5 Ways to Lift Your Mood During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Let's be real: Staying positive can be tough even in the best of times—and now that we're in the middle of a pandemic, keeping a cheery (or honestly, even just calm) attitude can seem nearly impossible. Even as a pretty positive person overall (Editor's note: This is true—sometimes annoyingly so), I've found it hard to discover even the smallest silver linings amid reports of rising death tolls, the collapse of the economy, and a leader who inquires about injecting disinfectants. (Please don't do that, by the way!)
Turns out, I'm not alone. New research from Meredith (Health's parent company) shows that a lot of women have struggled with their mental health this past year. According to the study, 39% of women say that their mental health has gotten worse during the pandemic.
Thankfully, I have a standing weekly therapy appointment—but I also recently hopped on a call with Shannon O'Neill (no relation), PhD, a very positive, pleasant therapist, first thing in the morning (honestly, a wonderful way to start your day), to ask what on Earth can help lift our moods during a time like this.
Interestingly, Dr. O'Neill, who's an assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, explained that one reason it's been hard for people to maintain a sense of peace during this pandemic is because it's forced many of us to actually act out behaviors that are typical of depression. "A lot of the rules are mimicking depression symptoms," Dr. O'Neill says. Think about it: People are being instructed to isolate themselves from loved ones and spend most of their time inside, with very little contact with the outside world. (To be clear, staying indoors isn't causing depression, but many of the social distancing regulations we're obeying to keep others safe may look a lot like depression symptoms. Also important: Those currently dealing with depression, or others who have previously dealt with it, may feel extra challenged right now.)
Still, Dr. O'Neill gave me some tips on how to lift our moods even just a little bit right now. Here are a few (super simple) practices to do each day to keep your spirits stable during a time when things are decidedly unstable.
1. Ask what made you happy before this started, then do more of it.
It's getting really challenging to remember a time before all of this madness started, but it can be helpful to think back to your normal routine, pre-pandemic, and question what it was that brought you joy. That will look different for everyone, of course: It might include spending time with your family members, getting in a good workout, or connecting with your spirituality (for me, it's running.)
Once you identify what made you happy before all of this, make a plan to do more of it. "It sounds simple, [but] it's a type of treatment," says Dr. O'Neill. I'm adding an extra 15 minutes to my outdoor run, or my time spent on the elliptical if it's raining outside, but you could FaceTime your sister a few more times a week or extend your workout an extra 30 minutes. Think of what you like and want to do—and then do more of it.
The pandemic has forced a lot of us to reevaluate what truly makes us happy as well as what's most important to us. According to that same Meredith study I mentioned earlier, the top five values that women have realized are most important to them are: 1) having close family relationships; 2) leading a healthy, active lifestyle; 3) being dependable and trustworthy for friends and family; 4) continuing to learn and grow; and 5) treating every person in the world equally and justly.
2. Remind yourself of all you have to be thankful for.
Bad news is everywhere right now, and if you spend any time at all on the Internet, you're likely going to confront a lot of horrifying reports. But you can intentionally try to balance the scale of positive and negative news in your life.
For this, Dr. O'Neill recommends an app called Three Good Things, which I downloaded almost immediately after talking to her. The app, she says, will remind you to log three things you're grateful for every day (think journaling, but on your phone instead.)
There's no shame in keeping it simple, Dr. O'Neill adds, explaining that you don't have to come up with three big wins everyday—just three parts of your day that went well (mine: my mom is currently baking her oatmeal cake—one of my faves). If technology isn't your thing, try jotting them down in a notebook, or just stopping to mentally count off three things you're grateful for.
3. Treat yourself—especially first thing in the morning.
Being stuck in quarantine can cause you to develop a maddening sense of repetition. Getting up and doing the exact same thing day after day can be both exhausting and irritating, especially in the morning, when your'e waking up to this bizarre reality yet again.
A good way to counter this might be to treat yourself to something indulgent when you're going about your morning routine. Dr. O'Neill recommends trying something you normally wouldn't treat yourself to, like a new breakfast recipe or coffee creamer, for instance, or a spa-like shower instead of your normal 15-minute rinse off, so you start your day off with a positive outlook. You can also opt for a more mindful wake-up by starting your day with a morning meditation (like me).
4. Use any pent-up energy to your creative advantage.
I know: You've had enough of people telling you to just, like, start a puzzle or something. But doing something creative really can help you through this troubling time because it distracts you, especially if you pick a creative exercise that forces you to learn a new skill. "Creativity helps you focus on something that takes all your attention," says Dr. O'Neill. If you've been meaning to teach yourself to knit, get to work on that coloring book you got for Christmas, or dig into more creative writing (guilty!), now's the time to jump into it.
That said, don't make whatever creative activity you try into a competitive exercise. Dr. O'Neill emphasizes that, while trying new things can be a refreshing distraction, it's important not to get caught in the trap of comparing how you're spending your quarantine down time with the way other people are spending theirs. Your number one priority right now (and always, to be honest) should be keeping yourself healthy and well—not racing to get ahead of the rest of the world.
5. Schedule time to worry (because you're going to do it anyway).
This might seem counterproductive at first, but, if done correctly, it can actually help you worry less. Scheduling time to worry is an evidenced-based practice used by some patients with anxiety, says Dr. O'Neill. But this doesn't mean you can just pick random times throughout the day to wallow in the bad news you hear. Instead, the practice hinges on structure: Pick a 20-minute time slot each day to allow yourself to worry. Get as detailed as you can—even down to planing what chair you'll sit in and what you'll do during this time (such as journaling). Use your allotted worry time to fret about everything that's making you nervous, but set a timer so that you know to snap out of it when worry time is over.
The key is to only worry during worry time—this won't necessarily help you if you allow yourself to keep worrying for the rest of the day. If something worrisome creeps up later in the day after you've already had your scheduled worry time, remind yourself that you can worry about whatever this new problem is, but that you'll have to do so during the next day's worry time. There's a chance that you will have already forgotten about it by the next day's worry time—which might even tell you how insignificant it was in the first place.
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