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Find your calm during the COVID-19 storm

Insights, advice and resources

By Pat Blumenthal, PsyD, licensed psychologist at The Portland Clinic.

Senior man sitting outdoors

We are living in extraordinary times. Everything happening with the pandemic, the response and the fallout is so disorienting. We walk around dazed and numb. Daily life feels surreal, and our sense of time is warped — what we thought happened last week actually just happened this morning. This is what trauma victims and people in acute grief feel.

It’s completely normal to find ourselves unable to concentrate on anything right now. While we shelter in place, this would seem like the perfect time to catch up on reading, crafting, cleaning and house projects, but anything that requires more than 15 minutes of sustained attention feels almost impossible. We pick something up and set it back down. Where are our keys? This is what someone with ADHD experiences every day.

Everything gets on our nerves. Pets are constantly underfoot. Kids are moody and needy. We know we should be handling things better, but the slightest irritation gets under our skin and we feel ready to snap. This is what people with mood dysregulation (depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality) feel every day.

We clean everything a million times over. Our hands are raw from washing, and we worry: are our housemates washing their hands enough? We wonder: did I clean that doorknob well enough? And we do it again. This is what a person with OCD encounters daily.

We worry about the future. What if this pandemic goes on for months? Will we be able to pay our bills? What if someone in our family gets sick? These are the kinds of worries that people with generalized anxiety disorder deal with every day.

All of the thoughts and feelings that we’re having right now, during this pandemic, are experienced by many people every day. They survive and manage their symptoms, and so can you.

Anxiety signals us to take action

Most of us are experiencing some level of anxiety and fear because this virus is an actual threat. We are hardwired as human beings to feel anxious in the face of a threat; indeed, that anxiety is what helps us survive, because it signals us to take action and defend ourselves.

The actions that we can take have been spelled out for us: hand-washing, social distancing and staying at home. If we do these things, we should be able to stay safe. Being proactive like this can give us some comfort and help reduce our anxiety.

Turn down your anxiety alarms

Anxiety can become overwhelming when we continually expose ourselves to alarms. Every time you read, watch or hear a story about the pandemic, it’s like a fire alarm going off. If you heard actual alarms going off all day, your nerves would be frayed and your blood pressure shot.

If you find that you can’t relax, sleep or keep your emotions in check, you are probably hearing too many alarms. You need to establish boundaries to protect yourself — and you have the power to do that. Limit your exposure to alarming news stories and to friends or family members who make you feel worse. Keep adjusting those boundaries until you find a healthy balance.

Find your calm

Here are some other effective ways to promote calmness in your life. The key is to find the ones that work for you and to practice them daily. Practice is what makes them so effective — the more you do them, the more automatically your body and brain respond.

Meditate. There are lots of ways to meditate, from listening to your breathing to practicing progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery. Here are some resources to guide you, including apps that are offering free access during this time:

Connect. Set aside time each day to text, call or Facetime people whom you care about and who bring you comfort.

Move. Avoid spending most of the day on your couch or in bed. Get up and move around. Stretch. Get some exercise. Look online for videos and apps that can guide you through fun routines, such as these:

Get some fresh air. Even if you just stand outside your door and take a few deep, cleansing breaths, you will feel better. Breathing through your nose is particularly beneficial. Deep breathing helps to reset your nervous system.

Sleep. Get as much sleep as you can, preferably 8-9 hours a night. Sleep is your body’s way of healing. It helps sweep away the debris in your brain and start the new day clearer. See our sleep hygiene tips.

Tune out. Limit your news dosage to one or two times per day, just to get an update, then turn it off.

Find creative outlets. Immerse yourself in a book. Draw. Paint. Play with your children, pets or partner. There are tons of free things to see and do online now — for example:

Be kind to yourself. If you can only concentrate on one thing today, that’s OK. If you can’t do laundry or cook a big meal, that’s OK, too. Just take care of the basics and be OK with that.

Talk it out. Find ways to open up and get your feelings out, whether by sharing with a trusted friend, journaling or seeking out professional help. The Portland Clinic’s therapists now offer telehealth as an alternative to in-person visits.

There are plenty of other articles online about coping during this challenging time, including this helpful piece from the Harvard Business Review: That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.

What we are going through today is unlike anything we’ve endured before, but we do have the ability to get through it, and to strengthen our minds, bodies and connections with one another in the process. The most important thing to remember is that it won’t always be like this — things will eventually return to normal. Until then, if you have a bad day, you can choose to do something differently to make tomorrow better. You are more resilient than you think. And you are not alone; we are all in this together.