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How to look after your mental health during COVID

Stressed? We feel you. Here’s how to practice self-care during unprecedented times.

The words “unprecedented times” get thrown around a lot these days, so let’s say this: At the beginning of 2020, few people could have predicted that we would be navigating a pandemic, multiple natural disasters, a massive social justice movement and a contentious election season all at once — not to mention social isolation, Zoom meetings, working from home (possibly while managing your kid’s homework) and so on. It’s… a lot. So don’t feel too bad if you haven’t taken the time to sit back and reflect on it.

That said, acknowledging the day-to-day stress of what’s going on —and processing the complicated emotions you might have about all of it — might be the most important work you can do as we begin what is sure to be an unprecedented autumn.

We reached out to two licensed marriage and family therapists, Kim Egel and Deitra Baker, to learn how you can look after your mental health during COVID. They talked with us about when (and how) to change up your daily routine, and how to prioritize self-care — even if you only have a few free minutes in your jam-packed day. They also told us when it might be time to reach out to a professional for help. Here’s their expert advice.

In this article:

Accept the “new normal”

When the first COVID-related lockdowns began in March, many of us assumed we would only need to quarantine ourselves for a few weeks. Now, we can assume that we’ll be wearing masks, practicing social distancing, avoiding unnecessary travel and so on for the foreseeable future. “This is not going to be a sprint,” Baker told us. “It’s more of a race of endurance.”

Both Egel and Baker emphasized the importance of accepting the “new normal.” You might be working from home — and your children might be learning from home — for much longer than you had originally anticipated. We’re going to have to learn how to evaluate various risks, from forming learning pods to attending protests to setting up an outdoor visit with the grandparents. We may have to do all of this while dealing with natural disasters, such as the derecho that flattened the Midwest or the fires that blanketed the West Coast — and we’re still going to have to prepare for flu season, colder weather and the holidays. (Sorry to break it to you, but you still have to do your holiday shopping this year.)

We’re also going to have to learn how to evaluate our own mental health — and how to adjust our lives to reduce the kinds of stresses that can exacerbate mental health issues. This might mean taking more time for self-care than you had previously allowed yourself, especially if you are a busy parent balancing work and childcare during the ongoing pandemic. Baker, who regularly contributes to Mater Mea, a blog for Black moms, offers this analogy: “A lot of parents are trying to run off the same tank of gas. A while ago we may have been able to put regular fuel in our cars, but now we need to upgrade to premium.”

Pay attention to your feelings

When people think about what it might mean to spend more time on self-care, they often jump straight to action items like “get more exercise” or “download a meditation app.” The first step in mental health management is a lot simpler than that — and, in some ways, a lot harder. All you have to do is stop, check in with yourself and pay attention to what you’re feeling.

“People are occupying their brains with things, moving with one task to the next, but they haven’t sat with the idea that life has changed,” Baker explains. “Being able to sit with that is a good starting place.”

Some people are able to do this kind of work on their own, and others find it helpful to process their emotions with a mental health professional. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a therapist or sign up for an online therapy platform like BetterHelp or Talkspace. There are even AI solutions available — Woebot, for example, lets you process your emotions with a mental health chatbot trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

When you give yourself time to both acknowledge and feel your feelings, you might uncover some strong emotions. Be prepared for anger, grief, frustration, and fear to pass through your body. Having a journal, a box of tissues, or a pillow you can pummel nearby can help you experience and process these feelings — and you might find that once you allow yourself to fully experience the emotions you had been previously ignoring, you’ll feel calmer and more relaxed.

Taking the time to acknowledge your feelings might even help you make better decisions. “When we don’t carve out time for grounding and clarity, we tend to make more mistakes,” Egel explains. Spending time processing your emotions could, for example, make the difference between putting away your phone for the evening and spending the whole night doomscrolling. Once you deal with the feelings you’ve been hiding or suppressing, it’s easier to be present with your family, with your co-workers, and — most importantly — with yourself.

Adjust your routine

After you’ve taken the time to sit with your feelings — and this is the type of activity that you should be prioritizing on a regular basis — it’s worth asking yourself if it’s time to change a few of the habits you and your family picked up during quarantine. “It’s important to question our regular routines every now and then to make sure that they’re still relevant,” says Egel.

Baker agrees. “Many parents are trying to maintain the same routine and same lifestyle they were living prior to COVID. Another set of parents made some adjustments to their routine in March, but since this is for the long haul, now we’re needing to readjust and come up with a long-term plan.”

Adapting your routine for the long haul could include everything from re-evaluating your workouts to adjusting your budget to investing in a fire pit so that the family can enjoy the backyard as the weather gets colder. If you’d like a step-by-step guide to rebalancing your time and money during the pandemic, we’ve got one — so start there and see if any of our suggested changes inspire you to make a few adjustments.

Make incremental shifts

Sometimes, self-care suggestions like “get eight hours of sleep every night” feel more stressful than achievable. Egel and Baker suggest starting small. If you’re getting four hours of sleep a night, for example, see if you can adjust your schedule to get five hours — or even four hours and thirty minutes. If you don’t have time for a ten-minute meditation, try a three-minute one. For Haven Life customers you can take advantage of Aaptiv, an award-winning fitness app that offers wellness programs of various lengths and is available at no cost through Haven Life Plus. And, hey, if even three minutes seems like too much, try taking ten deep breaths.

“It’s taking your baseline and stretching it to be a little better,” Baker explains. “If you haven’t been exercising at all, it’s taking a five-minute walk around the block.”

In many cases, the benefits provided by something as simple as a five-minute walk will inspire you to continue shifting your habits — from five minutes to fifteen minutes to thirty minutes and so on. You can apply the same kinds of incremental shifts to your children’s lives and habits, whether you’re dialing down the screen time or dialing up the fruits and vegetables. “Know their baseline and begin moving the dial in the right direction,” Baker advises.

Take time for yourself

Both Egel and Baker also spoke to the importance of spending time on your own — even if you can only grab a few minutes of private time in a day packed with Zoom meetings and childcare. “I get it,” Egel told us. “The last thing you think you can do is carve out time for yourself. Do what you need to get some solo time in.”

Baker suggests taking your solo time at the beginning of the day. “Prioritize the first few minutes of your day. Give yourself what you need.” If you’re a parent, Baker offers this advice: “Being able to get up five, ten minutes earlier than your children is a huge win. When you’re able to get up before your kids and they’re not rushing you out of bed, you don’t wake up in this panicked state of stress.”

Seek professional help

We mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth restating: Some people may be able to practice self-care and prioritize their mental health on their own, and other people may find it more beneficial to work with a mental health professional. If that’s you, make sure you prioritize getting the support you need — and don’t feel embarrassed about asking for help.

“This is a great time for mental health support,” Baker advises. “There are so many mental health providers. They’re meeting over the phone, over Zoom, over text.”

Some people assume that therapy is only for people who need to work on so-called “serious issues.” Today’s mental health professionals are ready to provide all kinds of help — so feel free to reach out to a therapist if you want help adjusting your habits, connecting with your feelings or even finding a way to get an extra hour of sleep every night. If you want to know how to make your life — or your family’s life — even a little bit better, mental health professionals have the tools to help you manage stresses, make better choices, communicate with loved ones or prioritize your own needs.

“Taking time for self-care is worth the investment,” Egel reminds us. Sometimes that means investing in yourself, and sometimes that means investing in professional help. If you’ve never considered working with a therapist before, keep in mind that these are unprecedented times. Bringing a mental health professional onto your team might be the best thing you can do for yourself and your family as we continue to navigate what has been an unexpected and life-changing year — and prepare for whatever 2021 might bring.

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

Read more by Nicole Dieker

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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

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Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (DTC and ICC17DTC in certain states, including NC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111-0001 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. In NY, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. In CA, Haven Term is DTC-CA 042017. Haven Term Simplified is a Simplified Issue Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC19PCM-SI 0819 in certain states, including NC) issued by the C.M. Life Insurance Company, Enfield, CT 06082. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas 100139527.

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