Staying positive in isolation

Expert advice on how to handle the feelings that may be coming up.
Published May 1, 2020

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us may be feeling the strain on our mental health. We asked a few experts for their advice on understanding the feelings that may be coming up, and how to stay positive as we move through these uncertain times.

“Many people are struggling with high anxiety, sadness or depression, loss, grief, fear, boredom, loneliness, frustration and even anger,” explains Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the Personology podcast from iHeart Media. “Really, the whole gamut of negative emotions that being afraid of disease, losing money and having forced time alone at home would bring.”


She adds that those who are alone at this time may be experiencing feelings of loneliness and isolation, in particular.


“Without support in terms of shopping, cooking, caring for the home and without close-by emotional and physical support, it can be more difficult. This makes it all the more important to connect with others by phone, by FaceTime, Skype etc.” 


She also recommends creating some kind of structure for your day – perhaps with a calendar – if you’re alone, as keeping a schedule and staying organized can help. 


“But more important is the emotional self-care of talking to other people, sharing how you’re feeling, reaching out to others to be helpful to them when you can, and asking for help yourself when you need it,” Saltz says. 


Some people may find that being lonely and stressed triggers cravings – often for carb-heavy comfort foods – “in an effort to emotionally give yourself what not being around anyone feels like it’s taking away,” she says.


Doing this for a prolonged period of time can lead to feelings of discomfort, guilt and self-loathing, creating a “vicious cycle.” To avoid this, Saltz recommends using other techniques to feel better. 


She suggests a mindfulness practice or aerobic exercise to boost your mood and lower stress, cooking enjoyable, healthy meals, dancing to music you love or talking with a friend.


Another tactic for pushing through negative emotions is focusing on gratitude.


“Try to spend this time acknowledging and counting your blessings. With so many scary and unpredictable variables in our lives, we can still concentrate on what we do have. We all know that we should acknowledge our gratitude, but if you can cultivate this habit during a dark time, you may be more likely to stick with it when times improve,” says Nicole Arzt, a licensed marriage and family therapist who serves on the advisory board for Family Enthusiast. 


She also suggests using the “good stuff” – you know, the good china and the fancy glasses or the guest towels? 


“Many of us have collections of ‘good things’ that we keep saving for a special occasion. The good bottle of wine, the good candle, the good lotion, the good perfume. The special occasion is now, as strange as that may seem. Your life is the occasion. This pandemic has taught us that life changes and moves so quickly – if you keep waiting for something, that something may never come.” 


Arzt also points out that online therapy is an option for many people, noting that a number of therapists are offering telehealth services right now. 


“Even if you feel like you have things under control, talking to a professional can help you feel supported. Additionally, you can learn useful coping skills about managing your stress,” she says.