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How to stay healthy when you’re social distancing

Kate Rockwood writer headshot By | March 25, 2020
Medically reviewed by Anis Rehman, MD

In uncertain times, we naturally lean on the people we’re closest to—our friends and family—for comfort and reassurance. But during the current global pandemic of a novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, many of us will be necessarily separated from our support systems in order to stop the spread.

Experts have recommended keeping a “social distance” of at least six feet from others, to help control the spread of the disease, even for those who aren’t showing coronavirus symptoms. This also means avoiding social gatherings, working from home when possible and avoiding public spaces, except for vital trips, such as grocery store runs and pharmacy visits. These measures aren’t just about protecting yourself—they’re about protecting others. Many young and healthy people show minimal symptoms with COVID-19 infection but can still spread the disease to high-risk groups, including the elderly and immunocompromised.

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But just because it’s the right thing to do, doesn’t mean that social distancing is easy. Humans are social and habit-bound creatures, and a break from both at the same time can be tough on the mind and body. Here are some tips for staying healthy while social distancing.

1. Find a new routine

Spending extended time at home can make it difficult to maintain a consistent schedule. Even if your employer expects you to work full days remotely, it can be tempting to forego routine for the comfort of breakfast in bed. But maintaining a consistent schedule is vital for keeping your mind on track during difficult times. Do your best to wake up, eat breakfast, and sit down to work on a consistent schedule. But also make sure to take regular breaks.

“Figure out how to chunk out time in ways that are realistic for your attention span,” says Caroline Adelman, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and the clinical director and founder of Chicago Psychotherapy. “Take breaks, especially to get up, move, and eat something healthy. We don’t realize that at work we’re doing that naturally by going to the water cooler or the coffee machine.”

It’s also important to set up a productive and comfortable workspace—away from your bedroom. “From a sleep hygiene perspective, avoid working in your bedroom at all costs,” says Adelman. “People who work in their bedroom are much more susceptible to insomnia because they form a strong association between their work stress and the space where they’re sleeping.”

2. Plan ahead

The next weeks and months are going to be stressful and pull a lot of people out of their normal routines. It’s a great idea to make a plan as soon as possible for what you’ll do if you’re struck by overwhelming anxiety or loneliness.

“In the moments that we’re anxious or stressed, it’s very hard to think about what to do,” says Hilary Jacobs Hendel, licensed clinical social worker, certified AEDP psychotherapist, and author of It’s Not Always Depression. “In preparation, have a list on your refrigerator of five go-to activities. Take a hot bath or shower, make yourself a cup of tea, watch something funny on Netflix, listen to music, take a walk, call a friend.”

3. Find (safe) ways to socialize

Even when you’re stuck at home, there are plenty of ways to stay in touch with the people you care about. Staying connected can also do wonders for helping you manage your mental health, and can keep your spirits up during stressful times.

“We can connect through Zoom and Skype, which are very helpful because we can see each other’s eyes, faces and smiles,” Jacobs Hendel says. “People really need to hear voices and see faces, they help people feel connected much more than texting does.”

Find ways to get creative and maintain your social calendar while keeping your distance from others. Move your coffee date to FaceTime, set up a virtual book club, or have your kids write letters to a friend.

“We’re lucky to be living in the digital age,” says Adelman. “Get creative about the ways that make you feel connected with other people, even when you’re not physically with them.” 

4. Limit your news intake

With news about the COVID-19 outbreak changing daily, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the vast amount of information, notifications, and articles taking over your feeds. While it’s important to stay informed about news relevant to you and your community, taking in too much—or the frantic opinions of your Facebook friends—can easily contribute to increased anxiety.

“Boundaries are how we protect what matters to us,” says Adelman. “We’re all very aware right now of the need for increased physical boundaries, but there are other kinds of boundaries that we can put in place to protect our mental health. One of those would be setting a boundary around how often you’re checking the news, or around what kinds of news sources you’re looking at. Look at whether they actually provide information or just amp up your anxiety.”

You can set these boundaries with family and friends as well, by asking them to not share the news with you unless it’s directly relevant to your community or from a trusted source. 

And while social media can be a pitfall of headlines and other people’s anxiety, it can also be a great way to stay connected to the world outside, including friends, family, coworkers, and even your favorite local businesses, while you’re social distancing.

“It’s all about what you’re spending your time on,” says Adelman. “If you’re just passively consuming everyone’s feed about coronavirus, you’re going to feel like you’re drinking anxiety from a fire hose. But it can be useful if you’re making a point of saying the kinds of things you’d say to people in real life or finding ways to live out your values online.”

5. Stay active

Physical health is connected to mental health, so it’s especially important to find ways to stay active while social distancing. Even if gyms and playgrounds are off limits for the time being, there are plenty of ways to stay moving. Indoor workout videos, yoga, stretching and weightlifting can all be done inside, and it’s still okay to venture outside (alone or with those you live with) to walk, run, or ride a bike.

“People like to move, being stuck is not a natural human state,” says Jacobs Hendel. She recommends taking regular walks around your neighborhood—just be careful to keep a safe distance from any neighbors. 

6. Recognize your emotions

When life gets stressful, it can be tempting to push past or ignore overwhelming emotions. But sometimes the first step to managing anxiety is actually recognizing and assessing your emotions for what they are, rather than trying to suppress them. Jacobs Hendel designed a tool called the Change Triangle to help people work through emotions in a healthy way.

“People generally notice that they’re upset,” she says. “You either feel the anxiety in your body, or maybe you’re obsessing or thinking catastrophically.” 

If you catch yourself feeling upset or scared, Jacobs Hendel says, you should take stock of your situation and its causes to keep yourself from spiraling further. “When I work with people who are incredibly anxious, I tell them to make a note in their calendar or iPhone to check in with their mind and body from time to time, and to just to pause for a moment and feel their feet on the ground,” Jacobs Hendel says. “Ask yourself, ‘What is my immediate danger?’”

By focusing only on your immediate situation, you can take specific actions to help with things that are within your control. This can help prevent feelings of helplessness while in the midst of something as large as a global pandemic.

“The other thing to keep saying to yourself is that this is temporary,” Jacobs Hendel says. “It sucks, but it’s temporary.”  

7. Take deep breaths

During a particularly stressful or anxious moment, practice mindfulness and focus on your breathing. There are a variety of conscious breathing techniques that can help with anxiety, including belly breathing to the 4-7-8 method, which involves breathing in for four seconds, holding for seven, and breathing out for eight.

Deep breathing soothes the vagus nerve, Jacobs Hendel says, which is the largest nerve in the body. “It goes from the emotional centers in the brain down to every organ in the body,” she says. “That’s why when we get upset our heart races, our breathing changes, our stomach goes in knots, or we can’t go to the bathroom.”

Breathing exercises can help ease this automatic response and keep your body and mind on track.

8. Reassure kids

Kids observe a lot, and especially as schools and activities are canceled, they’re going to know something is wrong. Instead of trying to hide it, or on the other end of the spectrum, constantly telling your child that everything is fine, Adelman recommends being as honest with them as you can be based on their age.

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“I think that it is important to reassure kids that we’ll do everything we can to try to prevent it, but if you get COVID-19, it will probably feel like a cold or a flu, or you might even feel nothing at all,” she says. “Explain that for some people in our community, this can be really dangerous, but one of the ways we can take care of each other is by washing our hands regularly. Help kids feel like they focus on the things within their control, but also share that this is about caring for the community.”