“Don’t Panic About the Coronavirus. Act.” was the headline on a story I wrote last week, back, when we were still going into Slate’s offices to do our journalism. Things could get bad, in fact they’re already getting bad, the piece explained; we very much need to take measures like staying away from other people to help prevent or at least reduce very bad outcomes. Even when staying away from people felt like a scary future, at least it was something to recommend people actually do—panicking is not useful.
But not panicking about the novel coronavirus is easier said than done. So is not losing your mind when you are isolated in your apartment. The day I started working on that article, I cried before I left for work, and I cried at work while sitting inside one of the phone booths where I do interviews. My work bestie Heather brought me emergency tissues, and then we went for a walk. Now, of course, Slate’s offices are closed, as they should be, and I am stuck working on stories about the coronavirus in my home, without Heather.
I already do a good bit of work to care for my mental health—for example, I “went” to therapy on Wednesday, via video, which helped a bit. But we’re all about to face somewhat trying times, from an anxiety and mental health standpoint. So on Friday, I talked to three therapists and a psychiatrist about their advice on keeping the inside of one’s brain from devolving into a total shitshow during this time when a virus is basically dictating our daily routines. They’ve been thinking about this a lot: The coronavirus “is really all anyone is talking about,” Lindsay Henderson, director of psychological services at Amwell, a telehealth platform, told me, of her own sessions with clients last week.
What follows is advice along the lines of washing your hands a lot: You’ve heard it before, it might seem so flimsy and simple, but—hi, to my own self, as much as anyone—it’s important to do it with all the bravado you’ve got.
On How to Socialize
“Distancing is not the same as isolation,” says Nikole Benders-Hadi, a psychiatrist and the director of behavioral health for Doctor on Demand, another telehealth platform. Talk to the people in your home, go for walks with neighbors (if you’re healthy), socialize from afar—even if you didn’t talk to a particular friend over video or phone before all this, even if you’ve sort of fallen out of keeping in touch with someone, now is the time. See if your friends and family are interested in hanging out as a group, virtually, and be the one to set up the Google Hangout.
Let go of the idea that making plans, or asking for help in general, might annoy people. “I feel like I’m always annoying people,” says Kathleen Smith, a therapist based in D.C. and author of a great newsletter and book of anxiety tips.* Remind yourself, she says, that “if people don’t want to talk to you or don’t want to Skype with you, they can say no. That’s their responsibility.” Also let go of the idea that your desire to, say, not socialize in person might annoy people. Own the fact that you are social distancing, and it’s OK to say no to people still making IRL plans. In general, “so many of our decisions are based on whether we’re going to upset other people,” observes Smith. Now is not the time for compromising what you believe is a safe course of action. Now is the time to be firm about your boundaries.
Now is also the time to remember you can’t control other people. Trying to manage those around us and give advice are things people really love doing when they are anxious, says Smith (an entry of her newsletter on coping with COVID-19 anxiety is, accordingly, a list of questions she suggests you ask yourself rather than directives about how exactly to live right now). So when, say, you feel like your elderly parents aren’t taking the directive to socially distance seriously, you can share the information you have about why doing so is important. But Smith suggests pausing before jumping in with schematics of what they should be doing. “People have more insight than you give them credit for,” she says. “Leading by asking people what they know and what their thinking might help people accept what you say.” A line Smith suggested to get that conversation going: “I’m concerned about you, and I want you to be safe. Do you have ideas about how we can help you stay safe?”
On How to Get Space From the News
Everyone emphasized the importance of staying informed while not parking your focus on nonstop updates about the coronavirus. When people “stay glued to coverage, panic symptoms can get a lot worse,” says Benders-Hadi.
It might help to carve out chunks of time that are news-free, or set aside a couple times a day to check the news. Create and guard calm parts of your routine (in general, maintaining a routine as much as possible is going to be helpful.) Set aside time first thing in the morning, for meditation or anything else relaxing, says Benders-Hadi. Here’s a guide to meditation apps. Keep up with or implementing an exercise routine, if you can; here’s a guide to workouts you can do at home.
Set limits on coronavirus talk in conversations with friends, says Jenny Maenpaa, a New York City based therapist and author. Here’s an easy line she suggested: “I need a break from coronavirus talk. Can we set a timer for 10 minutes, and talk about your son, or the book you’re reading?” You might choose to put a moratorium on virus talk for just one particular conversation. I like that 10 minutes is a doable goal when avoiding virus talk seems impossible.
Do fun things at home; schedule fun things to do at home. Here’s a guide to a bunch of things that you can stream thanks to the coronavirus situation, from an early release of Frozen 2 on Disney+, to New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.
On How to See a Therapist
Getting mental health care is especially important right now. Even if you’re not full-on panicking, a professional can help you sort through your feelings and establish self-care habits better than any article ever could. There are going to be losses in the next weeks and maybe months, from canceled graduations and weddings, to sick loved ones in your community. “Honor and grieve those losses,” says Henderson, who notes that a professional can help you figure out how to grieve without falling into sheer despair. “It can be complicated to sort through. We know how to help with this stuff. We’re really good at it.”
If you are currently seeing a therapist, see if they can do video sessions. If you are not currently seeing a therapist, you can try finding one via a totally online practice like Amwell (here’s Wirecutter’s guide , on which I’m an author), or go the usual routes of finding a therapist and ask if they’ll do video sessions. “Almost every therapist I know is offering virtual sessions, even if it wasn’t part of their practice before,” says Maenpaa.
It’s also true that one of the biggest issues many people are about to face is a loss of their job and loss of economic stability. This will disrupt access to the funds and insurance needed to access therapy. If you have limited funds, ask private practice therapists if they offer sliding scales, and ask if you can commit to a limited number of sessions, rather than an ongoing standing appointment (online platforms like Amwell allow you to book and pay for just one session). If you cannot afford those options, try a crisis hotline, and reach out to friends and loved ones.
These next weeks and months will be really hard. Start caring for your mental health sooner rather than later.
Correction, March 16, 2020: This post originally misspelled Kathleen Smith’s first name.