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Finding Your New Normal: Taking Care of Your Mental Health during Uncertain Times

Finding Your New Normal: Taking Care of Your Mental Health during Uncertain Times

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Guest Post by Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff, Dr. Marie Isom, and Dr. Tonia Parker, Faculty Members, American Public University System

Given the stress caused by the current coronavirus pandemic and its ripple effect beyond illness of school and business closures and employee layoffs, this guest blog article is timely.

Have you felt overwhelmed, anxious, or confused lately as a result of the coronavirus outbreak? Felt a lack of control or security over what is happening? If you have, you are not alone. It is ok and normal to have these mixed and strong emotions to quickly changing and uncertain times.

Allow yourself to have these feelings to recognize where you are and what you need, but this is also a good time to review what you can do to feel more in control in this new normal. Talking about your feelings with a trusted friend or confidant, writing them down, or setting a time limit on how much you focus on them each day is a great strategy to allow yourself to experience these emotions and find helpful ways to release them.

When situations are beyond your control, it is normal to engage in activities that seem to restore that need for security. This is something we are seeing with the hoarding of household and medical supplies. Hoarding restores a sense of control when you are unable to control what is going on around you.

If you are having a hard time coping with more intense feelings and have children, it is important to remember that children may also experience your unsettled emotions. Being a role model of how to cope with uncertainty is a great lesson you can teach them right now.

Everyone copes differently, so this list below is intended to give you several ideas in hopes you will find what works for you.

Maintain a Routine

Build a daily routine and stick to it as much as possible. Keep to a schedule for getting up and going to bed every day. Change out of your pajamas into regular clothes.

If you are working from home, set up a specific location in your home and a schedule for your workday and stick to it. If you have kids at home, create a schedule for them to engage in educational activities during the school day, particularly if their schools have moved classwork online. Setting up this routine can create a sense of security and normalcy, which decreases anxieties and worries.

Use Distractions and Entertainment

What are things you enjoy doing that distract you from daily life and stressors? Reading a book, playing a board game, watching a movie, or catching up on the TV shows you have been missing are great brain break activities that can help you briefly escape your stresses and recharge. Other distractions could be looking at pictures, listening to music, or watching home videos.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you or your children are exposed to more technology during this time, but limit the amount of time you spend watching news coverage or following news events on social media. While you want to stay informed, there is no reason to watch news reports of the outbreak all day long.

New information is provided once or twice per day, so the news coverage will be repetitive. Overexposing yourself will just add to your stress and is not productive.

Be particularly vigilant in limiting the amount of news coverage children are exposed to, especially those who have experience with anxiety and those under seven. When they see the news, talk with them about it and help them process what they heard.

Express Yourself

Journaling, drawing, painting, playing a musical instrument, or even coloring allows you to use a different part of your brain to process some of the information and overload you are experiencing. Some artists are providing free online drawing and doodling sessions. Some examples include Sketchpad, AutoDraw, and colormandala.com.

If you want to pair self-expression with some outdoor time, get out the sidewalk chalk and draw on your cement patio or driveway if you have one. In some areas, do-it-yourself canvas painting and pottery studios are offering an art supplies pickup and demonstrate how to complete your project online.

Connect Socially

Social distancing doesn’t have to mean isolation. With the various technology tools available, you can still call friends and family to check in with them, particularly those who are elderly and live alone.

Use apps such as FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom for video calls. Move your friends’ group outing or book club and get together online to prevent loneliness and stay connected. You can participate in a group Zoom chat or create a private Facebook group to stay in touch.

Keep Your Sense of Humor

There is a saying that laughter is the best medicine. Even though the current situation isn’t a joke, finding ways to build laughter into your day can be helpful.

Similar to exercise, laughter releases endorphins and improves your mood. Playing a silly game, watching a comedy, or sharing jokes with family can provide some relief in this new normal.

Do Physical Activity while Changing Your Environment

Get up and move. Limited social activity and increased time spent at home shouldn’t mean that you don’t go out for a run, take a nature walk, or get your heart rate up by being active.

Also, attend a virtual workout class/group. Healthline offers a good article on home workouts ranging from beginning to advanced. It is important to find balance and restore yourself in an environment that is safe while not violating social distancing.

Breathe and Relax

Identify and practice strategies that help you relax. Stopping to slowly and intentionally pay attention to our breathing is important for calming our minds and nervous system. Breathe in through your nose (while your stomach expands) and breathe out slowly (while your stomach contracts) to experience calming diaphragmatic breathing.

Use Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is another strategy where you tighten and relax your muscles to help calm your mind and body. There are great apps available such as Calm and Headspace that you can access to assist with facilitating muscle relaxation and mindfulness.

Practice Mindfulness

If you need to be more grounded and present, you can also use your five senses to keep you aware of your surroundings (what do you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch right now?). The Foundation for a Mindful Society has a November article with recommendations for five free mindfulness apps.

One specific strategy that families can do together is a mindfulness walk. The following steps will guide you through this process.

  1. Choose a place to walk for this activity. It can be your own neighborhood.
  2. Walk in silence at a gentle pace; no talking.
  3. As you walk, focus on your body and sensations you are feeling with each step. How do your legs feel with each step? Your feet? Are they light? Heavy? Tense? Relaxed?
  4. Open your senses by listening for the quietest sounds (your own breathing, wind rustling trees, leaves crunching under your feet, etc.).
  5. Focus on being in the moment. If you begin thinking, worrying, and planning and take your mind off the body sensations and quietest sounds, pause for a moment. Refocus on body sensations or listen for those quiet sounds.

As you practice this approach, it is okay if you need to stop and refocus a few times. The focus is on being present in the moment and focusing on your own body sensations and/or sounds you hear in the environment. After the walk, your family can spend time talking about the experience and process what changes were noticed in body and mind.

Help Others

There is a great deal of research that supports the positive effects of helping others, so why not find ways to help your local neighbors? In some areas, people have volunteered to go grocery shopping for their elderly neighbors. While children are home from school, they can make cards and send them to nursing homes where many residents are not allowed to have visitors at this time.

Donating blood is another way to help others and make a difference during this uncertain time. This is an experiment on how we can help one another and doing good deeds can lift your spirits, too.

About the Authors

Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff is a Program Director and a Professor of two programs: School Counseling and Student Affairs in Higher Education at American Public University System. She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (WA), a National Certified Counselor, and a National Certified School Counselor with professional experience in disaster mental health counseling.

Dr. Marie Isom is an Associate Professor of School Counseling and Student Affairs in Higher Education at American Public University System. She is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, an Approved Clinical Supervisor, and a National Board-Certified Teacher/School Counselor with specialized training and experience in trauma and crisis prevention & preparedness.

Dr. Tonia Parker is a Faculty Director supervising faculty in the Psychology, Political Science, and Anthropology/Sociology programs, and an Associate Professor, teaching in the Psychology program. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor (GA) with 18 years of experience in providing disaster mental health and other disaster services through the American Red Cross, the Medical Reserve Corps, and the local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.

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