If you’re like me, you may be noticing that your depression and anxiety symptoms are flaring up right now. It’s a scary time for many people. We are facing uncertainties about our jobs, our health, and the health of our loved ones. Many of us are finding that we can’t access our usual support systems through family, friends, or therapists.
There are still things we can do. Below are 15 ways to nurture our mental health while staying home.
1. Create a self-care schedule.
I have to admit, for myself, the first few days at home were rough. I had recently started another medication (yay side effects), and I struggled to process the loss of structure in my life. Even though I knew I needed to, getting out of bed felt impossible. I ended up texting one of my good friends, who was also self-isolating, and we commiserated together. Mutual encouragement got us both out of bed. To my surprise, the day started to get better from there.
In a self-care schedule, it’s a good idea to include the following daily activities:
- The time you’re going to get up
- Medication, if you take any
- Prayer or meditation
- Checking in with a friend or accessing support
- Getting outside
- Work (be it for your job or around the house)
- Doing something you enjoy
- The time you’re going to bed
Even though the mind, body, and emotions work together to form a whole, they each need individual care. If I skip exercising, my body is no longer happy, and I can feel it groaning so loudly that I can’t concentrate. If my body feels good, but my mind is stressed or bored, eventually, I won’t have the willpower to exercise. The key is not to be hard on ourselves, but to gently acknowledge what we need. Our bodies are living beings that need love, care, and attention.
2. Exercise twice daily.
I find that exercising in the morning wakes my body up, and the resulting endorphins help me to do something productive and enriching. To prevent a drop in my mood later in the day, I need to exercise in the afternoon, too. I might go for two 30-minute walks, do bodyweight training in my apartment, or follow a yoga video. Do what makes your body feel flexible, strong, and happy! Here are some links to resources to get you started:
3. Be Kind to Yourself.
When I was at the beginning of my recovery from depression, this piece of advice tended to be frustrating rather than helpful. I’m here to say that self-love is not only possible, but essential. For people living with depression or anxiety, spending time in the quiet can bring out our inner demons like nothing else. Scary and uncomfortable are understatements. Isolation brings into sharp relief how much we need and rely on others, not just because of our mental health conditions, but because we’re human beings. I struggle every day to not beat myself up over this. Time, effort, and growth are our allies in this fight. And learning to love ourselves is always, always worth it. Below are some of the things I’ve done over the years to encourage self-compassion:
- Looking at childhood pictures and writing letters to my past self, telling her how wonderful, loved, and appreciated she is.
- Remembering to breathe and tackling one moment at a time.
- Taking time away from worries to do something therapeutic, like reading or coloring.
- Imagining what life would look, sound, and feel like when the depression passes. Allowing myself to linger in this daydream.
- Listening to audiobooks on mindfulness.
- Lighting candles and pausing to enjoy the light and warmth.
- Asking others what they appreciate about me.
4. Reach Out for Help.
There are still ways to fill our need for connection, even when we’re stuck in the house. Depression tries to convince us that we are a burden and a drag on those we love, and that it would be better if we just went away. Isolation can make these thoughts louder. Don’t believe them! There is someone in your life that would love to hear your voice. If you are not comfortable talking to family or friends about how you feel, there are 24/7 helplines available. I still use these. The people on the other end have the training to help. Below are some resources you can access for immediate support:
Here to Help (Canada)
Canada Suicide Prevention Service
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (US)
List of Help Lines in Other Countries
If you are having thoughts of suicide or wanting to die, call 911 or the emergency number in your area. You matter.
5. Eat Things That Nourish Your Body.
Anxiety and mood can be influenced by what we eat. Things that have a high glycemic index cause spikes in blood sugar, which can lead to blood sugar crashes. A blood sugar crash may cause feelings of panic, irritability, sleepiness, or confusion. Every single body is unique in the way it handles different foods. For my body to feel its best, I not only try to avoid soft drinks, candy, desserts, and sweeteners, but I also try to eat foods like apples and sticky rice with a protein. It’s okay to experiment to see which foods work for you! Here are some tips for stabilizing blood sugar and avoiding hypoglycemic symptoms:
- Eat small meals every 2 or 3 hours
- Combine complex carbohydrates with a protein and a healthy fat
- Eat dark green vegetables at least once a day
- Have a small snack before intense exercise
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine whenever possible
- Sit down while eating, and create a relaxed, stress-free atmosphere around food.
6. Find a Depression or Anxiety App that Works for You.
While apps can’t replace the support of a trained mental health professional, they can provide an extra boost for the times when in-person help is unavailable. Here are a few apps for depression and anxiety that I use regularly:
When you download the app, you choose an animal friend that will encourage you, give you self-care “quests,” and remind you about medications and upcoming appointments. There are spaces within the app for journaling and storing inspirational quotes. Completing a quest earns points that you can use to buy clothes and accessories for your animal! My raccoon’s favorite accessories are a beret and scarf. He hasn’t told me yet why he doesn’t wear pants.
This app is designed mostly for anxiety. The free version offers a few meditations, a mood tracker, and a self-care tracker that I use every day. Premium users have access to CBT-based thought journals, goal-setting charts, and guided activities based on the goals you set. Sanvello recently announced that Premium access is open to all users during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This anxiety app uses CBT-based activities to help shift the thoughts we create around our anxiety. It also offers help for panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, perfectionism, and specific phobias.
Calm offers free meditations and “sleep stories” to help you fall asleep. Calm Premium also offers soothing music by various artists.
Wysa is a playful penguin AI chatbot that helps you sort through thoughts, feelings, and emotions. At first, I found the idea of talking to a program a little disconcerting, but Wysa quickly made me feel calmer and less lonely. It’s ideal if you are up at 3 in the morning and can’t fall back asleep. The app also offers a few free “packs” composed of meditations, guided thought exercises, and body workouts to help manage painful emotions. I cannot recommend this app enough.
Try an app and see if it suits you!
7. Meditate, Pray, or Practice Mindfulness Every Day.
The thought of meditating used to be s-c-a-r-y. I would have preferred to clean the bathroom twice over than be alone with my thoughts for ten minutes. When I finally got up the courage to start, the dark and painful things in my mind came out of hiding. I had panic attacks. My legs would twitch randomly. Tears that I didn’t even know were in me fell into my lap. But, after consistent practice, things started to get better. My thoughts eventually softened. My mind slowed down. I experienced the bliss of feeling okay. Now I meditate every morning! It helps me to start the day with calm (if sleepy) determination.
Some people have bodies that struggle to keep still, and that’s okay! Some options to try are:
- Guided walking meditations (Jon Kabat-Zinn has some soothing meditations available in audiobook format)
- Tai Chi (Qi Gong)
Prayer also provides a sense of security and peace. I am a practicing Catholic, and for me, it forms the center of my life. It connects me to God and keeps me focused on the people around me. When I’m too sad or exhausted to use words, I pray with feelings. I also use the Hallow app to participate in mass when I’m stuck at home. Knowing that I am part of a community of prayer lifts my spirits and gives me hope.
8. Get Enough Sleep.
Insomnia, and its sluggish cousin hypersomnia, are one of the hardest symptoms to manage with depression and anxiety. Not getting enough sleep, or too much, can throw mood, concentration, and energy levels way out of whack. Here are some things to try when you find yourself dealing with sleep problems:
- Keep the room cool and dark.
- Don’t go to bed too hungry or too full.
- Keep a bedtime ritual, such as showering, getting into comfy pajamas, or dimming the lights.
- Do something to lift your mood in the evening, like playing a fun board game, laughing with a friend, or watching a funny video.
- Avoid looking at screens an hour before you intend to fall asleep. Keep electronics and blinking lights in another room, or cover them with something dark.
- Keep naps short, around 20 to 30 minutes.
- Keep your workspace and your sleeping space separate.
9. Keep in Touch with a Doctor About Your Symptoms.
Many health practitioners are switching to phone appointments or video chat to allow patients to get help without leaving the house. Be sure to monitor your mood and symptoms. If you notice a sudden change in your mental state, or are experiencing an onset of side effects from medication, reach out to a health professional. You are not bothering the doctor. Your health needs still matter!
10. Learn Something New, or Improve an Existing Skill.
Learning and solving puzzles causes our brains to release reward chemicals, which can motivate us to keep doing self-care. Is there something you’ve always wanted to learn? Now is the perfect time! Websites like Udemy and Coursera offer classes on a wide range of subjects. Public libraries sometimes have free online courses available for the general public. If learning a language is your thing, try Duolingo, Babbel, italki, or Livemocha. Or plug your search into YouTube!
11. Limit Exposure to Negative News Articles.
Limit your reading to a few sites that provide credible information about the coronavirus, and only look at them for a short time. Ruminating (therapy-talk for thinking about something negative over and over) leads to internal suffering and unpleasant physical symptoms. Gently guide your thoughts toward the bright, humorous, or positive things happening in the world.
12. Laugh Together with Someone.
Children are a great source of humor, and there are few things they like better than being able to make you laugh! A funny video shared with a friend can ease the black cloud that depression and anxiety often bring.
13. Focus on Deepening Relationships.
Because of our busy lives, we seldom have the opportunity to look deeply at the people we love. Try playing a “random questions” game as a family to learn new things about each other, or just take the time to observe the little quirks that you’ve never noticed before. Reserve time every day to focus on strengthening attachment with your children. Hug them, listen to them, and tell them you love them. Calm their fears as best you can.
14. Find Your Own Space to Be Alone.
If you live with other people, the increased proximity and anxiety about the COVID-19 situation may put everyone on edge. People often show their worst side when under stress. It’s important to be gentle with them and with yourself. Take the time to understand how your housemates react when they are afraid, stressed, or frustrated. Make finding a “special spot” for yourself a creative activity! For children, fill a spot for each of them with pillows, stuffed animals, and favorite toys. My prayer space is a yoga mat beside my bed, and a plug-in lamp to create an atmosphere of contemplation.
15. Reach Out to Help Someone Else.
It can seem like we are powerless to help others in this mess, when so much in the world lies outside our ability to change it. Now more than ever, we need to trust in our own goodness and ability to make things better for others. If you feel the urge to do something to help, that’s great! If you’re like me and you struggle, give yourself a big hug. You’re doing a lot just by staying home and protecting the vulnerable people in your community.
Here are some acts of kindness that might be needed where you live:
- Volunteer to deliver groceries to people who can’t leave the house.
- Start an online dance party!
- Find a check-in buddy to call or text once a day.
- Pray with others over the phone
- Put a pink paper heart in your window to encourage others to keep their spirits.
Depression and anxiety are hard to manage at the best of times. For those of us already fighting for our mental health, the added strain of self-isolation, job loss, and empty grocery store shelves can make it feel like our lives are spinning out of control and spitting loose parts everywhere. It’s okay to feel stressed and anxious. This crisis will pass. Remember that you are loved, important, and valuable. Let’s get through this thing together.