We’re only halfway through 2020, but so much has already happened that it can feel much longer than that. The constant influx of (often negative) news means that many people are reaching their cognitive limit on processing and responding to new information. One technology-minded writer has compared this very human response to a type of cyberattack called Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS).
A DDoS is a type of cyberattack in which a flood of internet traffic is sent to a single website, which exceeds its capacity and shuts down the internet connection. The constant flood of news creates a mental DDoS attack which lowers our mental health, exhausts our cognitive resources, and allows misinformation to thrive.
Here are a few tips for improving your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic to help you stay calm, balanced, and avoid burning out.
Be aware of your anxiety
A lot has happened this year but the COVID-19 pandemic in particular is a constant source of concern and is in the news every day. Although it merits the seriousness with which its being treated, the steady influx of new information makes it normal to feel anxious right now. Try not to avoid, ignore, or suppress anxious thoughts. Instead, be aware of your anxiety and how it fluctuates day-to-day. On days when your anxiety level is spiking, avoid news alerts to give yourself a break until you’re feeling less anxious. Also try to keep things in perspective; notice and challenge any of your thoughts that may be extreme or unhelpful.
Frasier Health recommends the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique that you can use when you feel anxious or overwhelmed.
Answer the following:
- 5 things you can see right now. Look at them.
- 4 things you can touch right now. Touch them.
- 3 things you can hear right now. Listen to them.
- 2 people who you know love you. Think of them.
- 1 of those people you can contact today. Reach out to them.
Make time for self-care
When we don’t take care of ourselves, underlying worries and anxiety can worsen. Self-care can take many forms, but the most important thing is to do things for yourself and stay healthy. Lean on your social supports, prioritize getting enough sleep, eat healthy, exercise, and make time for activities you enjoy. Do the things you would do in more normal times to support your health, and be sure to use caution and follow health and safety guidelines while doing them.
We’re never going to be entirely stress-free, but we can aim to keep it under control and limit its negative effects on our health. Another good tool is a personal stress management plan, which you can learn how to build in one of our previous blog posts.
Practicing optimism doesn’t mean that you ignore all the stress in your daily life. It’s about training your brain to see challenges or obstacles as temporary, growing experiences from which you can learn.
If you don’t feel that you’re a natural optimist, that’s okay! Research has shown that only about 25% of optimism is programmed by our genes. A number of studies show that doing a simple visualization exercise can boost anyone’s optimism. When you have at least 10 minutes of free time, try this:
Pick a point in the future and envision yourself at that moment which has turned out to be the best-case scenario. As an example, 10 years from now, you have reached all of your professional goals, you’re in a loving relationship, you’re in peak physical shape, and you have friends who are trustworthy and caring. These are just examples; imagine what matters most to you and what your best future will look like with those in mind.
In one study, people who did this for only 15 minutes a week over an eight-week period became more positive and remained that way for nearly six months.
Seek information from reliable news sources
Seek information from reliable news sources that focus on science and facts, not speculation. Evaluate any publication you’re reviewing on these key questions:
- If a reporter gets facts in a story wrong, will the news outlet investigate a complaint and publish a correction?
- Does the publication have its own code of ethics?
Then go one step further by limiting how often you check the news to short, defined periods only a few times a day. If you have any news apps on your devices that push notifications throughout the day, turn them off. Setting limits and clear guidelines for how you take in new information can be calming and even lessen the sense of alarm that can come from overconsumption.
Focus on factors within your control
A loss of control is a common source of anxiety and stress which is exacerbated right now by a pandemic that requires collective effort to get through. Focus on the factors within your control and follow the recommended precautions as outlined by Health Canada and other credible health agencies. That includes such things as washing your hands, covering your mouth during coughs and sneezes, wearing a mask around others, and avoiding non-essential travel.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
If you start to notice that your anxiety (related to COVID-19 or otherwise) is causing you significant distress or interfering with your ability to function normally, reach out for formal mental health supports from a recognized agency, such as the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Their website includes a lot of great ideas for improving your mental health as well as resources in your area to help.
We should remember that this is the time to lean on each other. Even if we can’t be close physically, we need to stay close emotionally.