If six weeks ago you’d told me that my social calendar was about to free up entirely, that shoes would be a thing of the past and I’d have a dozen more hours a week free, I’d have leapt for joy. I was deeply craving some serious R&R, but living under lockdown during a global pandemic, it turns out, isn’t exactly a staycation. While self-isolating and social distancing may be the best actions we can take as a society to stem the spread of the coronavirus, it's challenging for many of us. As the days blur into weeks, it’s increasingly difficult to feel sane.
“Our bodies and our brains are set up to deal with short-term crises that have clear ends in sight,” says Allison Buskirk-Cohen, associate professor and chair of the psychology department at Delaware Valley University. “Long-term ambiguous stressors — like managing the COVID-19 situation — are much more challenging.”
One trick to help handle this stress — and break down the monotony of these long, long quarantine days and nights — is to routinely check in with yourself.
Good questions to ask yourself while quarantined
Here are 12 questions mental health clinicians recommend asking yourself every day.
1. ‘Have I flossed yet today?’
“This question is a silly way of asking about how you’re engaging in physical self-care,” says Burskirk-Cohen. “Self-care is about building healthy habits that you incorporate as part of your daily life: things like getting enough sleep and proper nutrition are critical building blocks. It’s a form of preventative health and shouldn’t be an emergency action.”
2. ‘What are my priorities today?’
“Long-term planning is anxiety provoking right now, since so much is changing each day,” says Buskirk-Cohen. “It’s really difficult to make any kind of long-term plan when you don’t know what’s going to be safe or feasible. Instead, I recommend concentrating on the present. Lists are helpful to me, so I’ll work on a list each morning, prioritizing the items from top to bottom. Simple things that are important, like eating meals, go on the list. Crossing them out gives a sense of accomplishment. It also helps me maintain my focus on priorities, and make sure they are reflecting my values.”
3. ‘How is my body feeling?’
“Doing a check in with your physical body gives you information about where you are feeling stress,” says Robin F. Goodman, licensed clinical psychologist. “Then you can do something to feel better physically, which will have a ripple effect on your mind and emotions.”
4. ‘What emotions am I feeling?’
“Paying attention to your emotions allows you to then be intentional about managing them,” Goodman says.
5. ‘Am I asking too much of myself?’
“We need to be able to recalibrate our expectations given that we are not operating under normal circumstances,” says Mitchell Hicks, clinical psychologist and core faculty member at Walden University's school of psychology. “We can’t give our all to work when we also need to care for children [all day].”
6. ‘Am I asking too much of others?’
“Just like we need to reconsider the expectations of ourselves, what we expect of others needs rethought,” says Hicks. “If you’re a two-income family with both partners working from home, you’ll need to renegotiate how you both work and manage children to try to reduce frustrations between you.”
7. 'What am I stressed about, and how important is it, really?'
“We can all get tied up in the moment-to-moment issues that pop up and seem to throw us off our game, but is it really that important?” Hicks says. “This can get us to calibrate our response.”
8. ‘What do I know for sure is true?’
“Having a few truths you can hold on to as factual can provide some stability at a time of so much uncertainty,” says Racine Henry, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “They can be large or small, [such as”] ‘I’m alive and well. I have food to eat. I don’t have to commute back and forth to work, etc.’”
9. ‘How will I connect with others in a way that celebrates joy?’
“One of the most difficult aspects of social distancing is that we lose interacting with others in enjoyable ways,” says Buskirk-Cohen. “Set regular ways of connecting with friends and family that are not directly related to COVID-19.”
10. ‘What can I do to help someone right now?’
“Looking at what you can do to contribute to others can improve gratitude and a sense of hopefulness,” says Goodman. “It can be as simple as sending a funny text to a friend, clapping out the window [for healthcare workers].”
11. ‘What new habits do I want to form during this time?’
“As difficult as this time is, it does present an opportunity to do things differently,” says Jonathan D. Horowitz, clinical psychologist and CEO of San Francisco Stress and Anxiety Center. “Are there changes you have wanted to make, in your routine, diet or workday? This may be a good time to implement them.”
12. ‘What do I want to learn from this event?’
‘We can't control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it, and the meaning that we make of it,” says Horowitz. “When we ask what we can learn from our difficulties, we see ourselves as empowered and capable, and we open the possibility for positive change.”