In high school, I was required to read “Crime and Punishment,” a Russian behemoth of a book about existentialism, sin, and redemption. To give a simplistic summary of the first part of the book: The protagonist, a law student, descends into a nervous breakdown and murders an old woman from his building after spending too much time cooped up with his thoughts in his tiny apartment. His tiny, tiny apartment.

As I spend my days pacing between my bedroom and kitchen, I’m a) feeling grateful that I haven’t yet moved into the optimistically-named “micro-studio” I’m living in next year, and b) understanding the kind of existential despair that can be brought about by treading the same track over and over. 

Thankfully, my despair hasn’t been as exciting or violent as in “Crime and Punishment.” It’s taken a much more listless path. I had one full day where I barely left my bed. By the end of that day I was frantically emailing my therapist (whom I hadn’t seen in months) to schedule some new appointments, my doctor to ask about increasing my antidepressant dose, and my professors to let them know that things were going to be late and I was absolutely incapable of fixing that for a while. Oh my God, HELP, I wanted to cry to everyone in my life, hoping that my message would reach someone who actually could.

I like writing about my mental health because I think relatable firsthand accounts are some of the most powerful tools we have to open the conversation and have us all feeling a little less alone in our scarier moments. It can’t be that bad if other people have gone through it, right? 

Right. OK. Here we go: A guide to surviving this pandemic from one chronically mentally ill person to, maybe, another.

We’re currently immersed in a kind of mental health pandemic, the perfect side for a physical health pandemic. In pandemic a la mode, this is the ice cream. Anxiety and depression rates are up across the country. So are suicide rates. These are the stakes we’re working with. It’s trite to say “don’t become a statistic,” but seriously, in a serious and deadly pandemic, those of us without medical training can still work to reduce deaths by suicide even if all we do is work at keeping ourselves alive.

 

The good news is, if you have previous experience with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses, this isn’t your first rodeo. In fact, the coping skills you’ve built up through lived experience (and maybe therapy) are perfectly honed for this moment. This is what you’ve trained for.

Dr. Gitika Talwar, a clinical-community psychologist at Hall Health Center, said that her partner likened the COVID-19 pandemic to the Olympics for folks who have dealt with mental illness.

“It's not alien,” Talwar said. “Being overwhelmed isn’t alien; being sad isn’t alien. So a lot of those [coping] strategies are still working.”

Also, if you’re doing the right thing and staying home, take heart in knowing that you are safe and helping others stay safe as well. Acknowledge and validate any feelings of cabin fever; but you can also take a moment to analyze what that cooped-up feeling is telling you, urged Talwar.

“‘I want movement’ or ‘I want fresh air.’ What does the ‘cooped-up’ mean?” she said. 

There are ways to perk up your living space to encourage being more present and appreciative, even if you can’t venture outside. 

Bringing something alive and responsive into your room in the form of houseplants can be healing. (Talwar recommended succulents and pothos to hopefully avoid any “I kill plants” guilt.) Opening your windows and letting in natural light helps too. And you can use certain everyday activities — hand-washing, for instance, something we all should be doing a lot of right now — as anchor points.

 

“[I’m] inviting people to consider having something that sparks their senses because it helps you ground yourself even more,” Talwar said. “Whether it is having fragrant dish soap or …  something else that keeps your senses going. You can use your hand washing to actually continue to keep that opportunity to be grounded into your different senses.”

Be gentle with yourself. The way you’re responding to this prolonged isolation may not look anything like the way your roommates are, or the way your family wants, or the way that would be the best for your GPA. But things are hard right now, and we can relax our expectations for ourselves.

Regardless of where your physical health is at right now, it’s important to remember that the coronavirus is taking some sort of toll, because your body and mind are a system in constant communication with each other.

“The body's virtually fighting a virus because it's been told about it,” Talwar said.

If you’re able to stomach positivity right now, reframing the way you’re thinking about isolation and the pandemic can also be helpful. It’s a moment where people are dissolving barriers and showing genuine kindness and charity. It’s a reminder that people do care about each other, mostly.

“Consider ways that [you] could be helpful to other people,” Talwar said. “From a place of genuinely, like, humanity coming together, we're all in this. We're all dealing with this in different ways, and what can we do to take some of the pain out of it?”

Everyone deserves support right now and, happily, supporting others can be a great way to help yourself feel better, too. Mutual aid networks are founded on the premise that we are all connected to each other and owe each other support. Consider joining one in your area (they’ve been having a heyday during this pandemic), or volunteering your time elsewhere remotely.

Finally, don’t forget about basic practices to help your body and mind feel better. It can be frustrating to have someone tell you to cook a meal or take a walk when you’re depressed, but the advice is timeless for a reason, I promise.

“The standard pillars of health have always been sleep, meals, some physical activity,” Talwar said. “I prefer not to call it exercise, because then it has very specific connotations … Some amount of physical activity is already very good for disrupting depressive thinking.”

Notice all the feelings this time of isolation is uncovering for you. Maybe you’re enjoying all the extra time to be creative, be with your dog, or terraform your Animal Crossing island. Or maybe you’re discovering that you’re really afraid to be alone. Regardless, we probably won’t ever have this much time to think about how our minds work and how we can best take care of ourselves again.

“I'm in some ways inviting humanity right now to notice the fears that come up,” Talwar said. “To notice, like, if you are feeling feelings you haven't felt before, it could really mean you haven't noticed them before; you may have felt them before. … Recognizing feelings is not a sign of weakness, of course, but feelings are often feedback. It is just like [how] you need to feel pain in order to know that, okay, don't do XYZ thing, that's painful. It's feedback.”

Let’s make a pinky promise to be gentle with ourselves for as long as this lasts, have our messiest feelings or no feelings at all, and come out the other side in one broken piece. 

For more of Talwar’s advice on mental health practices during the pandemic, listen to her on the UW Circle podcast.

Reach Health & Wellness Editor Mac Murray at specials@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @merqto

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