Sr. Michael Francine Duncan
Sr. Michael Francine Duncan
It would be a bizarre existence to our pre-pandemic selves, but by now many of us are somewhat settled in our coronavirus-era lifestyle. We sport masks at the grocery store, give loungewear new love, dodge across streets to avoid fellow pedestrians and livestream Masses in our living rooms.

Many people’s internal lives, however, are increasingly unsettled. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll published in April, nearly 45% of adults in the United States report their mental health has been negatively affected due to worry and stress related to the virus. There are concerns about job loss and health, and there are the repercussions of social distancing.

“Humans are social creatures and regulate themselves emotionally by being in close proximity to other people,” said Korina Jochim, clinical manager at Northwest Catholic Counseling Center in Portland. Our limbic system — the set of structures in the brain that deal with emotions and memory — links with other people’s limbic system and can help stabilize emotions.

“Social distancing interferes with that,” Jochim said.

Yet mental health experts say there are ways to boost psychological health during the COVID-19 crisis. Here are eight suggestions.

Set a routine — and ditch the daytime pj’s

Human beings function well with routine, and establishing one during the pandemic is essential for good mental health, according to Sister Michael Francine Duncan, a St. Mary of Oregon sister and a licensed counselor.

Without normal schedules for work, socializing and child care, people’s internal biological clock — which keeps the body and our behaviors synchronized with the 24-hour cycle of light and dark — may be confused, causing disruptions in sleep, energy and mood. Routines help stabilize it.

Sister Michael Francine suggests setting consistent times to rise and go to bed, to wash and dress, to work and pray. And be sure you change into your daytime clothing, she said. “Do not wear your pajamas or sweatpants all day.”

Use technology to preserve social ties

“Social isolation can have a huge impact on even the most die-hard introvert,” writes psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee in a recent Psychology Today article on self-care amid COVID-19. But technology can help.

Some research indicates 55% of communication is accomplished through body language, so seeing people via cyberspace, rather than simply chatting with them on a phone, allows us to feel more connected, said Jochim.

Google Hangouts are free and easy to create. Zoom is free for 40-minute intervals, and basic plans are $15 per month. Counselors suggest using such platforms to host book discussions, happy hours, prayer groups, or check-ins with fellow parishioners or elderly relatives.

Jochim recommends parents don’t restrict kids from using technology to stay in touch with pals. “Though this is the opposite advice I usually give, they need those connections right now,” she said.

But keep tech in check

It can be tempting to follow coronavirus coverage 24/7, “but this barrage of news adds to our anxiety,” said Chris Bouneff, executive director of the Oregon chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “People need to give themselves permission to unplug.”

Using technology to connect with others is different than scrolling mindlessly through a social media feed, points out Dodgen-Magee. In fact research shows a potential relationship between social media use and anxiety and depression.

Sister Michael Francine sees the pandemic as a perfect opportunity to pick up the old-school art of connecting via letter writing.

“There is something special about receiving a handwritten card or letter,” perhaps on self-decorated paper, she said. Plus allowing one’s “creativity to emerge can be life-giving.”

Pray

“Mental health is finding the balance for an individual of body, mind and spirit,” said Sister Michael Francine. While it’s painful to go without the Eucharist, prayer is a source of spiritual nourishment that improves both spiritual and psychological health.

A 2014 study by Columbia University found that regular prayer and meditation thicken part of the brain’s cortex and could be one of the reasons those practices guard against depression.

“Prayer can be just thinking of the Trinity,” Sister Michael Francine said, adding that the faithful can always go deeper spiritually within common prayers. “The rosary is a perfect example of a prayer in which one can build — to really focus on the mysteries and to place oneself in each mystery.”

Practice gratitude

“Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression, which can destroy our happiness,” Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California in Davis, said in a 2015 interview published by UCD medical center. Emmons has conducted extensive research on the link between gratitude and well-being, and his studies affirm gratitude reduces depression and increases happiness.

Jochim encourages people to “take note of the things that touch your heart or make you feel grateful,” for example, “family, fellowship, a delicious homecooked meal, an old friend that got in touch, your faith, your resources.”

Move your body, ideally outside

Stay as active as possible, said Jochim, who suggests her clients engage in at least 20 minutes of exercise per day. Exercise supports mental health by releasing endorphins — brain chemicals that trigger a positive feeling in the body and reduce the sensation of pain.

Even though Oregonians can’t currently access national parks and many trails, “we can certainly take lovely walks in residential neighborhoods and take in the spring flowers and explosion of greenery around us,” Jochim said. “Exercising outdoors is a restorative practice for our spirit.”

Honor alone time

Although most are disconnected from extended family and friends, many moms, dads and kids are spending ample time together in close quarters. At some point, family members can get on each other’s nerves, said Jochim.

It’s thus important to honor each person’s need for occasional solitude.

“Everyone will need supported alone time when we’re all cramped together,” she said. “So if your kid says, ‘I need time to myself in my room,’ let them have that.”

Irritability is a natural result of “being situationally enmeshed with one another, Jochim added. “Emphasize respect and communicate, communicate, communicate.”

Don’t compare, do seek growth

Not yet acquired the perfect pandemic hobby? Not a fan of Zoom game nights? Give yourself a break, and don’t compare yourself to others, writes Dodgen-Magee.

“It’s easy right now to see what others are doing (and how they are seemingly thriving) and to compare ourselves to them,” she writes. Discern what kind of activities and routines will “work best for your unique self and commit to these rather than trying to squeeze yourself into those suggested by others.”

This is a difficult time, added Jochim, but also an opportunity “to go deeper and examine ourselves, our values, our priorities, our connections, our spiritual life. We are more than what we do in the world.”

Jochim’s advice is to find the spiritual lessons in our pandemic life, to ask ourselves: “How can it transform us for the better?”



If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or text “start” to 741741.