A Therapist's Guide to Social Distancing
With COVID-19 rapidly spreading and evolving, many of us have been told the best course of action is social distancing--staying away from other people and places until the threat of the virus declines. This recommendation should be taken seriously, as it will help protect our physical health and the physical health of those we care about. However, as a therapist, I recognize that social distancing and isolation can take a toll on our emotional and mental health. There are many qualified places to get information regarding the virus and how to keep your body healthy. This isn’t that. Rather, I hope this guide serves as a resource to aid in promoting the wellbeing of yourself, your relationship, and your family during this challenging time.
Take a break from the news
Yes, it is okay. I promise. While it can be tempting to be constantly monitoring the news from your phone or TV, especially with information evolving as fast as it is, it is healthy to take some mental space from it. Check in with yourself as you take in news and social media posts about COVID-19. Will this information keep me informed, or will it just make me feel worse? We need some information, but if you can recognize it is coming from a place of fear, be kind to yourself and walk away.
Get dressed every day
Even if you have nowhere to go, changing out of your pajamas will help give you a small sense of normalcy.
Make a schedule
When are you going to do work? When are you going to eat? When are you going to get fresh air? When are you going to speak to friends on the phone? Even though most of our routines have been disrupted by this pandemic, creating new routines will be just as critical for our wellbeing and will remind us to be intentional about how we use our time.
Have realistic expectations
It can be very tempting to tell yourself you’re going to read all those books that have been sitting on your bedside table or brush up on that language you learned in high school, but having unrealistic goals for your time in social isolation will only feel worse when those goals aren’t met.
Make a work-free space
If you are working from home, it might feel easier to sit in bed with your laptop, but the lack of physical space between work and rest will lead to a lack of mental space and may disrupt sleep. Designate a work place and a rest space and hold those boundaries.
Writing letters that you’ll never send can be therapeutic. Write to someone who is no longer living to update them on life now. Write to someone who hurt you and then rip it to shreds. Write to your past or future self.
Move your body
The research is clear about the benefits of exercise, and just because the gyms are closed doesn’t mean you can’t move! Many fitness companies, such as CorePower Yoga, Peloton, and Fab Fit Fun, are offering free online classes. There are also a lot of great fitness instructors on Youtube. My personal favorite is Yoga with Adriene. Whether on your own, with family, or with a friend on video chat, caring for your body is also good for your mind.
When you’re feeling extremely anxious or restless or just need a break, there are many phone apps that will walk you through a guided meditation. Calm, Insight Timer, and Headspace are just three of what seems like an endless realm of options. Slumber is another popular app that has meditations and sleep stories for quieting your mind at night.
Especially as the weather gets nicer, allow yourself time out of the house. Take walks or go for a hike, maintaining a safe distance from others, or simply sit outside in the sun.
If you’re feeling anxious or lonely or just pensive, journaling is an awesome tool. Here are some prompts, or feel free to free write.
What emotions am I feeling today?
What has changed based on recent events? What has stayed the same?
What do I want to remember about this time?
What am I thankful for?
Who is supporting me through this time?
What expectation of normal can I let go of today?
What is something that brought me joy today?
How can I bring joy to others today?
We are so fortunate that the technology exists for us to be able to stay in touch with the people we care about. Make sure you are calling, Facetiming, and texting friends and family, even the ones who live nearby. Plan to have dinner at the same time as your friend and eat together like you would if you were able to meet at a restaurant. Message your coworker that comment you would have made if you were still at your desks sitting next to each other. Check in on the people in your life who are immunocompromised and/or at higher risk because of age, as they may be the most isolated.
Do something about it
Nothing like a pandemic to make you feel completely helpless. While staying isolated seems like the recommended course of action, in the moment, it can feel like a lonely and powerless place to be. To combat this, look up local organizations you care about and see how you can help (volunteering from afar, fostering a pet, or donating canned goods or hygiene items). Buying online gift cards from local businesses will also help them make it through this challenging time (and gives you something to look forward to!)
If nothing else, follow this acronym: BACE--body care, achieve, connect, and enjoy. Make sure you’re doing at least one activity from each category every day to stay balanced.
For Your Relationship
Space is okay
Just because you’re in social isolation together, doesn’t mean you have to spend every second side-by-side. Allow for space and have patience if tensions run high. This is also your reminder that just because you might be finding it hard to spend every waking moment with your partner, does not mean your relationship isn’t a good fit.
Set COVID-free time
As is the case with many emergencies, both personal and global, it’s easy to fall into talking only about the crisis at hand, especially with the person you consider to be your partner through tough times. Similarly to taking a break from the news, space from discussing this topic is really healthy. With your partner, agree on set times to not let yourselves discuss it--I recommend during meals and before bed. If this is proving to be too challenging, flip it--set up times to talk about it. Set an alarm and allow yourselves 10 minutes at a designated point in the day to share news updates or concerns about the future. Anyone who breaks the rule? They add a dollar to the COVID jar--funds can be donated to an organization of your choice or used to sponsor a future date night.
Keep up with date night
Speaking of date night, just because you’re inside does not mean that date night has to end! Here are some at-home date ideas to keep your relationship growing and thriving.
Fitness + Yoga Night | Turn on a fitness video and power through a workout together.
Chopped | Just like in the TV show, take 4 random ingredients from your kitchen and challenge each person to incorporate them into a meal.
Massages | Find an instructional video, grab some lotion, and learn how to give each other massages.
Paint Night | All you need is some paper and art supplies. Create whatever comes to mind or for an added challenge? Paint portraits of each other.
The Taste Test | Blindfold your partner and see if they can tell the difference between different categories of food in your pantry--candy bars, sodas, jelly beans, or nuts are good options.
Picnic | The classic indoor date--spread a blanket on the floor and pack your dinner. Almost as good as being outside!
For Your Family
Make a schedule
Just as it’s important for you to have a schedule, it is even more so for your kids. Help them adjust by creating a schedule (a tangible one that they can see) for the day in as much detail as you can. This will be an extremely handy tool in making time for schoolwork, since it will be much harder to encourage kids to do their work with the temptation of their home toys! Additionally, if you’re working from home, it might be confusing for your child to have you home together but spending long chunks of time focused on something that isn’t them. Building parent-child time into your schedule, where your focus is on them, could help combat some of that stress.
Bedtime is bedtime
Bedtime is bedtime is bedtime is bedtime is bedtime. Your child might think that because they don’t have to wake up for school, they can stay up as late as they’d like. For their immune systems and ability to function (and for your own sanity), keep kids on the same schedule they are on during the weekday. On weekends, if you have a different policy, keep that the same as well. However, a reminder that the goal here is that we want consistency, not inflexibility.
Grandparent play date
Since grandma and grandpa should not come visit and put themselves at risk, a video play date with an older adult in your kids’ lives could be just as fun. Let your little person play show-and-tell with a grandparent to show them cool toys or things from their room--guaranteed to be delightful for everyone involved!
Do a feelings check-in
Whatever you are feeling, your kid is probably feeling a version of as well. Create a space for everyone to be able to say how they feel and have you validate it. For example, if your kid says “I’m scared that all my friends will get sick”, it is not helpful to say “Don’t worry about it!”--this is rather invalidating and confusing for your child. Instead, validate the feeling (“I can tell you’re feeling worried; that makes sense because I know how much you care about all your friends”), remind them that they are safe (“Everyone is doing the best they can to make sure that no one gets sick”), and help them problem-solve to figure out what they need (“Sometimes when I feel worried, I like to get a hug from someone--would you like to hug?”, “Would it be helpful to write a letter to your friend? I can help you put it in the mail when you’re done.”)
Have a family meeting
A great place for a feelings check-in is at a family meeting! Set a daily meeting at a time that works for everyone (first thing in the morning or after dinner are some good times) to discuss tasks for the day or to make sure everyone is on the same page. This is also a great time for anxious kids to discuss their worries about COVID-19. There are great resources online to help you talk to your children about coronavirus, but the bottom line is this--be truthful with age-appropriate information and remind children that they are safe!
Be a "good enough parent"
Being a person during a pandemic is hard, let alone being a person in charge of other little people! Have some compassion for yourself--you are doing the best you can with the information and resources that you have. Researcher D.W. Winnicott conceptualized the idea of the "good enough parent" in 1953, finding that kids don't need you to be perfect. You’re allowed to be stressed, lose your patience, or make a mistake--you are a human being.
One last thing
This document is meant to be a guideline of suggestions, not "should"s. None of us has ever experienced COVID-19 before, so we're all learning as we go. It is okay if you spend an entire day watching TV or let your kids stay up past bedtime. No one is going to get this perfect the whole time and that is fine. This territory is new for all of us. Compassion and empathy are going to be critical during this time, and that includes extending them to yourself. We've got this!
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