How to Stay Mentally Strong During (and After) the Pandemic

Mustafa Suvalija

Somewhat unexpectedly, the coronavirus pandemic has triggered a global conversation on mental health like few other events have done in the past. It ought to be counted as its most important, and so far the most underrecognized, positive side-effect. 

On the other hand, far too many of these discussions revolve around tips and tricks for making the best use of one’s time while in quarantine and other pieces of advice that, from a psychological perspective, only seem to scratch the surface.

I understand that the point of that approach is to make the situation less stressful by making it seem as normal as possible. However, it is debatable whether it can keep people grounded for protracted periods of time and whether it works for everyone, particularly those who are usually more prone to anxious reactions to (perceived) threats. 

Also, by only “scratching the surface”, we are wasting a rare opportunity to move a large number of people to take a deeper look at their mental health. The focus is already there; we should use it to drive more effective and important lessons about psychological well being, many of which will be of use even when the crisis has passed. 

Here are a few that I think warrant closer attention.

  1. Do not stress about being stressed.
    There is no reason to feel ashamed for being stressed out, anxious or fearful. These and other unpleasant emotional states are completely normal human reactions to situations such as these, and not signs of cowardice or weakness. You are not alone in your fear; it is an almost universally shared response to where we are right now. Beating yourself up won’t make it go away, but it will amplify the stress. 

  2. Focus on what you can control.
    When trying to cope with your fears, draw a line between your thoughts, emotions, and reality. Emotions are the result of how you see the world, and how you see the world is not the absolute truth. When experiencing uncomfortable emotions, try to bring your thoughts to awareness and evaluate how much actual sense they make. Also, consider their practical value if they turn out to be true.
    – Is there anything you can do about them, even if they are true?  
    You’ll probably realize that the only thing you can do something about is your behavior in response to the crisis. Focus on handling that, on making yourself and the people you care for safe, not on predicting and controlling the myriad factors related to the course of the pandemic that you can’t actually do anything about. 

  3. Reject the victim mentality.
    You are not an object; you are taking an active part in containing the virus and its wider effects by following the health protocols and resuming with your usual activities. That way, you’re helping to contain the epidemic itself and to restrict its effects only to physical health. Think of all the things that you’re doing, including remote work and being effectively quarantined as not something that has been done to you, or something that you’ve been forced to do, but as something you chose to do. This will help you see yourself as making an active contribution in this fight.

  4. Stay thankful.
    The worst stress is reserved for those whose fears about catching the virus, losing a loved one, losing a job etc. come true. Don’t lose sight of the fact that, as long you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing and have not been infected, you’re actually doing well. Anxiety and stress are uncomfortable, but are among the least harmful things that can happen to you in this situation.

  5. Don’t go it alone.
    Anyone who is unable to cope with their stress and anxieties on their own, should reach out to a qualified mental health professional without delay. Fortunately, psychological counseling is something that can be fully provided in a remote setting. Bear in mind that your ability to deal with your own stress also affects the ability of others to deal with their own; make it easier for yourself and you will also make it easier for others.

Conclusion

Managing mental health in the way exemplified by these ideas can strengthen our stress resilience to the point of making the difference between “regular” and “emergency” circumstances inconsequential from the psychological point of view.

With some reflective effort, that type of “immunity” could become the best thing we come out with from this crisis. 

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