Take Time to Disengage

Apr 15, 2020

Psychologists share their five top tips for nurturing your mental health and giving yourself grace.

More than a few times this past week, you’ve probably had to step back and size up the Everest of information you’ve been trying to scale.

Social media. News. Television. More social media.

It’s truly impossible to escape the topic of COVID-19.

On the one hand, it’s something of a blessing to have instant access to information. You can stay well-informed about best practices and learn precisely what actions to take to help slow the spread of the virus in your community: Wash your hands frequently, at least 20 seconds each time. Stay at home. If you must go out, stay at least 6 feet from others.

On the other hand, you’re deluged with information—some useful, some sketchy, some outright inaccurate. Everyone, in the age of social media, becomes a news junkie. At some point, you’ve got to ask yourself if your information consumption habits and your worrying is helpful or harmful.

“It’s important to stay informed, obviously,” said Leisha Cuddihy, PhD, a clinical psychologist with Spectrum Health. “If you notice you’re getting anxiety symptoms—you can’t stop thinking about something, or even physical symptoms like chest tightness—it’s then time to cut down on it.”

Feeling overwhelmed or anxious? Here are some helpful reminders to help you through.

1. Prioritize and gain perspective.

Lack of control can lead to uncertainty, which can lead to anxiety.

“Our first instinct is to turn back to the news,” said Brittany Barber Garcia, PhD, a pediatric psychologist with Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “Try to avoid this, though. It may reassure you in the moment, but it will likely make anxiety worse in the long run—because you’re still focusing on all of the things outside of your control.”

Ask yourself what is within your control and focus on what is most important.

“It’s important to focus on things you can do,” Dr. Cuddihy said. “A lot of times we worry about stuff we have no control over.”

So even as the world works to confront COVID-19, you already know what you can do. Stay as isolated as possible in your given situation. Practice good hand-washing. Cough into your sleeve. Stay away from sick people.

“I think focusing on those is better, rather than worrying about what everyone else is doing,” Dr. Cuddihy said.

2. Create boundaries and structure.

If you’re among those who have suddenly found themselves working from home—and home-schooling kids—take some time to assess your routines and workspace.

“Finding a space, a physical space, to be able to do (your work) is helpful,” Dr. Cuddihy said. “So you can separate from the rest of what is going on in the house.”

This is important because if you’re trying to work in the same space where you’re carrying out other daily tasks, it can feel like you never stop doing either. This can quickly become overwhelming and frustrating.
So find the things that work for you.

“It’s hard, I think, for a lot of people to stay more focused at home than when they’re at an office,” she said.
How much work can you realistically handle at home? Are you expected to log on at certain times? Be available for a certain timeframe? Make sure to get clear definitions of your role.

“That’s important,” Dr. Cuddihy said. “You might have one idea about what’s expected of you. Your boss may have another idea.”

3. Manage your media.

Adults and children should stick to reliable media sources, Barber Garcia said.

“There’s a lot of good information out there,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “Be smart about what you click on and only click on sources you trust.”

Spectrum Health has an area online devoted exclusively to COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments are also reliable sources. Beyond that, be careful of scams and fake fundraising schemes from unknown sources. This information management can help with anxiety.

“What are the facts? What’s true? How can we use that to stay calm?” Dr. Barber Garcia said.

“Anxious thoughts are often rooted in exaggerations of the truth and ‘what if’ scenarios,” she said. “Our thoughts can easily run away from us, especially when we are faced with the uncertainty of what could happen.

“Instead of focusing on the worst-case scenario, focus on the facts right now and use that information to help you remain calm,” she said. “None of us can predict the future. And although sometimes that can be scary, it can also be calming if we remind ourselves that good outcomes are possible, too, especially if we do our part.”

4. Disengage regularly.

Set time limits on your screentime. This way, you keep yourself from jumping into bottomless rabbit holes in pursuit of dicey information from weird sources.

“Set daily allotments for yourself and follow them,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “Maybe resolve to check twice a day on .gov websites for updates. Try to spend less than 30 minutes per day looking at the news.”

That means disengage.

“Stop the clicking,” she said. “Because it’s just too easy to get immersed in all the data and literature that’s coming out, not to mention all the emails.”

It can become all-consuming.

“You have to give yourself (time) and say, ‘I’m just going to breathe,'” she said.

Dr. Cuddihy also stressed this point.

“It’s important to take a break,” she said. “Designate a time each day to turn it all off and go for a walk, focus on something else. Laundry, clean, read. Something. Be deliberate about it.

“During your breaks and your downtime, eat, sit, take a specific break,” Dr. Cuddihy said. “If you don’t plan it in, it’s hard to feel like you’re taking a break.”

5. Be creative about re-energizing.

Take a candid look at your self-care. Find ways to replenish yourself. Reach out to others for help if you need it. Exercise. Color. Knit. Read. This is the first time in generations that Americans have had to step away from workplaces, en masse, for an extended period. It’s not forever—it’s temporary. Find ways to better yourself.

“There are lots of apps for mindfulness and meditation,” Dr. Cuddihy said.

“(Take) time for yourself to do something you like to do,” she said. “It’s important to do something positive in your day, at least once a day.”

Connect with people. Text message, Skype or FaceTime with friends or family.

“Social connection is huge,” Dr. Cuddihy said.

“It’s definitely not the same as human contact,” she said. “But you can be safe and still connect with other people—virtually.”

Dr. Barber Garcia echoed: “And it’s necessary, because social isolation can lead to loneliness, and this can lead to deeper feelings of sadness and depression.”

Finally, don’t underestimate the need for silence.

“Stillness every day,” Dr. Barber Garcia said. “Whatever that looks like.”

That could be something as simple as focusing not on tomorrow, or even next week, but on a not-too-distant future where COVID-19 is in the rearview. Maybe borrow a vibe from perpetual optimist Matthew McConaughey: “Every red light eventually turns green.

Written by Shawn Foucher for Spectrum Health HealthBeat.

This article was republished with permission and originally appeared at Spectrum Health HealthBeat Blog.