By Kyla Winchester, originally published March 2020
As I write this, the City of Toronto is declaring a State of Emergency, and the Province of Ontario is shutting down nonessential businesses. Who knows what will have happened in the days it will take to edit and post these words. I say this only to highlight the fact that, right now, the things we as human beings usually thrive on—certainty about what tomorrow will hold, reliance upon routine—are currently diminished or outright absent. Coupled with social distancing, this means everyone has extra needs right now, whether physical, emotional or psychological—or all three. We all need to take extra steps to consider and manage our additional needs at this time, so here are some suggestions to get you started.
Phone calls, Instagram stories, and Skype/Hangouts sessions are some of the great ways to stay in touch with the people you care about. Yes, it’s important to stay in touch with colleagues but more so with friends and family. More connectedness is better for your outlook and moreover can help to establish routine.
Schedule time to worry
This one is counter-intuitive but surprisingly effective. Gretchen Rubin, podcaster and author of The Happiness Project, recommends scheduling time to worry as a strategy to manage your anxiety so you don’t spend all your time worrying. For example, make a note to worry at 4 pm. If you find yourself worrying before then, you can tell yourself, “No, I don’t need to worry right now, I have it scheduled for later.” This is especially helpful because some people get more anxious by the idea of stopping worrying altogether—“If I’m not worrying, who is going to pay attention to this issue?” Setting aside a specific time (preferably not before bed) makes it manageable, instead of accidentally allowing worry to consume your mental energy all day, draining you from the other things you need to do.
Write a journal
Journalling can be incredibly useful in helping us process emotions, both easing and enhancing self-understanding. Things are changing very quickly, so it can be helpful to remember what we were thinking last week, or a couple days ago. Like scheduling time to worry, it can also be a way to manage your thoughts and feelings so you’re no longer holding it all in.
This might feel like homework for you, but if it does, you don’t have to do it. Or do it in a way that works for you, like a one-sentence journal, a gratitude journal, Instagram stories, or a photo-a-day or sketch-a-day project,
Make a list/don’t make a list
I’ve recently seen daily/weekly/regular lists for adults and for kids, with similar goals: to give yourself accountability, remind yourself when there are things that might otherwise be neglected (“When did I last cook?”) and provide some time structure to otherwise unstructured time. For any children in your life, this could be as simple as, “Get up, make bed, brush teeth, read a chapter.” For adults, it could be more structured, with chores and self-care items, or could take the form of a “could do” list, with extras or optional items, or things that need to get done once or twice a week but not necessarily today.
Again, if the idea of to-do list makes you cranky, don’t do it. Or figure out a format that works for you, like a whole page of options from which you can chose; rewarding yourself with one ‘fun’ thing for every chore, like listening to your favourite podcast after checking something off; or tracking those things you have done after the fact, like on a chalkboard or note on your phone. Tracking tasks after they’re done is also a great way to give yourself a sense of accomplishment when hours and days are less structured.
One day at a time
There’s a reason ‘one day at a time’ appears in 12-step recovery programs: it’s manageable. There are so many questions around what things will look like a month from now; and apparently uncertainty is especially bad for us, causing “people to see threats everywhere they look, and at the same time [making] them more likely to react emotionally in response to those threats”.
Because of this, looking at the future in reasonable, manageable chunks of time can help. Don’t think of what things will look like at some undetermined future time. Instead, consider things in the short-term: what is my plan for today? What do I need for tomorrow? What is my grocery list for next time I go? This also helps us consider what is within our control, which has additional psychological benefits.
Beware of information overload
In previous decades, when crises arose, we would only get updated during specific times—with the delivery of the morning newspaper, or the start of the evening news. With the fantastic technology that allows people to work remotely comes a dark side, providing 24/7 updates on new cases, new projections, new advice. The new normal is constant news, whether it’s helpful or not.
This information may be useful, but perhaps not enough to balance out additional stress. If so, consider deliberately checking in at specific times — like checking your favourite news site at noon and 8 pm — but avoid news at other times.
Move, however is best for you
If you weren’t a triathlete or expert yogi/ni last month, there’s no need to attempt it now. But some degree of exercise is better for stress, helps us sleep, and in my case at least, can definitely improve my outlook. Fortunately, there are lots of resources available for anyone who does want to continue their usual routine or try something new—instructors are offering online videos, live classes, and even remote personal training. If that sounds like way too much, walking itself has a ton of benefits (just be sure to maintain social distancing if you’re going outside.) Even stretching allows you to take a moment for yourself and check in with your body. The important thing is to figure out what you need, what you can manage, and do it when you can.
Figure out what’s important for you
Even in more certain times, there are a couple things that make me happy: I like a slightly fancy breakfast on the weekends, and I feel better when my dishes are under control and my kitchen counters mostly clear. The 'essentials' vary for everyone, but can include things like maintaining routine — like getting dressed and 'ready' even though you’re working from home — or a weekly phone call to your parents out of town. Things like this can take on outsized importance in our lives, so it’s importance to recognize them and prioritize them for self-care. Do you get antsy when your laundry lingers? Does reduced alone-time cause irrational annoyance? Does two days without exercise make you stir-crazy? Figure out what these are for you, so you can address them before they become a problem and saving your energy for other things.
Be gentle with yourself
Some people are using this extra time spent at home to write a novel, reorganize their entire house, learn a language—all admirable goals. But I saw something on social media the other day that resonated with me: paraphrasing, they said, “I’m working from home 8 hours a day, then streaming for 5 hours until I go to bed, and that’s it.” Some people have the capacity to do big, ambitious things at this time, and some people don’t—one isn’t better than the other, just like distracting yourself by cleaning your closet isn’t better or worse than distracting yourself by re-reading Harry Potter. Key to your self-care plan is to know yourself well enough to know what you need, what will help and what would make things worse.