The coronavirus pandemic is bringing on a lot of fear for people, especially over the unknown. You might dismiss that problem in the grand scheme of things, but uncertainty can truly take a toll on your mental health.
“Feeling helpless, scared, worried, avoidant or out of control are normal and expected reactions to sudden change, tragedy or overwhelming stressful experiences,” said Beth Marnix, a licensed clinical psychologist and the co-owner of Bright Light Counseling Center in Austin, Texas, and Chicago.
Because of this, you may experience symptoms of anxiety, depression or burnout, added Kathleen Dahlen deVos, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco. Those issues can present as fogginess, irritability, low energy or insomnia.
Fortunately, experts say there are ways to manage your emotions and feel more in control of your life during the uncertainty of the pandemic. Here are a few practical steps you can take:
1. Identify what you can control in your own life.
Living through a global pandemic may have you feeling more helpless than ever, but it’s crucial to remember that “so little of life was ever in our control to begin with,” Dahlen deVos said.
Rather than dwelling on uncertainty, consider what is within your power. Any time you feel anxious, Dahlen deVos suggested asking yourself three questions: What is my intention at this moment? What actions would I like to take right now? How can I respond to this trigger/event/pain/uncomfortable emotion?
Focusing on your intentions, actions and responses can shift your nervous system from fight-or-flight mode back into rest-and-digest mode, she said. From there, you can make decisions from a place of calm instead of panic.
2. Lend a helping hand.
One cure for feeling helpless is taking action. If you’re weighed down by anxiety or worry, consider what you can do to help a stranger or loved one.
“Taking action is within your control,” said Tess Brigham, a marriage and family therapist and board-certified coach in California. Brigham said to think about what change you can effect and how you can be more thoughtful or caring right now.
That might mean donating your money to a local food bank if you have the means, picking up groceries for your neighbor or simply taking on your partner’s chores for the day. Going out of your way to be of service when you’re feeling low can help improve your attitude and remind you of your power to create positive change.
3. Stabilize your routine.
The routine you relied on before the coronavirus hit may no longer exist, but it’s still important to establish a sense of normality in your day.
A routine offers relief through predictability, which can yield to a sense of control, Dahlen deVos said. “Routine allows our brains to go on autopilot a bit, which gives them a much-needed break from constantly fielding so much new information.”
Work on building consistency into your days, Dahlen deVos said, whether that means creating a work schedule or simply making lunch at the same time every afternoon.
Next, try to incorporate “one activity that increases your sense of calm, wellness or stability,” Marnix said. Think: cooking, meditating, listening to a podcast or coloring. Choose a time each day to engage in your activity and practice staying present. “Being grounded and present in the moment reduces ruminating thoughts,” Marnix said.
4. Step back from social media every so often.
It’s tempting to check the news or log on to social media every hour for updates, but being too immersed in the media can take a toll on your mental health, Marnix said.
Even mindless scrolling can lead to information fatigue, burnout and feelings of being overwhelmed, Dahlen deVos added. That’s why it’s critical to be mindful of how you consume information.
“Try limiting yourself to perusing news or social media sites to set hours of the day, when you feel more regulated and intentional, or more equipped to handle whatever you might read or come across,” Dahlen deVos said.
It’s also healthy to curate your content. In addition to limiting your news outlets to one or two sources you like and trust, Brigham said, try unfollowing or muting any social media accounts that trigger or worsen your feelings of anxiety.
5. Do a project with your hands.
Doing something as simple as potting a plant or cleaning out your junk drawer can help calm your mind and relax your body.
“Our brains love seeing tasks completed, so taking on projects that we know we can check a box and be done with feels very satisfying,” Dahlen deVos said. Not only that, but “doing projects with our hands can act as a form of mindfulness,” she added, “which is very regulating for the nervous system and can soothe the emotions.”
To set yourself up for success, pick a fun project with low stakes. Try cooking a new recipe, organizing your pantry, hanging a shelf or doing a craft.
6. Embrace your feelings.
When you experience sadness, helplessness or anxiety, try not to judge yourself or rush through the feeling process.
“We’re so set up for focusing on how to be happy 24/7, but that’s not realistic,” Brigham said. It’s OK to feel a sense of loss right now, she added, whether you’re grieving a job, relationship, death or simply the absence of normality.
“It’s important to accept your sad feelings and feel them just as you would with happy feelings,” Brigham said.
And remember to resist the urge to compare your situation. “Everyone is coping with this event in their own way,” Dahlen deVos said, and “there is no right way to cope.”
Make sure to check in with yourself on a regular basis. If you have difficulty functioning, feel a persistent sense of hopelessness or dread, or experience a “loss of motivation, interest or pleasure that does not seem to be resolving,” you may need to speak to a mental health professional or reach out for help, Marnix said.
This story is part of HuffPost Life’s series on coping with uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic. Check out our other stories below.
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