It was probably a year or more ago that I listened to a podcast while I stood at my kitchen sink washing dishes. I wish I could remember more than a couple key takeaways from it. As it is I don’t remember the source of the podcast, (maybe NPR?), the name of the person interviewed, or any other information helpful enough to allow me to actually find it again. But I remember the subject of the podcast and some of the content that really struck me.
The person interviewed was a psychologist who specialized in treating people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said a couple of interesting things that I remember. One, he told about a particular study that looked at outcomes for people who had experienced natural disasters. He said when a hurricane or something hits and then the survivors immediately get to work clearing debris, rebuilding, and doing all that physical work, they have better mental health outcomes than if they are told to just stay still for awhile. If FEMA comes in, and advises people to just wait until they can assess things and get a plan together and it prevents people from getting to work right away, (and the people have little to do but basically sit around and think and worry), they are more likely to develop PTSD as a result of the natural disaster. If they can immediately do the physical work of rebuilding their homes and communities, they tend to be much more resilient.
The second thing I remember from the interview, was the psychologist spoke about a moment of revelation he had while speaking with a client who was struggling with PTSD. The veteran was often triggered by various occurrences in life and was having trouble coping. As the psychologist was taking him through an exercise to help him realize that he is safe now and and no longer needs to worry about warzone threats, the man replied that he knows he is safe now. Intellectually, he completely realizes that driving in his car and going about his day he is pretty safe, but his body still doesn’t feel safe. The psychologist realized that his whole practice was designed to help people realize something that on an intellectual level they already knew. But simply knowing that they were safe, didn’t mean their body’s blood pressure didn’t still rise, their heart didn’t still race, or their adrenaline didn’t still skyrocket at certain moments. As a result of this new awareness, the psychologist began shifting his practice, which now includes giving his clients physical experiences of safety. He found that when the body could really experience safety while the mind practices what it knows, then his clients had great improvement in their PTSD symptoms.
So I thought of this interview again in light of the whole Covid-19 quarantines. One, we are all living in a situation of heightened stress and uncertainty, and two, unless we are healthcare workers, grocery store clerks, or a manufacturer or grower of an essential good, most of us are being told to stay home and do nothing. So how do we keep ourselves sane?
For myself, here’s what I’m doing.
- I’m trying to stay informed enough to keep myself and my family safe, but I am not filling my feeds with minute by minute updates of all the misery in the world. I check in on news updates once a day, and otherwise I try to occupy my mind with what is right in front of me: my family and doing what I am able to do right now, which is spending time with them and building a safe and happy home for all of us. I’ve also had a number of coffee dates with friends via Google Hangouts. That social time has really been essential for me.
- I am trying to make sure I do physical work. I think doing something physical is really helpful in calming the mind. So I’m baking, cleaning, and tackling some household projects.
- I’m still limiting screen time. I get it. Sometimes you just need to turn your brain off. Fine. I just don’t want the cycle of my days to be anxiously reading all the corona updates, followed by escaping to Netflix, then repeating. So I try to break up the anxiety scrolling with some more nourishing and calming things.
- One criticism I have of the American culture as a whole is that we’ve been living life at an untenable pace, which we break up by using some mode of escaping, but do we really live a thriving life? And do we have real, soul-nourishing leisure? Put another way, do we, as a whole, live a life that we don’t need to escape from? So I’m making an effort to make time for leisure. I define leisure as something that is restful and also filling. I could binge-watch me some Tiger King. (I hear it’s great at getting your mind off of present worries for awhile), but if I don’t feel happier, more fulfilled after watching it, then its not leisure; it’s an escape. Real leisure is fulfilling and we leave such activities I think feeling more ready to take on the challenges of life, and our spirits feel nourished. We are living in trying, worrisome times right now, and we need to make some deposits toward our mental health whenever we can, and I think leisure is a great way to do that. For me, I’ve been dusting off my old piano music (and practicing some new music) and playing the piano daily. For you, it might be watching a quality film, reading a good book, painting, crafting, baking, building, or something else. Whatever it is, I think it should be a priority. Leisure is essential.
- I’m trying to do as the psychologist suggested: I’m giving my body experiences of safety. I’m baking bread that fills the house with its wonderful aroma; I’m lighting candles and listening to beautiful, calming music. I’m striving to make my home not just a landing pad, but a true sanctuary for us all.
I hope theses measures keep my family sane through all of this, help us grow as a family, and help us thrive and increase our resiliency to face whatever challenges will come. I’d love to know what mental health measures help you.