Social distancing can be hard on our mental health, but there are ways to keep ourselves going amid the struggle. Photo of stressed Black woman with hands in praying position in front of her face: Masimba Tinashe Madondo/Pixabay/Canva

Masimba Tinashe Madondo/Pixabay/Canva

I will admit that I have finally hit a wall in my social distancing efforts.

What was supposed to be a relaxing shower turned into one in which I mulled over how long America’s social distancing could last after reading a YouTube community post about how Harvard scientists have theorized that without a vaccine, the country could have to endure intermittent social distancing until 2022.

The study is probably best described as theoretical—a scientific thinking-out-loud session, if you will, in order to help hospitals manage and plan for its current and future patient loads. And the key word I think researchers would want us to remember is “intermittent”—we won’t have to be sequestered in our homes forever, just at certain periods of the year (or years, if we’re going by this preliminary study). And a large portion of the study hinged upon a world where there was no COVID-19 vaccine. Thankfully, I found that Johnson & Johnson is working towards having a not-for-profit vaccine to be available by early 2021, so hopefully, if everything goes well, we will have something to help us out in the future.

However, the shock of staying indoors and away from social gatherings for months or even, in the extreme scenarios, years at a time sent me into a small, but intense panic, and my mind went into a mental state I often struggle with—catastrophic thinking. What if the social distancing never ends? What if my living arrangements will become permanent? What if I’ll never get to promote my book again with a book tour? What if I’ll never go to the mall again? What if the only outings I’ll go to are grocery store runs? What if all of my best-laid plans for a post-quarantine body and post-quarantine career are all for naught? What if I’m just wasting my time and should just stay in bed since everything’s going to hell?

I had to mentally stop myself from creating this victimizing narrative while simultaneously recognizing the very real stress that social distancing and the threat of the coronavirus is causing on all of us. I can be counted among the luckier ones—while I’m doing quite okay with my immediate family, there are other families, including other relatives of mine, who either have the virus or know people who have died of the virus.

Even if you don’t know anyone personally struggling with the virus, you might be weighed down by the stress of things simply not being the way they were; everything has changed from top to bottom, and that can be hard to come to terms with. No matter where we are in the proverbial boat, we’re all in the same vessel together. We are all sharing some part of the burden of COVID-19’s weight.

With that said, how do we stop ourselves from getting into these mental quagmires of catastrophic thinking? How do we manage what feels like a never-ending nightmare? The answers are easy in theory—simple even—but require diligence over time to see full results.

Like this neon sign amid verdant foliage suggests, breathing can regulate your emotions during this time of social distancing.
Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash

The first thing I’d suggest from my own experiences and from the multitudes of posts by psychologists I’ve read over the years is something paradoxical. To stop yourself from going down rabbit holes, the best thing to do is to not deny yourself those rabbit holes. In other words, don’t cut your emotions off, since labeling them as “bad” or “unwanted” in your mind will only make you want to think them more. This will cause you to get stuck in your feelings, which leads you to being unable to fully be present in your reality and able to make decisions that will best suit your current conditions.

The example I’ve read many times is a 1987 study by psychologist Daniel Wegner. His study focused on ironic process theory, and according to Elevate Counseling, his findings were that “the inability to inhibit certain thoughts could be worsened during times of stress in people who were prone to anxiety or obsessive thoughts. For some people, ironic mental processes result in intrusive thoughts about doing something immoral or out of character, which can be really disturbing to some people.”

Wikipedia states that Wegner and his colleagues performed several tests with subjects, telling them not to think of certain things, for instance a white bear, and they found that subjects’ attempts not to think of the white bear would actually make them think about it more.

Instead of doing ironic thinking, Elevate Counseling suggests these four tips:

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Take Action—“Ask yourself if you need to be thinking about the thought.” If your anxiety is from something rational—the example Elevate Counseling gives is worrying about paying your bills—then address the anxiety by taking “actionable steps to ensure that you are making progress towards a solution to your problem.”

Distraction–If the anxiety is irrational or if you’re worrying about something that’s out of your control, give your mind something else to focus on. In essence, distract your brain with some other task. “The more involved the task is the better because your brain will be engaged,” states the site. So do a hobby, watch some TV or a movie, play a game, or, if you’re like me and like to feel busy, mindfully focus on a project of some sort.

Think about the thought—This one is actually one I struggle with, because, as a person with Pure OCD tendencies, I actually don’t want to think some of the thoughts in my head. But, having it done this ironic step a couple of times, I can attest that it does actually work. As the site states, “[A]ctively trying to think about the thought can take the power away. This can be especially useful for disturbing thoughts.” One suggestion listed is to try scheduling a time to actively think through the thought all the way. “Consider several possibilities, and give weight to both negative and positive outcomes.” You can also talk it out with someone you trust or write it out. From my personal experience, I’ve found that actually thinking through something that’s distressing me, along with identifying the emotions that come up and why, actually helps me figure out the root of why I’m so anxious and allows me to let the (usually irrational) thought go.

Challenge the thought—Instead of feeling helpless with regards to your thoughts, you can actually challenge your mind about why you are thinking what you’re thinking. “When you find yourself obsessing about a certain thought, ask yourself if the thought is meaningful, valid, true, and/or necessary,” states the site. “If it isn’t needed, replace the thought with another thought that is more useful.”

Change the thought—as the last tip suggests, give yourself a new thought to replace the nagging one. That new thought could be adding to your anxious thought to make it so ridiculous you don’t worry about it anymore. “Making the image look ridiculous in one’s mind can also reduce the image’s power,” states the site. For instance, if I’m irrationally thinking that I’ll be stuck in the house forever because of COVID-19, I can expand the thought by imagining myself as an 80-year-old, rocking in a rocking chair, knitting a blanket because of the coronavirus. Clearly, social distancing isn’t going to last that long, so it makes me see that my irrational thinking is just that—irrational.

These tips coincide with another article I read at Ask Men. One of the article’s tips for managing mental stress during this time is to actively manage your anxiety.

“Anxiety is normal, but it has a way of building gradually to the point where you never really feel calm at any point,” said clinical psychologist Joshua Klapow, Ph.D to the website. “Working to bring you back down to a relaxed state frequently during the day is important. Take a walk, some time outside, some time to breathe, to meditate, pray, listen to music. Anything that helps you relax should be done frequently, and not once you feel like you are having an anxiety attack.”

It’s also doesn’t help your anxiety to keep tabs on the news. To be fair, it’s a little hard to stay away from the news when friends and family are always updating their social media feeds with articles they’ve read online or opinions they feel like they should share. We will be inundated a fair amount no matter how much social media hygiene we practice, I feel. But in order to have some type of control on your anxiety, steering away from needless news searches and pouring over articles is important.

“Don’t check the media more than twice a day to learn about the virus,” said psychotherapist and author of Training Your Love Intuition Dr. LeslieBeth Wish. “Any major announcements will be available to you on television, your phone and the internet. Checking more often is counterproductive because it makes you feel less in control.”

If you do run into distressing posts on your friends’ Facebook or Twitter pages, I’d suggest implementing some of the above tactics to keep your stress down—distract your mind, challenge your thoughts, etc.

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Don't check social media and the news more than you have to in order to keep your mind right during social distancing.
Photo by Sherise . on Unsplash

There are other ways to keep a sense of normalcy to your everyday life during these strange times. Ask Men also talked to disaster mental health specialist Dr. Gary Brown, Ph.D, who said that establishing and maintaining a routine will help you feel like there’s order to your day. “People really need a feeling that at least some of their life feels normal,” he said. “It helps to anchor us.”

If you’re someone who is trying to adjust to working at home, Wish also said to treat your work-at-home life just like you would if you were going into the office. “Get up early, shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, take your vitamins, and do anything else you normally would do if you were getting ready for your day,” she said, adding that you can also make a to-do list of your routine to keep you on task.

Other tips include making time to talk to friends on the phone or through Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and other modes of communication. You can also virtually watch TV together, as Wish suggests, or, as we have seen from multiple Twitter viewing parties, you can arrange to watch a film together with friends using virtual means.

Exercise is also something you can do to keep your mind focused and sharp—and, if you’re like me, it’ll help you attain that post-quarantine body you’re trying to get. You can work out at home with YouTube, create weights out of milk jugs or canned food, or walking around your home. Whatever exercise you do, it can help “defend against depression,” as Wish states. Klapow also said that exercise “will keep your body strong, help you fight off the stress and give you the grit to deal with being cooped up.”

I’d also add that as far as managing overall anxiety and stress goes, it might be important to allow yourself to cry. As reported in my article about COVID-19 and LGBTQ health, it’s worthwhile to give yourself an outlet to vent out your emotions. If you’re upset to the point of tears, cry it out, or scream it out, yell it out, whatever. These emotions are absolutely natural in the present state of the world, where everything feels so uncertain. By honoring your emotions, you allow yourself to process them and let them go. This frees you up to being more present-minded and level-headed now that some of your stress is gone.

So back to my initial freakout about social distancing. I know that social distancing won’t last forever, and this pandemic will become part of history. However, it’s just a matter of me being patient as I wait for this to pass. Keeping that fact in mind will help me—and all of us—make it through this time of seemingly endless torment.

“Remind yourself over and over that this is a temporary situation,” said Klapow. “It may be prolonged but it is being done to stop the spread of a virus, not to be a way of life. That perspective will help.”

Indeed, as we wait for the skies to lift and for the greenlight for social mingling to blink on, we have to remember that while social distancing is a “new normal” for right now, it’s not meant to be permanent. A little pain now will allow us to have tons of pleasurable experiences with friends and family later. So right now, we must make the best of an uncomfortable situation.

So, instead of indulging in catastrophic thinking, I’m going to go back to my original position of keeping myself preoccupied during this social distancing time by engaging in positive actions that supports my own personal growth. Part of that includes staying focused on my mental hygiene. Hopefully these tips will help you keep your mind calm, cool and collected during social distancing as well.

In summary, the 13 ways to keep yourself afloat during social distancing are:

  1. Don’t engage in ironic “white bear” thinking
  2. Take action against anxious thoughts that can be solved by actionable steps
  3. Distract your mind
  4. Think about your thoughts to take their power away
  5. Challenge your anxious thinking
  6. Change your anxious thoughts
  7. Actively manage your anxiety every day
  8. Don’t frequently check the news
  9. Keep a schedule to give yourself a sense of normalcy
  10. Talk and hang out with friends via social media, video or phone
  11. Exercise to keep your mind sharp
  12. Allow yourself to feel and honor your emotions
  13. Remind yourself that this strange situation is only temporary and is for the good of us all
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By Monique