Psychologist shares top dos and don’ts on social-distance-related anxiety

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen, many have chosen to socially distance themselves from others in order to curb the disease’s spread.

The practice — defined as remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings and maintaining a distance of approximately six feet from others when possible — is actually recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in its guidelines on combatting COVID-19.

But along with social distancing and self-isolating — both of which mean a steep decline in personal interaction, whether with loved ones, coworkers or even strangers — can come heightened feelings of anxiety, stress and loneliness.

Thankfully, Lori Greene, a Ph.D. clinical psychologist in Westchester County, N.Y., says it is “completely normal” to feel “confused and overwhelmed” at an unfamiliar time like this.

“Anxiety has this way of causing us to predict things in a catastrophic way,” she told In The Know. “We tend to see the future as worse than it probably will be. Eventually, we’ll all be OK. But it’s hard to see that right now.”

To combat the negative mental effects health a global pandemic can have, Dr. Greene has shared the following dos and don’ts.

“Don’t try to predict beyond a week or two.”

Dr. Greene says she believes people should try to take things day-by-day instead of getting swept up with negative speculations about the future.

“The first thing I would recommend for people to do at this time, whether they’re quarantined or social distancing or just tolerating all of the feelings that they’re having about COVID-19, is to stay mindful of each moment,” she advised. “Don’t try to predict beyond a week or two. Just get through this — think, how am I going to handle this week? What am I going to do Monday? What am I going to do Tuesday?”

Dr. Greene also advised attempting to keep a daily structure in place, which can be particularly difficult to do when obligations like physically going into the office or class suddenly disappear.

“Wake up at the same time,” she explained. “If you’re not in school, and you’re not working, and those are things that typically structure your day, do your best to mimic the way that might look. It might be something like, eat breakfast from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., then do some school work or something for work.”

“Binge Netflix and make it a part of your schedule.”

Along with maintaining a daily schedule, Dr. Greene encouraged those practicing social distancing to budget time for activities that promote self-improvement, including eating healthfully, working out, getting fresh air and learning new activities.

“I’ve always wanted to learn how to knit or bake or, in my case, even cook,” she said. “So it might be a good time to do that. But don’t cook for three days straight or knit for three days straight, or you will get sick of it. So schedule it in as if it’s a part of your day. And stay hungry for the new thing that you’re learning.”

One piece of advice Dr. Greene gave that we can certainly get behind is to make room for activities or hobbies that may have seemed “frivolous” or “indulgent” in the past.

“Binge Netflix and make it a part of your schedule,” she said. “It’s OK to use this time and not be productive in some of the moments because it’s going to be impossible to constantly feel productive.”

“Don’t watch 24/7 coverage of COVID-19.”

As for what not to do during these trying times? Dr. Greene advised taking time to unplug and step away from your phone, computer, and TV to avoid becoming overwhelmed with the sheer amount of coronavirus information being shared every moment.

“Don’t watch 24/7 coverage of COVID-19,” she warned. “I think a lot of us, even myself, have fallen into that trap of just constantly needing to be updated because things are changing so rapidly.”

“Probably the best thing to do is pick a source that you trust — a news outlet, a media outlet, the World Health Organization, the CDC, your local government page — and look at it a couple of times a day, maybe just even twice a day for updates,” she added.

Dr. Greene also cautioned against trying to shame loved ones who may not be taking proper precautions in the face of a global pandemic, no matter how good the intention.

“You might have friends or colleagues or family who are not taking this as seriously as you would like them and not following the recommendations,” she explained. “Help them see why that’s important. But do it with compassion and without judgment. Don’t tell them, ‘You’re wrong.’ Tell them, ‘I’m worried about you and I really want to see you be healthy. I want to see you be safe — here are some things that I’m doing and here are some things that are recommended.'”

“We’re going to get through this together.”

Ultimately, Dr. Greene encouraged those struggling with anxiety in the face of COVID-19 to remember that they are not alone.

“Call or FaceTime friends, neighbors, and family members, especially maybe some who might be lonely — might be alone in their social distancing and even might be in quarantine, especially those that might be a little bit afraid,” she advised.

“If you’re in a position to, donate to charity. Don’t feel pressured to, but the not-for-profit organizations out there really need our support at this time,” she added. “If each of us thinks a little bit more about our community, then everybody realizes they’re not alone. And we’re going to get through this together.”

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