The last few weeks have been a rollercoaster for me, my professional life, as well as for my family life. Suddenly, you are limited in everything you do, your world has shrunken to the size of your house and garden (if the weather allows it), your kids are around 24/7 and a trip to the supermarket is the highlight of your day! How do you maintain your physical and mental health in these strange and challenging times?
Apply a structured daily routine. It is a cliché, but so important. At times were chaos and unpredictability rise, it is very important to incorporate a sense of structure. A structured routine for yourself and your family creates a sense of predictability and control, which decreases feelings of anxiety. A good sleep hygiene requires routine, which will be even more important under these conditions. Transparent and clear agreements on tasks, chores and activities are a plus. Clarify when there is time for joint activities and when there is ‘alone-time’. It is very normal to feel overwhelmed sometimes and feel the need to be alone.
Take care of your sleep. During sleep we process emotions and stress, and we boost our immune system. People who sleep less then 6h are 2 times more likely to catch an infections or 4 times more likely to catch a cold. Moreover, if you chronically sleep less then 6h a vaccine will be less efficient. When we are sleep deprived, our frontal lobe, the seat of rationality and problem solving, will be disrupted. At the same time, your emotional brain becomes very active and the ‘drama queen/king arises, which is the last thing you need! Allow yourself at least 1 hour before bedtime to relax and slow down. Avoid screens preferably the last 2 hours before bedtime and get up in the morning around the same time.
Go outside and engage in physical activities Don’t stay inside the whole time, but make sure you go outside and have some sunlight. This will synchronize and stabilize your internal clock, which has a positive influence on your sleep and immune system. Moreover, sunlight has a positive influence on your general mood. However, make sure that you exercise at a moderate pace, adapted to your personal level, otherwise it can induce a short decrease in the activity of your immune system.
Activate your relaxation system During times of insecurity, anxiety and stress it is very important to activate the ‘rest-and-digest’ part of your nervous system, otherwise known as your relaxation system. Doing nothing does not necessarily lead to relaxation. Be attentive of your breathing pattern. If possible, practice abdominal breathing and train hart coherence. Breath in for 3 counts and breath out for 5 counts with a breathing pace of 6 to 8/minute. This will activate your parasympathetic nervous system and signal your body to relax. Another active relaxation technique is progressive relaxation by Jacobsen. This exercise focusses on tightening and relaxing different muscle groups in sequence. Mindfulness or meditation is a different approach that trains our attentional system to focus on one sense and trains single tasking in combination with an accepting attitude. Explore and use exercises you like or fit your personality and daily routine.
Increase emotional connection in times of physical distance. Stay in touch with family and friends, make sure you feel connected, even from a distance. Sharing your worries, anxieties and concerns with people you trust, decreases stress. Use the available tools like phone, whatsapp, facetime, skype,… The advantage is we live in a world full of technology that can make the world feel like a village.
Keep an emotional connection with the people under your roof It is important to discuss conflicts, emotions and frustrations with each another. If you ignore this, the physical closeness might in turn result in emotional distance. Make sure you deal with your own emotions, by writing them down for example. Fix a moment in the daily routine to sit down together and discuss the day, by focusing on both difficult as well as fun moments. With children you can use structured questions like: “what was funny, surprising, what made you happy, angry, sad, what did you enjoy,…?”. This way you allow both positive and negative experiences to be told without zooming in too much on only one side. This strategy can also be used with adults, of course.
Be compassionate with yourself (and others) All these rules are of course very nice in theory, but let’s be honest, reality often looks very different. My 3 year old daughter loved the structured timeline the first 2 weeks, but it’s going downhill since the start of the third week. My 7 year old misses her friends and starts to get annoyed with the continuous presence of her little sister as the only playmate. Nice playful moments are regularly switching into girl fights at the same time you are having a videocall (sigh). The motivation and determination to face this lockdown with structure and calmness, is starting to show some cracks, through which human emotions, such as frustration, are seeping through. And that is perfectly fine, because we are only human. So be friendly with yourself and others, and allow yourself to get frustrated, to raise your voice once and a while, to have a bad night of sleep, or to need some alone time away from the people you have been confined with for the last few weeks. All the above guidelines, are what they are: guidelines to give you some structure and something to hold on to when there is much uncertainty. Their goal is not to put extra pressure on an already stressful situation, but rather to provide practical solutions that hopefully decrease that pressure. So if you notice that you are deviating or that it’s not working out the way you expected, then that’s fine as well. If it is not going the way it needs, then it needs to go the way it goes.
So good luck and I hope you allow yourself to be human in these challenging times.
Aisha Cortoos Clinical Psychologist – Psychotherapist – PhD in Psychology Sleep and stress expert