Staying Sane in a Pandemic: Survival tips from three San Diego wellness pros
Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” Eyeing the current, global crisis,San Diego-area professionals in the wellness community seem to agree.
Speaking with this publication, these practitioners share the opportunities presenting themselves during this time and ways to stay sane while sheltering-in-place to avoid the coronavirus.
UC San Diego Health psychologist Eric Hekler said there are several “psychologically troubling” factors to the pandemic that can disrupt a person’s mental health — so if you are feeling any of these, you are not alone. He said the major issues are uncertainty of the future, which he calls a “hallmark of generalized anxiety disorder”; social isolation; disruption of the habits and routines that give our lives structure; and lack of self-awareness.
“A lot of people don’t have enough self-awareness to identify when they are struggling, and so there is this slow, gradual accumulation of stress upon stress upon stress,” he said. “Eventually, you get overwhelmed. So develop that self-awareness and learn when you need to take care of yourself and have that capacity to recognize when there are problems. That’s the one that is particularly hard because if you don’t recognize you need help, you might not reach out in the ways you should.”
Alisha Hawrylyszyn Frank, owner of Fiercely Optimistic life coaching, added: “This is really a time of honestly being present with how you are feeling, whatever it is. When we are present, instead of going to the future or the past, then we understand what is in front of us at that moment.
“It is OK to be angry, or sad, or happy, or tired. You can ebb and flow through all those emotions, but you need to create the space for yourself to be able to recognize that.”
By identifying the source of the frustration, Hekler said there are solutions. When it comes to facing the anxiety that comes with uncertainty: “This is a difficult time and you don’t have to take the stoic path, you can be kind to yourself and say ‘I need to take a breath, maybe I need to reach out for help?’ he explained.
“And this can be simple, like journaling … but just checking in with yourself can be a place to start to really notice if you are doing well.”
To feel less alone while social distancing, he recommends reaching out digitally to people.
“I’ve tried to get in the habit of sending small messages to family and friends, and adding in questions like ‘What are you grateful for today?’ or ‘What do you need emotionally right now?’ or ‘What made you laugh this week?’ ” Hekler said.
“It’s not that much, but it can help you get out of your own world and be reminded other people are out there.”
While sheltering-in-place can violently disrupt daily routines and habits, Hekler said: “This is an opportunity to check our routines. Maybe this is a time to create new ones. The Great Depression was an opportunity to create new things like Medicare and Social Security, what might be some ways we can change and protect our society? What are the sprouts that can grow from the cleansing fire of this tragedy?”
Hawrylyszyn Frank called the COVID-19 crisis “a beautiful opportunity for us to acknowledge the distractions in our life and implement healthier habits. This is a time for us to reset our core values, for us to have substantial growth, so when we come out of this, we’ve evolved into better human beings.”
To improve one’s spirituality as a mechanism for self-care and sanity-boosting, Hawrylyszyn Frank added: “Everyone is an individual, so centering can come in different ways. Meditation can be things like cleaning, painting ... a million different things for each individual. I recommend sitting still and having space between your thoughts, but that’s not necessarily where everyone is.”
For someone who has never meditated before, she suggests: “Sit still and set a timer for one, three or five minutes. Just be still and follow the breath. You are going to naturally go to your thoughts, from ‘What am I going to have for dinner?’ to ‘Did I leave the stove on?’ and when you realize you are in your thoughts, come back to focusing on your breath.
“Even if you start at just one minute a day, you are training your brain to come back into this state. From there, look at different meditation teachers and see which ones feel good to you,” she advised.
For those with small children, focusing on oneself poses an extra challenge.
“By definition, parenting means putting your kids first,” said child psychiatrist and UC San Diego associate clinical professor — and mother of four — Katherine Nguyen Williams.
“But, when you have that compassion for yourself, you model it for your kids. I recommend choosing one or two things that are most important to you for self-care. For our family, sleep is so important to me, we re-arranged the sleeping patterns so I could get some sleep. For others, it might be exercise.”
When it comes to keeping life manageable, she advises keeping expectations low, having a (flexible) routine and giving kids things they can control to feel more empowered. Because most humans are goal-oriented, having a loose schedule and adhering to it with simple checklists for the day can make everyone feel they are accomplishing something.
“That checklist can be really simple,” Williams said. “Just a few items, like have a snack, read a book or go outside; and you can get more complex as the kids get older. As the day progresses, kids can check items off their list.”
She said she likes to remind her children that by staying home and washing their hands for 20 seconds, they are doing their part to help others.
For those in marriages or other committed relationships, Hekler added, having compassion for your partner is paramount.
“We need to remind ourselves we are doing the best we can,” he said. “That means I am doing the best I can, you are doing the best you can, they are doing the best they can, we are doing the best we can. Give each other breaks. That’s how we’re going to get through this.”