My mom texted me at around 10 p.m. the other night — notably late for her to be up and on the phone. “I miss you,” she wrote. “Hope we get through this soon. It’s been hard.” She, like many of us, has been having some trouble coping with the shelter-in-place orders, the communal angst, the overturned lifestyles and everything else that the coronavirus has suddenly brought about.
I replied that I missed her, too, and that I was hopeful about things returning to how they were soon enough (although, truthfully, I suspect that digging ourselves out of this situation could take a while). But without actually being there in person — an impracticability under social distancing — that was about all I could come up with.
My heart breaks for her, though, and I want to help however I can. So, inspired to come up with other ways to be supportive of each other as we all struggle to stay sane while quarantine pushes forward, I contacted a few mental health professionals for advice. Here’s what they suggested…
Put Your Phone to Good Use
First and foremost, anxiety specialist Kevin Foss, founder of the California OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center, says, “Reach out and keep in contact. People want a sense of normalcy during the shutdowns. Contact your friends and family, and attempt to maintain a relationship as if you were still there, in person. Ask about their day. Play games. Share pictures of your life, and ask them to share pictures they’re taking.”
And don’t stop there. “Be consistent,” Foss adds. “Don’t just call and see how they’re doing to check off a box, then not call them again until the next pandemic. Make a point to talk or video chat regularly.”
Ask How They’re Doing, Ask How You Can Help and Be Straightforward About It
There’s no denying that most of us are having a rough go right now, so don’t hesitate to be open and honest. “Check in on their mood,” Foss suggests. “Ask them how they’re doing and holding up today. If you know they’re feeling depressed or anxious, ask them directly about it, and be open to actually talking about it. Also, be open to them not wanting to talk about it.”
Then, Foss says, “Ask them what they need from you. Not everyone who’s depressed wants to be cheered up, and no one who’s anxious wants to be told to ‘calm down.’ Ask them what they want or need right now. Maybe they want to do video game nights to feel connected, and maybe they just need a kind word via text every now and again.”
Be Respectful of Their Quarantine Routine, Even If It Consists Solely of Playing Animal Crossing and Taking 20 Naps a Day
While you’re discussing your days and how you’re both doing, surely their quarantine routine will come up, and it might sound, erhm, uninspired. But it’s important that you don’t pass judgment, no matter how they’re getting on. As Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety, emphasizes, everyone has had their usual coping mechanisms — socializing, exercising, shopping — swept up by the coronavirus shutdowns. Therefore, everyone is prone to some kind of mental struggle right now, and simply listening and being understanding of however they choose to cope, even if that means doing nothing at all, goes a long, long way.
“You don’t have to have a pandemic project,” Chansky emphasizes. “Just getting through the pandemic is a worthy pandemic project. We’re all dealing with some level of stress, fear and worry, and managing that can be enough to get through. You don’t have to have something else to show for this time.” Moreover, Foss adds, “Remember that you don’t need to fix their problems. It can go a long way to simply validate that they’re scared and down. After all, the pandemic is frightening and depressing.”
Validate Their Negative Feelings, But Provide an Alternative Outlook, Too
As Margaret Wehrenberg, anxiety coach and author of The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques, says, people with anxiety and depression tend to “project into the future, like a movie projector. They see the world playing out like a video or a movie in front of them. They’re projecting what they fear and what they’re depressed about as if it’s already happened — and it hasn’t. So, we want to remind people with depression that what they’re sad about and what’s depressing them hasn’t happened yet.” Similarly, asking them to consider some other possible, more optimistic outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic, she says, could help improve their perspective.
Importantly, though, Wehrenberg emphasizes the usefulness of not completely shutting down their worries. “Don’t try to talk people out of what they’re afraid of with facts, because if it’s an anxiety disorder, that doesn’t work,” she says. Instead, she suggests simply stating that we can never really know what the outcome will be, but we can shift our mindset to calm our anxiety — or at least work at improving it — for the time being. “It’s better to say to them, ‘You’re right, this sucks. And you have a choice. It can suck, and you can do something that makes you feel better. Or it can suck, and you can make it worse.’”
You could also suggest to them this approach from Chansky: “Another way of getting perspective is to think about four people who are your imaginary dream-team board of directors. They could be people who are real or fictional, living or not, and you consult them in your mind. Just the act of thinking, ‘What would Oprah tell me about this situation?’ helps you get out of that spin of the four walls of your mind, and you feel better. You’re channeling your own wisdom through these people.”
Propose Some Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Napping all day is fine, sure, but if they’re willing to try some other activities, you might be able to help them out by suggesting ideas. “Encourage them in their appropriate coping skills,” Foss says. “‘Have a Quarantini’ can be a lighthearted quip, but many are falling into bad habits when dealing with the outbreak. Instead, as best as they’re able, encourage them to keep eating well, exercising, sleeping, staying in contact with other friends, engaging in their hobbies or going to work if they’re able (in real life, or digitally).”
If you really want to help out, Chansky suggests becoming motivation buddies with your struggling friends and family, where you help each other accomplish chores or do activities by doing them together (but still apart). “You want to clean closets, and they want to pay their bills,” Chansky says. “Whatever it is, you say, ‘I have one thing I don’t really want to do. Do you have something you don’t really want to do? We’ll talk to each other before, or we’ll Zoom the whole time.’ Whatever it is, there’s a way of having that support through those things.”
And if you’re in a house together, even better. In an effort to boost morale in her home, Chansky says her family has decided to engage in spontaneous, daily dance parties, where one family member chooses a song each day, and once they put it on, dancing ensues. She admits that even though they often feel burnt out and tired, as long as somebody has been designated to choose a song, the dancing will happen, and their moods will be inevitably lifted.
Chansky also suggests proposing written to-do lists, which can help some struggling persons get up on their feet, even if their to-do list consists of strictly fun activities. She also recommends proposing a so-called news diet. “I’ve suggested that people turn off their news alerts for them to be more in control of the flow of information, and decide consciously how many times a day they’re going to go on social media or on a news platform,” she says. “Then, balance the time they spend there with something that’s good for their body, whether that’s dancing, singing or jumping jacks.”
“All of these things, if we’re honest with each other, are kind of tricking ourselves into feeling like we have more control than we do,” Chansky continues. “But the fact is, we do have some control, and we should use whatever control we have.”
If All Else Fails, Employ the Help of a Professional
“It’s not your job to save them from their anxiety and depression,” Foss says. “Of course, we want to do everything we can to help our loved ones, but if their anxiety and depression is beyond your comfort level or emotional capacity, encourage them to contact a therapist or other professional.”
“If you fear for their safety or you’re worried that your loved one may hurt themselves during the shut down, and they’re not returning your phone calls,” Foss continues, “you can call 911 and ask them to do a safety check. Police officers will go to their house, make contact with them and take appropriate safety measures if necessary.”
For now, though, let’s see if I can help my mom figure out how to use Zoom.