How to Keep Your Sanity During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Use these resources and advice from Spirituality & Health's panel of experts to help you navigate the challenges and stresses of life in lockdown during the COVID-19 outbreak, including thoughts on how to boost the immune system, manage anxiety, and help others.
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Life goes on—and life never stops giving us gifts. The well-known but poorly named phenomenon called the hedonistic treadmill posits that people have a set chart of happiness, going up and down in a regular pattern, never going particularly high or particularly low for any extended period. Something nice happens, they're happier than usual. Something annoying happens, they're less happy. But then something nice happens again. For a billionaire the "something nice" might be the delivery of a yacht, and for the rest of us it might be a night at the movies. But the billionaire isn't any happier for it.
Real gains in happiness are hard won and inch our levels of happiness upwards in the long-term, not for a day or two. Real gains come from what could be called, in a word, wisdom: the understanding of our place in the world; the absence of struggle against our defining circumstances.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, most people's happiness chart will zig down but then move back up. Seeing a hawk out the window or getting a call from a friend will be enough to create spikes. Eventually the happiness chart will look more or less like it always does.
Hopefully a few people emerge on the other side a little better than they were before—a little wiser, with suffering turned to wisdom.
Boosting the Immune System
In the midst of all the news about the global pandemic, it’s important to maintain a routine that supports a highly functioning immune system.
Our immune system is bolstered by a variety of lifestyle factors. Getting enough exercise and sleep, keeping your microbiome healthy, and managing stress levels are all crucial for helping your body battle whatever you are exposed to.
Moderate exercise has been shown to support a strong immune system. If you are used to a routine of yoga or other fitness classes, or visiting the gym regularly, you will need to adjust your routine but still stay active.
Sleep hygiene is more important than ever. Turning off screens at least an hour before bed is crucial to give yourself some downtime so that your nervous system can shift gears. Journaling your worries and writing down what you are grateful for are two ways to shift gears and let your mind settle.
Gut health plays a big role in the immune system, so you want to do the best you can with your meals. Taking your time when you eat and chewing thoroughly can also support gut health.
Giving more time and attention to your meditation practice, or starting one, staying connected to friends and loved ones and keeping a sense of rhythm to your days will all keep your immune system strong.
Here are more resources to strengthen your immune system:
Six Veggies (and Recipes) for Optimal Health
5 Ways to Boost Your Immune System
Top 12 Cold and Flu Fighting Foods (if you’re still going grocery shopping)
How Meditation, Mindfulness Ease Chronic Illness
5 Signs You’re Suffering from Toxic Stress
A Simple Way to Lower Inflammation
Sleep may be difficult as we navigate the uncertainties born in the wake of COVID-19, but these practices can support a healthy sleep cycle.
By Kathryn Drury Wagner, S&H wellbeing editor
One of my favorite quotes of all time is by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, from Starship Troopers. He writes, “Happiness consists in getting enough sleep. Just that, nothing more.” Yet, according to a new study released from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, getting enough sleep isn’t the only key to happiness—it’s also having a regular sleep pattern. The study showed that irregular sleep-wake schedules, which are certainly common to many of us, are detrimental to happiness, healthiness, and calmness. “Our results indicate the importance of sleep regularity, in addition to sleep duration, and that regular sleep is associated with improved well-being,” wrote the study’s author, Dr. Arkane Sano. So for this week’s Healthy Habits, let’s look at some ways to create a regular sleep schedule.
1. Manage the lights.
Cell phone screens, computers, and TVs emit a blue light that can keep you awake. Try to avoid those at least an hour before you turn in. Additionally, Mother Nature’s light can also be a problem in the summer, when natural light can last quite late into the evening. Use dark blinds for your windows, or an eyeshade if necessary.
2. Eat strategically.
Enjoy your last meal at least two to three hours before bedtime, suggests the National Sleep Foundation. Even eating dinner at the same time each night will help you fall asleep at the same time each night, it suggests. If you must have a snack, pick a light blend of carbs and protein, like peanut butter on crackers.
3. Let yourself unwind.
The goal is to have the last part of the day be as soothing as possible. Harvard Medical School points out that caffeine can stay in the system for four to six hours before bedtime. This includes not just the usual culprits like coffee and tea, but also sneakier ones like chocolate and some pain relievers. Other experts suggest refraining from exercise within a four-hour zone of bedtime, as that can also hop you up.
4. Stick to the wakeup time like glue.
SleepHabits.net has some very helpful techniques on picking a schedule that will work for you. Check those out here. But one of the key takeaways is: Get up at the same time, every day, even on the weekends. It feels Draconian but it will help you get to bed on time, which helps you wake up on time, which ... oh, you get the picture. It’s a healthy cycle.
Managing Fear and Anxiety
Being anxious and fearful in the face of a pandemic is the most natural response possible. At the same time: Anxiety stinks. It’s unpleasant to experience, weakens our immune system, and short circuits our rational brains. Maybe most importantly, it’s hard to get away from our own fear bubble and help other people when we’re overly fearful and anxious.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro, our longtime contributor and the host of our podcast, “Essential Conversations,” wrote:
Are people naturally good or naturally evil?
I put this question to myself as I listened to an NPR report on Greek citizens seeking to stop Syrian refugees from coming to Greece through Turkey. What shocked me most was listening to the chanting of Greek citizens at the border: “We don’t care about the babies! They’re not our babies!”
When and why does our compassion for all babies get replaced by callousness toward “their” babies?
The answer is simple: When we are afraid. ...
There may be no cure for COVID-19, but there is a cure for the far more deadly fear virus threatening the survival of humankind, and that cure is fearless love.
Read his full story here.
Here are some resources to keep fear and anxiety at bay during these scary times.
- 5 Ways to Control Coronavirus Anxiety
- 3 Sense Practices to Calm Anxiety
- 5 Ideas When Things Are Beyond Your Control
- How to Find Calm Amid Chaos
- 5 Ways to Moderate Your News Intake
- 5 Kinds of Breaths Everyone Should Take
- 5 Practices for Calming Racing Thoughts
- "It All Feels Like Way Too Much"
by Kalia Kelmenson, S&H editorial director
Try these two ways to access calm strength within ourselves.
Recently, on a very good day, I was talking to a friend about the experience of feeling fantastically alive, and also having a deep sense of calm. My well of patience felt bottomless and I was able to handle all of the twists and turns the day handed me.
A few days later, however, I was operating on less sleep, more caffeine, and markedly less calm.
Turns out, we can all cultivate a sense of ‘still waters run deep’ within ourselves. Rick Hanson, senior fellow of UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center, describes how the ability to regulate our sense of inner calm has great bearing on our ability to bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks. In his newest book, Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, he describes key capacities we can hardwire into our nervous systems so we can better handle the stresses of living in our fast-paced modern world.
Hanson writes that we can meet our basic needs of safety, satisfaction, and connection by “recognizing what’s true, resourcing ourselves, regulating our thoughts, feelings, and actions, and relating skillfully to others and the wider world.” He explores capacities such as grit, intimacy, generosity, and courage. At the core of regulating ourselves, he insists, is our ability to remain calm through the storms of life.
When our sympathetic nervous system is activated by a real (or perceived) threat, we will generally have one of three reactions: fear, anger, or helplessness. Hanson explains, “Because the need for safety is so vital, it’s equally vital that we regulate ourselves to meet pain and threats with calm strength.” When we can do this, we will be able to navigate whatever twists and turns we face along the way. Here are two ways to access this calm strength within ourselves.
Relaxing and Centering
We all know how crazy life can get. Sometimes saying ‘no’ to things is wise, but there will be times when we need to keep going, maintaining our level of engagement in life, but in a calmer way. To do this well, we have to be able to access our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which governs our ability to relax, digest, and settle down. Hanson suggests that in order to “establish a calmer baseline for yourself plus recover more quickly after stress, set aside a few minutes or more to relax deeply many times a week.” He also suggests finding moments in your daily life, especially when things are getting heated, to calm yourself down. Some ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system are:
- Extend the exhalation. Your exhalation and PNS are closely linked, so by simply making your exhale longer than your inhale, you activate your ability to be calm.
- Release tension. You can focus on one body part, perhaps your jaw or your shoulders, and imagine your breath filling that space and draining away any tension in the exhale.
- Use imagery. We have the ability to amplify and lessen stress to a larger degree by how we handle the internal dialogue we have around different situations. Focusing on images can short-circuit this internal, often negative feedback loop.
Recognize Paper Tiger Paranoia
We have evolved to have a heightened awareness of potential dangers. Our ancestors who did not fear the tiger that could be lurking in the tall grass did not survive. Fear of the unknown, often showing itself as anxiety, is harmful to our health in the modern world. Hanson writes, “to feel safer, we need to stop inflating threats and start recognizing all our resources. Then we don’t have to be afraid of not being afraid.” Try these steps to harness runaway fear:
- See threats clearly. Hanson suggests choosing a worry—any worry. Try journaling or talking with someone about the following: How big is it—get down to the nitty gritty, exploring the worry fully. Then consider how likely it is to happen, and be honest with yourself about the chances of this big worry really happening. Next, consider how bad it would actually be if it did happen. Finally, take all that in. Hanson insists you will most likely be relieved after this exercise, and that the scary, nebulous fear might not be that bad after all.
- Once you see the problem from a truer perspective, consider the resources you have to handle it. Consider resources in your mind—inner strengths that you’ve harnessed to handle past difficulties. Then mine resources in your body—ways you feel strong, capable, and full of energy. Finally, look to resources around you in the world. Friends, family, and mentors are all great places to draw strength from.
At the end of each of these processes, consider using Hanson’s HEAL technique, described here, to access the full experience of feeling calm and capable and to effectively rewire your brain’s response. Taking these steps to reshape our habitual patterns will support us in feeling more able to weather the invariable storms of life.
It’s natural to be feeling stress, anxiety, and fear during the COVID-19 crisis. Luckily, there’s a powerful balm available to us—mindfulness meditation. Consider this: A study published in Experimental Biology 2018 found that even a single mindfulness session provided lasting mental and physical benefits. “Our results show a clear reduction in anxiety in the first hour after the meditation session, and our preliminary results suggest that anxiety was significantly lower one week after the meditation session,” wrote the study’s lead author, John Durocher, PhD. The benefits extended beyond the mind, too, into quantifiable changes in the body. Participants “had reduced mechanical stress on their arteries an hour after the session,” Durocher wrote. “This could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure.”
Another researcher, Herbert Benson, found that mindfulness meditation reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and brain activity, and called it a “relaxation response.” A relaxation response, as opposed to the fight-flight-fright many of us are feeling when faced with news about the coronavirus.
The good news is that mindfulness meditation can be done almost anywhere, and for free. Here’s how to try a very simple practice. Get into a comfy seated position, close your eyes, and focus on the breath. As the mind pulls away—and it will, and that is completely fine—gently focus back to the breath. According to Harvard, a daily practice of mindful meditation for at least 10 minutes a day, twice a day, will give the best results.
By Kathryn Drury Wagner, S&H wellbeing editor
With news this intense and upsetting, we need to monitor our own consumption very carefully.
Remember the days when we were “only” stressed out by an upcoming election—and maybe some pole dancing at the Super Bowl? With COVID-19, stress levels have skyrocketed like never before, so self-care is no longer optional. It’s essential. While I’ve written in the past about the benefits of moderating news intake, let’s revisit that topic in light of our current coronavirus situation and resulting news avalanche.
Start the Day Mindfully
If you normally wake up and flip on the morning TV news or wake up and grab your phone to look at the headlines, consider starting the day with a gentler on-ramp. Save the news check for after you’ve had time to shore up your mental reserves through a mindfulness practice, yoga, or a walk (if possible in your area).
One and Done
In 2018, Time reported, “one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and fully 20 percent of Americans report constantly monitoring their social media feeds—which often exposes them to the latest news headlines.” That behavior, the American Psychological Association says, increases anxiety.
So now, more than ever, check the news once a day only. We need to stay informed so we can comply with what health officials and local authorities are asking us to do. But with news this intense, one touch-base a day is plenty, so news doesn’t become an obsession or add fuel to the fire of fear. If you are particularly prone to anxiety, ask your partner or a trusted friend to keep you updated on strictly need-to-know basis.
Also, “quality over quantity” has never been more important than now. Consume news from reputable sources only, then move on to other activities. For a positive spin—well, as positive as we can be right now—check out GNN, or the Good News Network. Established in 1997, it’s on a mission to report something that will make us smile.
Turn off Notifications
If you have created news alerts or push notifications on your phone, consider disabling those for now. That way you can seek the news out on your own, not have it following you around all day.
And End the Day Mindfully
Turn the area around your bed into a sanctuary—with pillows, books, cozy socks, faux candles, whatever, but do not look at that phone! Nothing will pop you awake at 2 a.m. faster than scrolling through your phone at bedtime, Googling the symptoms of coronavirus.
By Kevin Anderson, PhD, psychotherapist
"Mindfulness is about slowing down enough to put a gap between stimulus and response."
One of the most basic ways I teach people about mindfulness is to pause, focus on the body, and notice a small part of the body that feels even a little itchy. I tell them when they find an itchy spot to not scratch it. Just be present to the itch. See if it gets stronger, fades, or stays the same. This is a simple introduction to noticing things in the present moment without reacting to them immediately.
With all the emphasis on not touching our faces during the spread of this coronavirus, I’ve been realizing how often I feel a bit of itch in my eyes, perhaps after looking at a computer screen for a while. For decades it’s been automatic to feel the itch, rub my eyes with my fingers, and make the itch go away. In our current environment of concern about COVID-19, that same automatic response could kill me!
Mindfulness is about slowing down enough to put a gap between stimulus and response. The itch on my face is the stimulus, the rubbing of my eyes is the automatic response. Staying mindful about not touching my face requires feeling an itch and either ignoring it or making sure I rub my eyes after washing my hands or using a clean tissue rather than bare fingers to rub my eyes. The don’t-scratch-your-itch mindfulness lesson turns out to be an important survival skill!
Times of crisis can be advanced mindfulness training, and not just for avoiding touching our faces. The “itch” of anxiety, panic, fear, uncertainty can all show up in us. Mindfulness with these itches requires noticing them but not going on a ride with them every time they show up. There are many other disturbances—financial, practical, work-related, spiritual—that can be stirred up by an unusual crisis. Mindfulness begins with noticing those disturbances and letting them be present. Why let them be present? Because by the time we notice them, they are already present. We can say to our worry, fear, or disruption: “I see you. I accept that you are here.”
How does saying “I accept” help? The “I” that accepts is not the small-i that lives dominated by fear and lower energies. It is our highest self that can lead the way into how to be present to difficult times.
Coaching Children Through the Crisis
We don’t often talk about parents as being leaders. But I think this is a great moment to remember that if you're a parent, you lead by example. Your kids are going to be looking at how you handle this moment and taking their cues from you. There’s no question that any kid old enough to remember the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 will look back on it as a formative moment. Some of their memories from this moment will be cast in stone.
I don’t give parenting advice because that seems monumentally hubristic. But I'll tell you what I'm doing in case any of it helps.
- Letting my kids know I’m excited to spend more time with them. Their house is their sanctuary, so I don’t want them to feel like they’re a burden. (And I actually do like having them around.)
- Keeping them on a basic schedule. Waking up at roughly the same time, doing their remote learning in the morning, and so forth.
- Emphasizing big, complex crafts. (Mainly just because I love doing that kind of stuff with them.)
- Stressing how fortunate we are. We’re not in any of the high-risk categories; we’ll pull through the financial hardships.
- Talking with them about hardship. If there’s one overriding blight on our modern age, it’s the failure to appreciate what we have. Whatever privations we’re going through are still pretty minor compared to the sorts of hardships our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents endured.
(If you’re running out of ways to keep them busy, here are some activity ideas from artist Penelope Dullaghan, a two-time S&H cover creator.)
Self-Care During Troubled Times
Before coronavirus, self-care was seen as optional, a way of feeling better. These days, we've learned quite quickly how important self-care can be in fighting boredom, feelings of isolation, overwhelm, grief and fear.
Make sure to take time for self-care every day during the COVID-19 crisis, especially if you are on the front lines as a nurse, postal worker, doctor, delivery person, etc. We need you! Self-care may be meditation, or it might be giving yourself a facial. Whatever makes you feel cared for, pampered, and a tiny bit more relaxed. Here are some ideas for self-care:
Tantra is about connection, a precious commodity in the world right now. You can use tantra even if you're alone to feel connected with distant loved ones.
During this time of self-quarantine, how can you remain connected to your sensual self?
One answer to this question can be found in the ancient art of tantra. Though most Westerners associate tantra with sex, tantric touching can also provide a way to delve into your erotic side, according to Cliff Rees, who facilitates events focusing on meditation, intimacy, sexuality, boundaries, and presence.
As Rees explains, through tantra, we can “weave or integrate all the different parts of life into a single, coherent whole.” Furthermore, he notes that sex is only roughly 20 percent of the Kama Sutra. “The other 80 percent is about how to live a much more fulfilled, happier, connected life,” Rees adds.
“Tantric touch simply means connecting with another with your whole self as opposed to the superficial, nervous touch that our culture primarily teaches us,” Rees says. “Most people immediately start doing something when they touch another person. Let yourself really connect with that person before you begin moving your hands.”
He adds, “Really connecting with another is a great way to calm yourself and, in that calmer state, you become more self-aware—more capable of both knowing what you really want as well as what you’re looking for in your relationships.”
Using tantric touch can also lead to a better sex life in general, Rees explains. Sacred sexuality is the recognition that deeply connected erotic interactions can produce much greater self-awareness along with far more satisfying relationships.
“We can learn an enormous amount about ourselves by moving slowly, staying connected, letting one’s self be truly seen during sex,” Rees observes. “It’s vastly more fulfilling than the sexual interactions that most people have.”
Try the following tantric techniques to more fully and deeply connect with yourself and your partner, whether you’re in the same room or not.
Tantric Eye Gazing
For those who now find themselves solo while practicing social distancing, Rees recommends experimenting with eye-gazing, a simple but very powerful tantric technique. If you and your partner cannot be in the same physical space, you can connect virtually with someone else via a platform such as Zoom. Another option is to engage in this practice alone by looking at yourself in a mirror.
To begin, sit still with your eyes open. Drop whichever of your masks you’re currently wearing to whatever extent you can and let yourself be deeply seen.
Another technique for deep calming is to simply sit comfortably with eyes closed for five minutes while breathing in deeply through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. To get an even deeper connection, consider placing one hand over your heart and the other hand on your pubic bone as you breath in and out.
For those who are not practicing “social distancing” with an intimate partner, Rees recommends sitting in yab-yum position together either clothed or naked.
In this position, the man sits with his legs crossed and the woman sits on his lap while facing him, wrapping her arms and legs around him. (For a same-sex couple doing this exercise they can decide who takes which position.) Both partners then embrace each other fully and gently synchronize their breathing. While this position can lead into sex, the primary point of this exercise is to achieve a deep, intimate connection between two people.
says engaging in tantric practices such as tantric touching has strengthened her relationships. Since connecting with Rees and Dr. Charity Benham as part of a polyamorous triad, she says Tantra has truly changed her life.
“Not only has my sex life improved, but my relationships are so much richer because I am more grounded. Tantra relies on dropping your masks and focusing on the core that is you. I call it going back to ‘Original Mel,’ she says. “It is so freeing to have that center. While the roles I play are different—friend, lover, partner, mom, actor, daughter—I am always clearly the same Mel in those roles. That has not always been the case for me.”