A Self-Care Plan for Coping with Pandemic-Related Mental Health Concerns
Therapist Alexa Moubarak has been guiding her clients through the isolation and uncertainty created by Covid. Here, she shares a five-step strategy for improving your mental health that you can do on your own.
And then the pandemic hit.
This is a phrase that’s become synonymous with the disruption – and sometimes the derailment – of life as we knew it.
Months of isolation and ongoing social distancing have pulled us out of our everyday routines and plunged us into deep uncertainty, the effects of which we’re only just beginning to realize.
“I’ve been treating people who are grieving not just the loss of in-person interactions with the people who populate their lives, such as family, friends, and coworkers, but also this collective loss for the lives we had,” says Alexa Moubarak, MSW, LCSW-NJ, LICSW-MA, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist. “This isolation has also caused a significant and chronic stress response that’s led to a tremendous rise in anxiety and paranoia.”
Since the start of 2021, Moubarak has provided short-term telehealth therapy to clients in New Jersey and Massachusetts through the app Sanvello, which focuses on treating stress, anxiety, and depression. Previously, she counseled female inmates who have experienced complex trauma.
In opening her private practice this summer in Lambertville, NJ, through which she sees clients virtually, Moubarak is drawing on both experiences.
“My specialty remains trauma, stemming specifically from sexual assault,” she says. “But during this historic period, I’ve also come to appreciate the broader definition of trauma, as anything that overwhelms our system to the point where we can no longer cope in the moment.”
Much of her work in recent months has entailed “validating these experiences, while also challenging the distorted thinking processes that result from them, and reconnecting people with the present moment.”
She does so primarily by forging a strong mind and body connection.
“This looks like making sure that you’re taking care of your physical body as you tend to your mind,” Moubarak says. “From that point, we can really hone in on the subconscious mind and challenge the beliefs that live there.
“When you’re able to start from this solid footing, a lot of things fall into place,” she adds.
Here, Moubarak shares a manageable plan for addressing on your own the chronic stress brought on by the pandemic and some of the different concerns that can develop from it, including anxiety, depression, grief, and loneliness.
Accept and normalize the feelings you’re having.
Just because these are strange times does not mean that your reaction to them is abnormal. If we were able to be more closely connected, it would be easier to see that what you’re feeling right now is similar to what many, many others are feeling.
Until that time comes, Moubarak suggests summoning all the self-compassion you can muster. This will help you understand that there’s a reason why you feel overwhelmed all the time. “And once that reason becomes evident, this will pave the path to being able to accept and normalize the feelings you’re having,” she says.
Find a coping strategy and use it.
Simply put, a coping strategy is a thought process, action, or series of actions that can be used to diffuse an unpleasant or stressful moment. Examples of emotional regulation strategies include meditation, deep breathing, exercise, and journaling.
“This is going to be very individualized,” Moubarak says. “Where one person may swear by meditation, another may struggle with sitting still for a few minutes. So, feel free to experiment. Ultimately, all that matters is that your coping strategy works for you.”
Also important: using it when you need it. At first, use your strategy whenever you need help calming down and re-establishing yourself in the present. Eventually, you can start deploying your strategy in more of a preventative mode.
Set realistic goals for yourself.
Establishing goals gives us something to work toward and helps us develop momentum when we’re able to achieve them. While we tend to associate goals with big events like running a marathon, starting a family, or earning an advanced degree, Moubarak says we can still reap the benefits when we seed our everyday activities with them. Think along the lines of taking a short walk around the neighborhood each evening, preparing healthier meals, or Zooming regularly with family or friends you can’t see in person right now.
“The key is to start small,” Moubarak says. “The smaller the goal, the easier it’ll be to achieve. And then you’ll be more likely to keep doing it.”
Create a new routine.
Indulgent as it felt wear only pajamas for the first few days of quarantine last year, that behavior quickly sloshed into virtually every corner of our lives. Now, much of the infrastructure that comprised our everyday lives before the pandemic has eroded. As a result, it can be hard to be present when you’re not exactly sure when, or where, you are at any given moment.
“Most of us do better when we have structure,” Moubarak says. “And so, spending all this time at home largely disconnected from the outside world can have a very disorienting effect that can drive some of the symptoms we’re trying to get rid of.”
To get back on track, start creating a new routine. You may decide to incorporate pieces from your routine before the pandemic, like running every morning, or you can take this opportunity to try new things. Either way, aim to break your day into phases with a combination of effective and rewarding acts.
Don’t be afraid to offer help – or to ask for it.
No one has been left untouched by the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean that we’re all experiencing it in the same way. If you find yourself on solid footing, check in on neighbors, friends, and family. It can be as simple as a text: “How are you? (Really.)”
“They may not open up to you right away, but they’ll know they can when they’re ready to,” Moubarak says. “And that can be a real lifeline for someone who’s struggling.”
If you’re the one who’s struggling, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re not comfortable approaching someone in your life, find a professional. There are a couple ways to go about it. Your health insurance provider should have a directory on its website of in-network therapists in your area. If they don’t, or if you don’t have health insurance, Psychology Today enables you to search its therapist database by city, zip code, or name. There’s also one for support groups.
(If your condition necessitates urgent attention, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.)
“Don’t ignore your symptoms if they’re escalating: frequent panic attacks, insomnia, loss of appetite, for example,” Moubarak says. “They can be crippling, but they can also be treated by a professional. Help is available.”