I had a dream the other night. I was working as a prison guard in an isolated, rural jail. Walking by the single holding cell, I noticed the door had swung open. I peered inside and saw that my only prisoner had escaped. I took a few tentative steps inside the jail cell, and I heard a loud crash behind me. The heavy metal door had slammed shut. My heart dropped. It was suddenly dark, and I was completely alone. Locked in.
It doesn't take a psychoanalyst to figure out what that was all about. This staying at home thing is quickly wearing on me, as it is on many.
We're living in unprecedented times. It's not an exaggeration to say that COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down. Businesses are shuttered, schools are closed, and millions are suddenly out of work. On top of this, we are stuck at home much of the time and when we leave the house, we're supposed to keep our distance from friends, colleagues, and neighbors. This all adds up to a seriously stressful time.
Although it sounds like some easing of restrictions may be on the horizon, experts are telling us that things are unlikely to go back to normal for at least another few months—or longer. This means we need to find ways not just of surviving but of thriving during this trying time.
How can we thrive during this season of COVID-19?
As a professor of positive psychology , I turn to the research for answers. Fortunately, researchers have identified a variety of things we can do. Here I outline five empirically-based insights yielded by positive psychologists that should help.
1. Practice gratitude . Be conscious of the things for which you're grateful. Research finds that individuals who regularly practice gratitude incur many benefits, including better social relationships, better sleep, less depression , and more happiness —and the mood boost associated with feeling and expressing gratitude can be long-lasting.
Incorporating gratitude into your daily routine is easy. Consider keeping a gratitude journal where you write down at least three good things that happen to you during the day, or share three good things with your family members each night around the dinner table. Try to be as specific as possible. Rather than saying, "I'm grateful for my children," you might say instead, "I'm grateful my teenage daughter mastered the espresso maker and made me a delicious latte this morning."
You might also consider writing a gratitude letter, in which you identify someone who has helped you. Write a letter that highlights how you benefited from their help, acknowledges the cost they incurred to help you, and thanks the recipient for choosing to bestow this gift on you. Incorporate these kinds of activities into your daily routine to make the practice of gratitude habitual, and before long you'll see the benefits.
2. Help out. Helping others is not only a nice thing to do, but it also helps us feel better. When we help others, we are rewarded with positive feelings, and these positive feelings encourage us to help others again. The process creates a kind of positive, upward spiral. In addition to generating positive feelings, helping others can also serve as a springboard for discovering a deeper sense of meaning in life.
Being stuck at home and staying six feet apart makes it a little more difficult to help others; but it doesn't make it impossible. Consider, for instance, making a donation. Donate to a cause close to home. Research finds that we receive the greatest boost in happiness when we can see first-hand how our giving improved another's life.
If you'd rather engage in a helpful act, get creative. Consider sewing homemade masks for frontline healthcare workers, make grocery and pharmacy runs for elderly family members, bake a special treat for your neighbors and deliver it to their front porch, leave a thank you note and some individually wrapped snacks and bottles of water for FedEx and UPS drivers, or—if you happen to be a healthy young adult, consider calling Meals on Wheels to see if you can step in to deliver meals in your area. These jobs are generally held by older adults, many of whom have temporarily relinquished the duty, fearing for their own health.
3. Stay connected. Humans are social creatures. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense. Our odds of survival as hunters and gatherers increased dramatically when we managed to stay connected to others, and this is as true today as it was in our evolutionary past.
Compared to others, individuals who have good relationships are likely to be physically healthier (e. g . social support reduces our risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease) and psychologically happier (e.g. the happiest people tend to have the best relationships). In short, social relationships are fundamental to our well-being.
So, knowing this, how can we stay connected when we have to stay apart?
Some have argued that "social distancing" isn't the right term for what is needed these days. Instead, we should call it "physical distancing." Although we should avoid being physically together, we can still stay connected, and technology can help. Set up a Zoom, Skype, Google Hangout, or FaceTime session with friends, play an online game with an extended family member, or watch a movie (virtually) with a neighbor.
If you're tired of technology, take a walk with a friend and bring the dog to remind yourself to stay at least six feet apart. Host a dance party for your neighbors. Organize a drive-by parade for a friend. There are lots of ways to stay connected during COVID-19.
4. Let yourself laugh. "A year from now you'll be laughing about this virus. Well, not all of you, obviously." It's okay to laugh. Laughter is good for you. Not only does it boost our immune systems—a good thing during a global pandemic—but it also reduces stress, diminishes pain, and helps us feel better. Laughter helps us weather the challenges in life and savor the good times.
Find opportunities to squeeze in a good belly laugh at least once a day. This isn't difficult to do. Actors, singers, entertainers, late-night talk show hosts, and others have kept busy during the quarantine by making coronavirus -inspired clips to keep us laughing. Check out a few.
5. Finally, take a deep breath. In moments when the stress of it all gets to be too much, take a few deep breaths. Inhale slowly and steadily through your nose—allowing the air to fill your lungs and your stomach—and exhale just as slowly. As you exhale, your heart rate will slow, your blood pressure will stabilize, and your stress will diminish. Do this a few times and you'll find that your heart rate finds pace with your breathing.
Deep breathing can be done any time, any place, but it can be most relaxing when it's done in a quiet place where you can focus on your breath. Consider making it a regular part of your day.
These practices may be particularly important to embrace during the stressful and uncertain times in which we find ourselves, but they are also likely to help you thrive long after COVID-19 passes. And it will pass. This season is temporary. Perhaps remembering that will help, too.
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