If there is a good question that sums up this year so far, it must be “Why is everything so hard right now?”
2020 seems to be just one string of stressful world events after another, let alone whatever personal stresses you face on a daily basis. It's an era that has a whole new type of anxiety named after it: "COVID anxiety." Rightfully so, there has been so much attention on the mental health crisis that has come out of it all, and there are so many resources, nonprofits, and articles dedicated to helping you cope with the effects of this pandemic that it would be a disservice to distract you from these other great resources instead of guiding you to them.
But while having resources to cope is necessary, it misses one big question: what happens next? No, COVID is not over, but it will be. Like every other pandemic, it will be eradicated, and life will resume. But just as you can’t tell what scars will be left behind while you are still bandaging a wound, we don’t yet know the long-term effects this crisis will have on our mental health.
Will we leave this year trauma free, or are we at risk of a future filled with continual mental breakdowns and existential dread from this COVID anxiety?
Chances are, we’ll all end up somewhere in the middle of those extremes, but let’s not leave it up to chance.
Here are four ways you can strengthen your mental health during covid-19 now for a happier, healthier, and less COVID anxiety filled post-COVID future:
Odds are you’ve had at least one powerful, negative experience during this COVID-19 crisis, and if you haven’t, would you care to share your secret with the rest of the world?
Whatever yours may be – whether it’s grief over a lost loved one, missing your senior year, being stuck at home in an unhealthy environment, getting laid off with little income stability, living in fear of social situations because you don’t want to contract the virus, or anything else – you will experience a lot of turbulent emotions which may last for a long time as a result of this COVID anxiety and COVID depression.
This is all natural, and in many ways these feelings can help you cope with the current situation, but what happens when they get bottled up with no way to escape? Years down the line, these feelings, fears, and painful memories can manifest into trauma and anxiety if you don’t have an adequate way to get them out.
Rather than letting your feelings internalize into emotional scars that can last for life, externalize them in a way that you can let them free into the world in a beautiful, creative way. No matter what your interests are (art, music, writing, dancing, hiking, coding, R/C racing, blacksmithing, golfing, etc.) there is a way to put your emotions, experiences, and pent up thoughts into it such that when you look back at this time in your life, rather than remembering all the things that hurt you, you remember your cathartic creation that embodies all your pain into something constructive and beautiful.
Here are a few ideas:
- Start an art journal – rather than writing out your experiences, use any media of your choice (painting, drawing, magazine cutouts, 3D art, photography) to put together journal entries that match your feelings and what’s going on in your life. You can even do this with music, putting together a song or even just sounds that represent your day.
- Finish your uphill battle – Write out all the major painful events you’ve experienced during this time in large font on pages of paper with a date next to them. Then, find a place to hike up a mountain/hill and bring the papers with you. At intervals as you ascend the mountain, take a selfie of yourself holding up one of the signs, preferably in chronological order. This documents your journey overcoming your uphill battle. Then, once you are at the summit, take one more picture showing yourself either victorious or at peace in a place of beauty, showing that you managed to overcome everything that challenged you, and you can do it again if you have to.
Whatever you choose to do, just make sure you do two things: record it and keep it judgement free. This is something you will want to be able to look back on one day as a reminder of all the troubles you’ve managed to persevere through. It is meant truly for your eyes only, so don’t worry about making it perfect or right; make it yours.
Sort out your fears, stresses, and COVID anxiety
Fear and anxiety are always prevalent, but now especially it seems there is a lot more to be anxious about in general, if a Google searches of “2020 memes” or "COVID anxiety" are any indicator. The phrase “uncertain times” has been beaten into the ground worse than my running shoes, but it does reflect the fear of “what’s next?” that is rampant in a time that nobody quite knows how to deal with. But it gets to a point that it seems like there’s so much to worry about, there are more worries than there are hours in the day to deal with them, let alone hypothetical worries about the future.
“So, what do I do?”
For that, the psychology of worrying tells us we have a few options: address, distract, or restructure.
“Okay, but which one do I do?”
Well, that’s really a personal preference paired with a case-by-case basis, but since that doesn’t answer your question (especially since it’s italicized to show impatience with our answer), here’s our recommendation:
Start by identifying the things from your COVID anxiety that you are worried about. Sometimes it might feel like we’re worried about everything in the world, but when we sit down and iron out what it is that’s making us anxious, we can only pull two or three concrete things to mind (“Everything” is not a concrete worry, no matter how frequently that one comes up in our minds).
As you list the things you are worried about, question them. Ask yourself, “how realistic is this stress that’s bugging me?” “How likely is it to happen?” “Is this really the end of the world if this happens?”
We put together a free tool specifically for this purpose that we highly encourage you to use. Our “What-If?” tool is a CBT based technique specifically designed to walk you through laying out your fears and assessing how realistic they are, as well as how to put them into perspective to make you feel better about them. They can be especially useful for COVID anxiety and COVID mental health issues, but can really be used for any purposes.
You can check it out here for reference, or if you want to be able to talk through it to make sure you get the best experience, you can log into your MARCo Online account and MARCo can guide you through it as well.
Once you have your stressors laid out, and you can do this on a day-by-day basis or an overview of everything in your life, select the one that you think is affecting you the strongest at the moment. Don’t overthink this decision, just let your mind pick what it wants to pick; there’s always a reason for what your brain chooses, even if you don’t recognize it.
Now comes the time to figure out how to best deal with this COVID anxiety. For COVID anxiety or any anxiety at all, I recommend a strategy called the worry tree.
The worry tree helps us make decisions on how to best deal with the things we are worrying with. With each of your worries, identify if your worry is something you can actively deal with, or if it is mostly a hypothetical situation. If it is hypothetical, let it go and go do something else to distract yourself that you actually enjoy!
If you think you can do something about the source of your COVID anxiety, figure out if you can address it now or later.
If now, go address it right now, and if later, set a time for when you can deal with it and then just let it go, because there is no use worrying about something you can’t address now!
If you want some additional coaching on how to do this exercise, it is another activity MARCo can guide you through.
“Okay but if I can just let go of my worries just like that, I wouldn’t be dealing with COVID stress right now, now would I?”
That is very true, sarcastic disembodied narrative. That is where the concept of restructuring comes in, which you can think of as putting your anxious thoughts in a new perspective.
Remember the “What-If?” activity we were talking about earlier? Try it again, but this time, don’t fill in just current COVID anxiety: fill it in with your fears from weeks, months, or even years ago. Look at previous things you worried about throughout your life, and instead of looking at “how likely are they to happen,” fill in whether or not they did happen. Instead of adding the worst-case scenario, fill in what actually happened.
Instead of “How will I cope?” fill in “How did I cope?” Then, compare all the things you worried about in your past to the things that you are currently worrying about to see that, in fact, none of your past worries were the end of the world.
You’re still here, you’re still standing, and no matter what has happened to you before, you have managed to get through it. You will get through this, too, no matter what your COVID anxiety tells you otherwise.
Communicate with your future self
Easy, right? It’s 2020, so just download the latest time travel app onto your phone and zap yourself into the future and have a heart-to-heart with your future self. Easy peasy lemon-
I’ve just been informed that, regrettably, that’s all in my imagination. But even if your future self can’t speak back, you can speak to your future self.
Whether it’s writing a physical letter and sealing it away with an “Open After” date on the front, scheduling an email to yourself for years in the future, or even just leaving a voice/video memo on your phone, you have an open form of communication to the person you will be in a time farther than we can see.
“Okay, but why would I do that? How would that help me?”
Well first off, it’s fun! I got quite a laugh from reading my 5th grade letter to my 21-year-old self, especially over how I hoped I would be a famous millionaire architect in space, while now I’m building mental health robots. It can brighten your mood today as well as when you read it and share it in the future.
But there are more serious reasons as well. You don’t know how your future self will be affected by the events we’re going through; you only know how you currently are being affected by it. Emotional wounds and COVID anxiety can reopen years from now for seemingly no reason, even if you think things are fine now.
But your present self is a better authority on how bad things are than your future self on how things were. In your messages to yourself, gently remind your future self, however far in the future, about everything going on. Remind yourself that you are getting through it, and that you have come to terms with all the worries in your life. Remind yourself, too, of the good things you have, that this time isn’t all bad, even if your COVID anxiety tells you otherwise.
Furthermore, as we already discussed, reminding your future self of how you’ve already gotten through plenty of bad things before can help put your future struggles in a better perspective.
You might also be worried about how you are going to change post-pandemic. Maybe you fear that you will forever be afraid to come within 6 feet of another person. Maybe you are scared that you are going to give up on things important to you because this time has taken too much out of you.
Whatever it is, gently remind your future self that, “hey, this is what I’m worried about becoming because of my present COVID anxiety. This is how I hope I can change in the future, and this is how I hope I will never change. Please stay true to these things, because this is important to me.”
In any case, your future self will always appreciate the support of your present self.
Carry out positivity, too
More than likely, we are all going to be carrying out some more emotional baggage by the end of this pandemic than we carried in. But if we have enough room to carry out all that COVID anxiety, the COVID stress, and all the harm to our mental health, can’t we make room for some positivity as well?
This isn’t to say “pretend everything is happy and fine,” because that doesn’t help. Carrying positivity with you means taking the time to recognize the good you have, rather than just letting the constant stream of bad fill your brain.
It helps to visualize this positivity because it is too easy to forget about it again if we just think about it once and then let the thought fade into obscurity.
- Write a sticky note to yourself on your wall once a day with one good thing.
- Make a mason jar of “things I’m grateful for” and fill it up with notes of, wouldn’t you know, things you’re grateful for.
- Make a “happy box” and fill it with good memories, objects, and photos from this time, no matter how miniscule or seemingly unimportant.
Gratitude and recognition of the good are proven ways to improve your mental health, and in the long run it will ensure that you don’t just carry out the bad, but you bring the good with you as well.
We still have a ways to go before we are out of the woods that is this immediate mental health crisis of COVID anxiety, depression, and stress.
But preparing our minds for the future by taking care of ourselves today will ensure that once we’re out of those woods, we never have to turn back.
Dealing with more COVID anxiety? Want to learn how to better cope with COVID mental health struggles? Check out MARCo - the Mental-Health Assisting Robot Companion. Available in person, online, or on mobile, MARCo can help you through anything in your mental health journey and help you learn how to cope with COVID anxiety.
Get started for 7 days free here!