Whether you or a loved one has the coronavirus, or you’ve lost your livelihood as a result of the crisis, or you’re simply stuck at home for weeks on end, maintaining your mental health can be uniquely challenging during the pandemic.
“When there is danger, we tend to go into survival mode. We know what we need to do and we recruit all our mental and physical powers to survive,” Danny Brom, founding director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, told The Times of Israel. Brom is an expert on how people cope with war, terrorism and other disasters.
“But the current challenge is very different because there is no clear enemy. There is a sense of danger, but it’s not something we can recruit our powers against. And our instinct to feel safer by drawing close to others is frustrated by the physical distancing measures.”
All of this leaves many of us feeling ill at ease, said Brom.
“Hugs are a very basic need for people,” he said. “When that is impossible it leaves us with a feeling of not being fulfilled. There’s even research showing that loneliness and lack of connection brings up the same responses as hunger in our bodies and brains.”
A recent study by the UK Institute of Employment Studies of 500 employees on lockdown found that one in three reported feeling socially isolated, one in five worried about their job security, more than half reported feeling new aches and pains in their bodies and half said they are exercising less.
The Times of Israel spoke to a clinical psychologist, a psychiatrist and an organizational psychologist who told us they have observed people experiencing loneliness, anxiety, marital strife, lack of motivation and even guilt over not experiencing negative emotions that others are. Collectively, these mental health professionals offered six strategies for maintaining well-being and even thriving during the pandemic and social distancing measures. These are: cultivating relationships, sticking to a routine, exercising, helping others, distracting ourselves, and finding meaning in our situation.
“Connections are what make people tick,” said Brom. “Human beings are social beings. And this whole period interferes with relationships in quite a brutal way. It really taxes relationships.”
For instance, said Brom, family life is being taxed by having children home from school.
“It’s hard to maintain a routine with children who are out of school and can’t go very far from home. That creates a lot of tension in many families. I’ve heard people saying, ‘This is the way it should be. Now I know how it really is to spend time with my kids. Why didn’t I do more of that before?’ But there are also people saying, ‘I can’t stand it. I’ve had enough. I can’t do this all the time.’ So the consequences can go different ways. You will see some people whose relationships are almost bursting while other peoples’ relationships are becoming more intimate. There will be a lot of babies in nine months and there will be a lot of divorces in the coming year.”
For those who live with other people and those who don’t, Brom said the single most important thing to do for mental health is to stay in contact with friends, families and communities.
“Speak to friends on the internet. There are many synagogues now that do all kinds of activities on Zoom. It’s important to maintain a sense of community.”
Being alone vs. being lonely
Psychiatrist Ilan Tal, founder and CEO at the Dr. Tal Center for Mental and Emotional Support in Tel Aviv, told The Times of Israel that there is a difference between being alone, which many are during the coronavirus pandemic, and being lonely, which is a problem that afflicts many people in Western countries and can be exacerbated by social distancing.
“Being alone is being without anyone else. Being lonely is the feeling that no one can see you or relate to you or understand you. So you can be married, but be lonely.”
He said that loneliness leads to depression, and is considered to be an epidemic in places like the UK, where there is even a minister of loneliness.
Tal believes that in general, Israelis are somewhat less susceptible to loneliness and depression than other societies due to Israelis’ tendency to be very emotionally expressive and forthright, much like Italians and Greeks.
“Israel is very much like Italy, you can sing, you can shout, everything is okay,” he said.
The best way to cope with the pandemic, said Tal, is to cultivate relationships, especially our deepest relationships, the kind where we feel we can express ourselves and are understood.
“I would recommend that we talk more, talk about whatever we feel, and speak the truth more. Choose the people that you can be very pure and authentic with and speak to them as much as you can, not only over the phone, but try to videoconference so that you can see them.”
The importance of routine
If you find yourself losing track of the hours and days while under coronavirus lockdown, you are not alone, and the problem can be alleviated by adding routine to your schedule, said Brom.
“When you’re confined to the home, it’s very easy to go into a sort of floating state, where you have no idea how the day went by,” he said.
Brom said it’s important to get out of bed each morning and make a plan for the day.
“Make a plan, even if it’s when are you going to take a walk. When will you do other things? Are there things that you enjoy that you now you have time for?”
Organizational psychologist and Positive Psychology professor Tal Ben-Shahar recommends writing down what you are looking forward to at the beginning of each day. Ben-Shahar is the creator of the Happiness Studies Academy.
“I recommend when we wake up in the morning, we think about what we’re looking forward to during the day, whether it’s seeing friends or colleagues or whether we’re looking forward to a meal or whatever. There’s research showing that people who do that regularly are less pessimistic and more resilient.”
If we experience a dearth of structure in our lives due to the coronavirus, Ben Shahar says, we can introduce new rituals.
“We need structure; we’re creatures of structure. We need clear rituals in terms of when we exercise and how much we exercise, or when we plan to watch our favorite sitcom. Otherwise, it’s very easy to fall into a state where we don’t know what day it is, what time it is.”
Ben Shahar said there is no right amount of daily or weekly structure that suits everyone.
“The thing is, when we find ourselves falling deeper and deeper into a sad state or a state of lethargy then one of the ways to get out of it is to impose some structure, some healthy rituals.”
He cites exercise, calling one’s parents, family meals and watching movies together as possible rituals. In his own home, his family has introduced a new ritual of daily poetry readings.
Research shows that regular physical exercise has the same effect on our psychological well-being as the most powerful psychiatric medication, Ben-Shahar said.
“People tend to exercise less when they’re stressed, when in fact they need to exercise a lot more. It strengthens physiological and psychological immune system. So if you’re used to exercising three times a week, increase that to five.”
“Make sure to move your body every day for a half hour to an hour. You can do that in creative ways, like putting on music and dancing. Or go for a run. It’s an effective antidepressant.”
Ben Shahar told the Times of Israel that it’s important for mental health not to over-consume bleak coronavirus news.
“We need to distract ourselves, not from reality, but distract ourselves from the bombardment of negative news. That means watching our favorite comedy, listening to music or talking to people about other things.”
“The media right now are not being a mirror, they’re being a magnifying glass of scary and painful news. We don’t need to bury our heads in the sand. We need to be real and in reality not everything is bad.”
Brom told The Times of Israel that to the extent that one can, one should try to help others, whether by volunteering, running errands or in any other way.
“One of the best ways to become more resilient and to strengthen ourselves psychologically is by giving,” Ben Shahar concurred.
“I’ll quote Anne Frank. ‘You can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness.’”
Brom told The Times of Israel that the last few weeks under lockdown have been a period of introspection for many people.
“A lot of people say this is a time to reflect. And for some people, they know that the jobs they were doing will not be coming back. So they are forced to think what now? Do I have the flexibility and skills to do something else?”
Brom said that a very important coping strategy is to find meaning in what is happening, to attribute a cause or explanation to it.
“People are asking themselves, Why did this happen? Some people look to philosophy, some look to religion for answers. Other people are talking about climate change and what that has to do with it. Others believe it was man-made, that there are bad actors behind it.”
Brom said that finding such meaning helps people feel better regardless of whether their conclusions are rational or true.
“If you look at what people learn from a traffic accident, people instantly know who is guilty, it’s always the other person. That is not logical. But it works.”
Ben-Shahar, for his part, says that experiencing gratitude will help make the most of the situation.
“In every situation, even the most difficult of situations, we can always find something to be grateful for, even if it’s just getting through the day.”
Nevertheless, he does believe that good things can come out of the coronavirus crisis.
“There are many good things that can come out of this pandemic. One of them is that it makes us appreciate the ‘little things’ in life more, rather than taking them for granted. Generosity and kindness can actually increase in these times, as could humility about our place in the world.”
He thinks the coronavirus could lead us to focus on important things in life, like relationships.
The question is whether such changes, if they occur, will be lasting.
“After 9/11, some of my colleagues did research looking at New Yorkers. What they found was that New Yorkers became a lot kinder, more compassionate and more generous. And that lasted for about six months.”