About six months ago, life as we knew it changed completely. What began as a fun week-long break suddenly left many of us back at home and separated from the life we had just begun building for ourselves. Forced isolation left many of us feeling hopeless, socially starved, and uncertain of the future. And as life began to unravel around all of us, life handed me a gut-punch; a double diagnosis of cancer in my parents, my father’s diagnosis being terminal.
Quarantine is hard for everyone, but for those facing tragedy in their home, the experience can become far more damaging. When you're constantly surrounded by illness in your loved ones, it’s easy to slip into a spiraling depressive mindset. Other personal tragedies like the death of a friend or loved one, life-changing accidents or diagnoses, or the return of mental illnesses can feel more damaging than ever before. And with forced isolation, separating yourself from friends and other support systems can become dangerously easy.
But you don’t have to face these hardships alone.
Here are some of my tips for managing your mental health during a personal tragedy (not to mention a global pandemic).
- Seeking Professional Help
I have always been a massive advocate for seeking professional help (shoutout to my guru/therapist-extraordinaire Bob). For those experiencing a personal tragedy during quarantine, connecting with a therapist can be the first step of many for taking back control of your mind. Therapy is not just for the seriously depressed; it can be an incredible tool for realigning yourself during temporary times of intense stress. With virtual Telehealth and Zoom meetings, connecting with a professional safely is easier now than ever. Even just one session twice a month can be instrumental in your mental health journey, and allow you to be completely transparent with a trained specialist. For those who do not have insurance or regular access to a local professional, I recommend checking out the app BetterHelp, which allows you to speak with a variety of licensed therapists at a low monthly rate.
- Basic Self-Care
Caring full-time for loved ones can become a consuming task; it’s easy to forget to take care of yourself too (I know I’ve had many breakfasts at 3 pm because it simply slips my mind). Even those who aren’t physically assisting others can become so consumed by intense thoughts or feelings that they forget basic self-care like eating, bathing, or cleaning. Remember not to demand too much from yourself. Some days, a simple goal like taking a shower is all that’s needed. Taking time out of your day for yourself is crucial to your mental health, even when you feel guilty or selfish. Creating a list of reminders, preparing meals ahead of time, choosing one day a week to vacuum your room, or even claiming one hour of the day to completely focus on yourself are all steps you can take to care for yourself.
- Practicing Mindfulness
I know what you’re probably thinking: “Breathing in and out slowly isn’t going to solve my problems.” And you’re right! It is, however, going to create a path for clearer focus and inward reflection. After months of resistance, I finally caved to my therapist and downloaded the app Mindfulness Coach. I must admit, even I have been converted. The small sliver of eight minutes of mindfulness each morning really sets the tone for my day, and allows me to have clearer focus in moments of intense stress. When everything around you feels chaotic, it’s comforting to have this tool to take back your mind and seize control of your day.
- Limiting Isolation (Safely)
With state mandates and fears of spreading the virus, sometimes staying home is absolutely required. Just because you are isolating, however, does not mean you have to be mentally alone. Apps like Zoom or Facetime have allowed us to stay connected with friends or loved ones, and speak to them when we need them most. Chrome extensions like Netflix Party have been a great alternative to dates with my boyfriend, while online party games like Jackbox have allowed me to laugh in the midst of hardships. For those who can practice social distancing safely, 6-feet-apart walks in the woods near my house with my hometown friends are truly a blessing. On difficult days, loneliness can feel like the most comfortable feeling in the world. But remember: days you feel the need to be alone are the days you need to ask for help. It isn’t easy to ask for company, but what are friends for?
- Informing Your Professors/Employers
Many people who are facing exceptional hardships may feel uncomfortable informing professors or employers about such personal issues. Others may worry that they’ll sound like they’re “making excuses.” But these struggles are nothing to be ashamed of. I have been met with an overwhelmingly positive response from all my professors, and have been offered many flexibilities with deadlines or in-person lectures. Even if you don’t end up needing extra time or assistance, informing your employers or educators can give you peace of mind.
- Prioritizing Sleep
This final step seems trivial, but it’s important to not to downplay the importance of a good night’s sleep. A regular sleep schedule can be incredibly difficult when the days seem to blend together (I know I have spent an unhealthy amount of hours on TikTok into the early morning). But creating a routine for yourself is another step in the process of true self-care. After beginning to sleep a solid 8 hours, I found myself becoming more focused, energized, and less irritable. Natural supplements like melatonin can be a great temporary sleeping aid, and practicing breathing mindfulness right before bed can lead to a deeper, more restful sleep.
If anything can be taken away from this piece, I hope it is this: you are not alone, and you do not need to suffer in silence. If you know someone in your life facing a personal crisis, take the extra step to reach out during these isolating times. A check-in could mean more than you imagine.