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Thriving During COVID-19: 10 Practical Tips from a Clinical Psychologist

Three weeks ago, my family of four was on it’s fifth day of self isolation due to Covid-19. The terrible news from Italy started to appear and the first positive cases recorded among San Francisco Bay residents. I was refreshing my Twitter compulsively. 

I kept asking myself: What should we do? How do we plan ahead? How badly will the following financial crisis affect our company? Will my extended family spread across continents be OK? I realized that I had never been as anxious. 

I’m sure countless studies of mental health and social behaviour will follow in the coming decades to measure and explain how the majority of us have been feeling. We are fighting an invisible enemy! Things are uncertain, unfamiliar and unclear.

My mother-in-law, a professional clinical psychologist Helen Holmberg, has been a private practitioner for 40 years. She is one of the most impressive women I know: kind and strong, intelligent and supportive. Here, I’d like to share the key advice she is providing to her clients, leaders of major organizations, the police force and hospital officials. 

What I love about Helen’s advice is that it applies both to personal and professional lives, which have now merged into one big mess anyway. Here is how you will untangle and thrive!

10 Practical Ways to thrive in time of COVID19

The key premise of how you should think about this: When facing a crisis people respond differently. With less structure, and social norms taken from us, in order to thrive you will need to find a way of getting more discipline and structure into your life. You can purposefully do this by following these tips.

#1 Spend time clarifying goals  

Knowing what your goals are is critical in order to understand when you are winning and when you can switch off. Do this at the start of the day and the start of the week.

Goals should be:

  • Daily: What is it that I hope to achieve in the day… this will give a strong sense of satisfaction when completed.
  • Weekly: How do I define the win for the week.  Allows the permission to switch off for the weekend.  

#2 Set up a Place of Work which is your ‘office’.  

Ideally, this needs to be a place which can be closed off. When you are in that space,  work. When not in this space, switch off. 

If having this kind of place remains out of bounds, it is even more important to have a sabbath day (day off), which is explained below at point 9.

#3 Be aware of emotions  

Know your symptoms when getting stressed. Verbalise them. Become aware of them. Allow them to be held accountable by holding them away from yourself in a metaphorical way.  For those who are religious: “Take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ”. 

Be aware of when physical reactions are happening in response to fight or flight. This could be feeling sweaty, heart racing/ blood pressure raised, anxiety, feeling fearful or overwhelmed. Use these techniques to ‘dial down’:

  • Breathe
  • Go through the 5 senses. What can you hear, see, smell, touch and taste?
  • Go for a walk, run, bike or swim (where possible)
  • Read scripture & pray  
  • Meditate and listen to music
  • Laugh. Look for something funny/ remember something funny. 

#4 Have a Model

What is the rhythm I have set up for each day?  What part of my work will I work on, for which day? This stops too much reaction and creates focus.

It’s good to have a model, even if it doesn’t work as it provides a framework for the brain to not become overwhelmed. Run the play.

#5 We are in marathon NOT a sprint 

Not everything has to happen yesterday or tomorrow. Set up a rhythm of work that is sustainable and allows for anomalies to come my way.

  • Make sure you work  limited to 8 hours. Things can wait.  It is a marathon after all!
  • Make sure you work for a maximum of an hour at a time.
  • Take a mini break. Longer than 5 minutes but less than 10 minutes is best. This allows the brain to relax and also the brain not to lose its train of thought.

#6 Make sure you close the day.

Spend the last 15-30 minutes finishing what has been achieved and what needs to be done in the future.

Write down the things needed to do another day and move the do lists items you hoped to do today to another day! Tick off the things done to show progress.

Take 5 minutes to debrief the day, breathe and listen to music. Relax.  

You are in control. Have joy. 

#7 Exercise

Exercise regularly and at the same time most days. Keep it within capacity so you are more likely to want to do it the following day when getting started.

A little goes a long way.  As little as 10 minutes a day can set up a great day and bring energy to a tough day.

Small and regular is better than long and infrequent! 

#8 Sleep and eat well

Go to bed and wake up at the same time.  Keep regular patterns of meals and routines as best as possible.

#9 Have a Sabbath

Try and get rid of the phone for the day. Get someone to hide it for you. If you have to, have 2 or 3 set times in the day when you will look at it.

#10 Limit Your News Intake

Read news for a limit of 5 minutes a day. Avoid reading it on your day off.

When I read this list, the first thing I’ve actioned on is point 10. I avoided the news when possible before COVID-19, so why am I so fixated on it now? It was easy to only check news once a day for 5 minutes.

What’s the change that you will do in your life today to feel better tomorrow?

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