Living through the COVID-19 era has taught us quite a few lessons, as well as given us the time to contemplate them. Though no one can say for sure what’s next, safe to say things will be different and, in ways we can’t yet imagine, challenging. Going forward, supporting our mental health will be just as important as taking care of our physical health as we make the transition to life after lockdown.
So we need to come to grips with the new mental health ‘rules’ that will help us craft better days ahead. After speaking with friends, colleagues and patients over the past few weeks, I want to share with you a few take-aways on enhancing a healthy mind and spirit to greet the new normal – with more exhilaration and less trepidation:
1) Put tech in its place.
Ever since they’ve insinuated themselves into our lives, smartphones, laptops and tablets have kept us connected 24/7, not to mention wired and tired. While these devices are here to stay, and have certainly been essential in keeping work and school running in lockdown, all that connectivity and those endless Zoom calls have managed to add yet another level of mental exhaustion to an already stressful time. But there is a silver lining, which is that for many of us, it’s made turning off those devices a lot easier, not only for mom and dad, but even for kids and gamers. The pandemic-driven tech overdose has shown us that these machines should be mostly about work, in other words, how we were first introduced to them, not about hijacking our social lives and providing us with endless forms of distraction. This shift gives us space for more reading, more meditating, turning in earlier at night and allowing our minds to wander to more creative places – all of which adds up to a more contemplative lifestyle that we should incorporate into our post-quarantine lives.
2) Embrace the new, if slightly accidental mindfulness.
In the past few weeks and months, all of us have learned to live with less noise, literally and figuratively. Though few of us might have chosen to live at lockdown pace, it has forced us to step back and learn how to live ‘in the moment,’ to be more aware and mindful than ever. With so many distractions now gone, mindfulness just got a whole lot easier.
The almost accidental mindfulness we’ve stumbled upon during the pandemic is an essential mental health skill. As we’ve grown more comfortable with our down-shifted day-to-days, we’re learning (or relearning) how to appreciate simpler pleasures, to be more present with others and our surroundings, to experience gratitude for much of what we might have overlooked before. Going forward, the challenge will be to maintain some semblance of that quiet, aware, mindful state, regardless of how much of the pre-pandemic noise returns (or doesn’t).
3) Gift your brain with time-outs.
Throughout quarantine times, we’ve all had productive days, and not-so-productive days, a natural ebb and flow that we often didn’t allow ourselves before COVID-19. But, in fact, our brain needs a certain amount of downtime to restore and renew itself. If you’re a super-driven person with little patience for an unproductive day, what you really might be most in need of is a day with no to-do lists, no devices, no entertainment. It’s akin to giving your muscles a day off from weight training so they can rebuild and come back stronger. If a whole day isn’t possible, then make it a few hours to do something that might seem like a complete waste of time. Clearing your head every now and then is essential for mental health – think of it as a brain vacation – so take an easy walk with no goal or direction in mind or sit in the back yard and watch the clouds go by or relax on a park bench and people watch.
4) Drink from a half-full glass.
Before the pandemic took hold, many of us were conditioned to complain and worry over little things and everyday annoyances. One positive by-product of the new COVID reality is that it brought a lot of that kvetching to a screeching halt. With far bigger real-life concerns to focus on, everyday irritations got radically cut down to size. Many of us have witnessed first-hand how looking on the bright side, even when things are feeling grim, can make a big difference in our everyday mental health and how well we manage quarantine living.
According to the Mayo Clinic, ‘thinking positive’ is good for both brain and body, helping to reduce depression, boost cardiovascular health and immunity. So, when things start to get back to ‘normal,’ and you find yourself backsliding into old habits of negative thinking, take a moment to reframe: find a silver lining or focus on something you’re grateful for – to help keep mind and body on an even keel.
5) Keep up the good works.
If, during quarantine, you sewed some masks, clapped for those on the front lines, made donations, or did some shopping for your neighbors, you experienced the simple pleasure of giving to others. And that’s an important way to support your mental and physical health. Honestly, it’s an important part of being human.
When you give to others, without expecting anything in return, you also gift yourself with the ‘helper’s high.’ The pleasure centers in your brain light up, levels of serotonin rise, while cortisol and blood pressure go down—thanks to the release of oxytocin, the feel-good, love and bonding chemical.
Not sure you’ll have time to help others once we ‘get back to normal?’ Look at it this way: you’ve changed the way the pie chart of your life is divided, and the new thing, service to others, crowds out the stuff that matter less – so, problem solved!
6) Soothe your surroundings.
Though you may not have been conscious of it in the throes of quarantine, the colors in your home may have been impacting your mental health. So, if you were struggling a bit, you may want to change them up a bit. Certain hues, in small or large doses, can have a profound impact on the way you feel so now’s a good time to experiment to find the color palette that’s best for your head, especially important if we have to shelter-in-place again.
Whether you paint a wall, add a throw to your bed, or fresh pillows to your couch, you can use color to support your mind and spirit. For example: Red can ramp up energy; lavender encourages contemplation; lighter blues bring calm; light green can make you feel hopeful, while orange feels cheerful. A few more ways to support mental, spiritual and physical well-being at home? Try following a few basic tenets of feng shui – and enjoy the benefits:
- Toss or fix broken objects — a stopped clock, a loose doorknob, a busted fan – they’re hard on the spirit of a room.
- Make rooms easy to move through, keeping entryways clear, and don’t overcrowd spaces with large furniture pieces.
- Introduce round shapes like a circular or oval coffee table, or a round mirror or painting. Curves are soothing, whereas sharp corners can feel aggressive.
- Add something that moves, like a mobile, or breaths, like a plant or pet to energize the space.
- Clear out clutter to help get energy moving again.
That last one is especially important. You and your brain will feel better and function more smoothly in an environment that’s been purged of extraneous objects and clutter, so throw out junk, donate useful things and set up a system for organizing and tucking away keepsakes and important items.