: Maybe you’re obsessively refreshing the news or scrolling for hours on Instagram and Twitter, or you’re eating like shit and drinking like you’re nineteen.
The unfortunate truth is that nobody knows how much longer all of this might last. So it’s imperative we all figure out how to make this work.
Find Some Structure
According to Philadelphia therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, the lack of structure can create a string of days that run together, where a you feels untethered and each day feels devoid of meaning.
“People can become depressed or anxious because structure can provide an understanding of what’s next and it can help us organize what we’re doing in each moment,” she says. “But without it we start to forget what our purpose is. It’s the perfect storm for creating a bunch of really difficult feelings at the same time: sadness, guilt, anxiety.”
Mimi Winsberg, psychiatrist and co-founder of Brightside, a digital mental health company focused on depression and anxiety, says that structure provides a sense of security.
“The reassurance of a predictable routine calms nerves without us even realizing it,” she says. “When structure or routine vanishes suddenly because of something outside your control, it can feel like having a rug pulled out from under you.”
This uncertainty we feel drives the need to compulsively refresh our feeds and read every coronavirus update out there. We’re trying to get information that will alleviate the stress that’s causing our uncertainty.
“But when the answers people are seeking do not yet exist, it easily translates into obsessing over the news and spending too much time on screens,” says Winsberg.
The stress we have also increases cravings for things that bring us immediate satisfaction, like junk food and alcohol. Eating better—which has been shown to help calm moods–and sleeping well both help manage stress and keep your immune system strong. Exercise, too, works to calm nerves. “Get comfortable with discomfort: Uncertainty is uncomfortable. But uncertainty is also part of life, and the emotions we feel, like fear and anxiety, are manageable.”
These are strange times, said Earnshaw, because it partly feels like a vacation and partly feels like the end of the world. It doesn’t feel much like real life, but we need to remind ourselves that it is real life.
“It’s important to figure out ways to put boundaries in place and replicate a life that feels real and has structure,” said Earnshaw. She recommends sitting down and thinking of all the things in your life that feel important and healthy. Maybe you went to the gym every day and now you can’t. Look beneath the thing that feels important and ask yourself why. Why does going to the gym feel valuable to you? “Maybe it’s important because you like moving your body, so figure out how to move your body in your daily life or within your home.”
Your 9-to-5, whether you realized it or not, kept you tethered to certain rituals: getting up at a certain time, doing the same commute, leaving your desk at a certain time, etc. This routine offered clear ways to mark when things started and ended, but when you’re at home it’s much more difficult to make that distinction.
To get that structure back, decide on a schedule for yourself and stick to it: when to wake up, how to get dressed, when to start working, when to shower, exercise, and eat.
Your New Home Life
The coronavirus crisis has also opened up all kinds of new potential for interpersonal conflict. Maybe you live with roommates you barely talk to and suddenly you’re spending a ton more time with these people, or you’re spending every day within 40 feet of your partner. This can create tension as people try to figure out how to share and use the space in new ways.
Winsberg recommends finding ways to create psychological and physical space at home, like noise cancelling headphones or retreating to your bedroom.
“Instead of waiting until you’re really angry that someone keeps bringing their friends into the house, sit down and have that awkward conversation now,” said Earnshaw.
If multiple people are working from home, figure out what you all need to be successful and then talk openly about that. Where is everyone going to sit? What kind of personal space do people need? Boundaries are all about being transparent, and to set them we have to be open and honest about our mental, physical, emotional, and material needs.
Some of these conversations are going to be awkward, but Earnshaw says we just need to do it—she recommends the “gentle start-up,” a technique to help make it slightly less weird.
“You say that you’ve noticed or observed something, that you feel something about it, and that you need something. I’ve noticed the dishes are really piling up, I’m feeling anxious about it, I need us to come up with a solution,” she says. The goal is to avoid making someone feel defensive, and to start a conversation that creates connection instead of an argument.
“Normally we don't spend this much time around each other, so it's not indicative that there’s a problem, it's just indicative that we’re having to figure out a new flow,” said Earnshaw. “The more open you can be to this other person's needs, the more open they’re probably going to be to your needs. Try to think of this as a problem to be solved instead of just a problem.”