BREATHE HOPE: Eleven Tips to Promote Mental and Relational Health During COVID-19

Amidst these hard times, I wanted to share some research-backed tools to promote well-being and foster connections amidst social distancing. 

I’m going to start with three of the basics and move on from there. I hope these will be a gift to you and a reminder to all of us to B.R.E.A.T.H.E. H.O.P.E.  

Breathe deeply and squarely if need be. Breathing slowly and deeply sends a message to our brain to calm down and relax, thus relieving stress, tension, and anxiety. Consistent deep breathing can also lower our heart rate and blood pressure as it changes our blood flow. 

If you are experiencing panic or anxiety attack, try square breathing– find a square in the room you are in (e.g. a window, picture) and trace the four edges with your eyes or fingers. As you visually make your way around the square, breathe in to a count of four on the first side, exhale on the next side; continue to do this as you make your way around the square to help regulate your breathing. 

Rest. Sleep is a vital human function and is related to our everyday health and well-being. Sleep literally helps our body and brain recharge and repair. This is especially true in times of heightened stress as the brain chemicals connected with sleep are the same ones that tell our body to stop producing stress hormones. [It’s important to note that research also indicates there is a correlation between lack of sleep and depression, so in a time such as this when we are more prone to feeling blue, it is imperative to practice good sleep hygiene.]

Exercise and Eat Well. Exercise boosts our mood by increasing our feel-good neurotransmitters, specifically our endorphins, and is a natural stress reliever. Plus, research indicates that exercise changes our brain by helping to make up happier, braver, and more alert to joy.  If you are able to exercise outside, even better as natural light elevates our mood and increases our vitamin D levels (which in turn helps prevent and fight depression). Be mindful not to overdo it, though, as too much exercise and exercising while sick increases medical complications.  

AND when we exercise regularly, we tend to eat healthier foods (known as the transfer effect), which in turn keeps our immune systems healthy and helps us fight coronavirus

Acknowledge sadness, grief, loss, and frustration. Whether it’s tragic loss of life, health, loved ones, jobs, or income, or loss of weddings, graduations, vacation plans, marathons, and routines – allow space for sadness and frustration. As a psychologist I tell my clients that pain is pain. We should not compare it or try to hierarchize it.  We should not deny it or downplay it either. Rather, let’s listen – without judgment – to our own heart and that of others. Let’s acknowledge the grief and ambiguous loss during this pandemic.  

Parents– please take note that trying to “always look on the bright side,”  “count your blessings” or “fix” your child or teen’s sadness or frustration can be dismissive and undercutting of their emotions. Notice the difference here: Madeline (my 8 year-old daughter) says I’m so upset that we can’t do our school play now because of the stupid coronavirus. We practiced so much and it was going to be so fun! A well-intended parental response might be: At least we’re healthy and well…and hey! I’ve got an idea; let’s recreate the play at home! whereas a more appropriate parental response would be be: It’s so disappointing. You and your classmates did practice so much. It stinks that it’s canceled and I’m sorry for your loss.

Turn unproductive anxiety to productive concern and action. Let me start by saying this – it is normal to be anxious right now amidst the coronavirus pandemic. As we shelter in place, obsessively wash our hands, and pray continually for our first responders and grandparents, we can’t help but be on overdrive and hyper-alert; it is inevitable during these unprecedented and hard times. So let’s distinguish between the unproductive, cascading, rabbit-trail of “what if’s” that we create in our minds and anxiety that calls us to take control and act.  When we name the anxiety for what it is, it puts us back in control and allows us to explore more productive ways to relate to it. [Note that I am externalizing the anxiety purposefully; remember it does not define you.] It’s helpful to get specific with your anxiety, writing down root causes and then action plans (e.g. check in with neighbor; make a grocery list; fill prescriptions; meditate* and pray). Know that action binds anxiety whereas avoidance heightens it.  *If you are having trouble calming your mind on your own, try one of these ADAA apps that might help. 

Honor the space between. Living, working, and parenting in close quarters with no clear divide between home and work presents new challenges (and opportunities!) for many of us. It is crucial to set boundaries both on a practical and emotional level. For example, where is your space for work as opposed to your partner’s or kids? What exactly are your work hours during this time? What feelings are yours to own and take responsibility for? Is someone else’s feelings dictating your own? Are you continually sacrificing your own needs to please another? Establishing and honoring boundaries is a way to care and respect ourselves and others during these unique and unprecedented shelter in place times.

Empathize and reach out. Empathy means “feeling into” and there are three types of empathy that psychologists differentiate between: cognitive empathy, social/emotional, and empathic concern. Cognitive empathy is when we understand someone else’s perspective whereas social or emotional empathy is when you feel another’s emotions. Empathic concern is when you are motivated to take action to help the other. 

Bottom line: research indicates that when we practice all types of empathy it improves our mental health and relationships. Even more relevant to these times, research shows that the best ways to combat feelings of social distancing and isolation is to care for others. 

Here are some specific ways to empathize and reach out during this coronavirus pandemic:

  • Offer to grocery shop for some senior citizens in your neighborhood.
  • Send letters and care packages to first responders. 
  • Support local stores and restaurants by buying gift cards to use at a later time.
  • Express gratitude to those whose jobs make them more vulnerable (grocery store workers, food service industry, bank tellers).

Parents– this is a great read on cultivating empathy in kids.

Have faith. The coronavirus pandemic has left many of us worried, scared, and perhaps even doubting and questioning the goodness of God (not unlike world hunger, poverty, sex trafficking, and the list goes on). Many of us already know people who are fighting for their life as they battle Covid-19 and it leads us to ask, Why? Why would a good God allow suffering? This is what theologians, philosophers, scientists and saints have pondered over centuries. And there is no simple answer. In the end, perhaps this is one the greatest of mysteries. Yet, as a follower of Jesus, I know he understands suffering; he has lived it. And I am reminded of Phillip Yancey and C.S. Lewis’s words, respectively, and hope they can be an encouragement to you: 

Jesus did not come into this world to take away suffering or to explain it, but to fill it with His presence in His time.

Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Perhaps even more encouraging – and challenging for some – is that research indicates that those who believe in a loving and kind God cope better with stress and experience fewer symptoms of depression in times of crisis, as well as have increased feelings of compassion and connectedness. So hold on to your faith, friends; and if you’re not sure what you believe in, maybe start here

Own and express your emotions, including gratitude and positivity. Whatever emotion you are experiencing, know that it is okay. Accept the emotions that arise – even if they feel all over the map – and don’t try to deny or escape them. Research has shown that avoidance of strong negative emotions only makes them stronger and more long lasting. But when we name it to tame it, we take the reins of our emotions

As you become more aware of your internal world, pay attention to acts of kindness and compassion and express appreciation. Be on the lookout for the good. Crises have the potential to bring out the best in people and research indicates that protecting others motivates us to do the right thing. If you’re skeptical, look to the heroes – the doctors, nurses, and first responders that are treating infected people while risking their own and their family’s health. Talk about inspiration.

Pray, practice self-compassion, and unplug. My friend recently introduced me to Every Moment Holy, and specifically the Liturgy for Those Flooded with Too Much Information. It struck a chord and reminded me that sometimes we need to simply sit quietly in the presence of holy. We need to be still. We need to be present. We need to unplug. And we need to remind ourselves that these are hard moments shared by every single one of us, for we are all broken and vulnerable. And yet, love and grace have come and are ours if we chose it. 

To encourage you in this end, know that meditative and liturgical prayer activate areas of our brain that help us regulate our emotional responses and remain more calm and less reactionary in face of stressors

Encourage one another. One of the kindest things we can do during this time is to offer words of encouragement to each other. At its core, encouragement is an expression of affirmation and support. It’s a gift that can provide others the strength to look ahead and move forward, step by step, day by day. 

So may we all take deep breathes, look for the good, name the hard, and encourage one another. Step by step. Day by day. BREATHE HOPE.

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