My husband and I were social distancing before COVID came to the U.S. Our second child had just been born into a flu and RSV season so terrible that we had many friends whose little ones ended up in the hospital. (Thankfully, all are okay.) As difficult as it was, we chose to keep as many people as possible away until the baby’s immune system had the chance to develop.
This wasn’t new to us. Our first son was born with hip dysplasia, or dislocated hips, and we stayed home for three months with him while he wore a special harness that didn’t work as well in a carseat. When the ortho suggested we only put him in the car for appointments, we listened. At the same time, I was battling postpartum anxiety (PPA), which resulted in us limiting guests to the house, because the more exposures the baby got, the more anxious I became.
Each of these experiences took place in the middle of Michigan winters, so not only were we stuck at home, but stuck inside. We saw firsthand how this can take a toll on mental health. Today, as we face another Michigan winter isolated inside during COVID, we try to put all we’ve learned into play. Here are the highlights, in case they can help you, too.
12 tips on mental wellness
1. Getting outside
“Go outside every single day, even for a few minutes.” I remember sitting in an uncomfortable chair at my doctor’s office, listening to the fabulous, curly-haired instructor of our breastfeeding class deliver these orders. I’m sure I wrote it down. I should’ve listened. My anxiety skyrocketed during postpartum with baby #1, and I know that was part of it. With baby #2, I made more of an effort. Same with lockdown. Today, when I’m starting to feel anxious, the first thing I ask myself is when I was outside last — I know there’s a correlation. Research backs it up. There’s even a scientific field called “ecotherapy,” which shows a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety and depression, according to Harvard Medical School
2. Taking a shower or getting dressed
Any time I picture a moment from the early days with baby #1, I’m wearing the same robe. I was exhausted, and the very few moments I had for “me” time needed to be spent on trying to sleep. This one can be difficult for the new mamas out there, but a shower, or even just brushing your hair, can do wonders when you’re anxious and stuck inside. Getting dressed can, too. Since the conversation has come up during COVID, major mental health organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness have recommended keeping your “getting ready” routines intact, according to Huffpost. Maybe this isn’t realistic for you, but I swear even the little things help.
3. Exercising (even for 5 minutes)
I had a close friend who went through PPA tell me that her doctor said 30 minutes of good exercise each day was just as powerful as anxiety medication. Turns out, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) agrees: “According to some studies, regular exercise works as well as medication for some people to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and the effects can be long lasting.”
Motivation can be tough to get this sort of thing started, but one piece of good news is, thanks to COVID, whatever you’re into can probably be streamed right now. I spent 20+ years as a dancer, and for the first time ever have a variety of at-home dance workouts to choose from — each of which is just a little easier to talk myself into doing than some random workout I don’t connect with.
The other piece of good news is even a little bit helps here, too. The ADAA also says “about five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.”
4. Giving permission to struggle
This one’s always difficult. I know I’m extremely blessed to have a home and healthy family and food and job and so many other things. Yet I still have struggles in my own way, just as everybody does. The times when I try to shut out the idea that I’m allowed to struggle make things harder. On the flip side, the moments I admit to my husband — or myself — that I’m having a hard day are freeing. They allow me to focus on strategies for coping with whatever I’m struggling with in the moment, instead of using that energy to shut down things I’m really feeling. For me, permission allows for progress.
5. Talking about it
Through each of our isolation experiences, my husband and I have learned to lean on one another. We encourage each other to get outside if it’s been some time, tell each other when we need a few minutes, watch the kids when the other needs a breath. We both have the ability to absorb the other person’s mood, so even as we help each other we help ourselves.
6. Starting teletherapy
“I’m not going to take away your anxiety — I’m going to give you the tools to deal with it when it happens.” That was one of the first things my teletherapist explained to me at the beginning of COVID. It’s exactly what she did. We met one-to-two times weekly right from my couch, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
“I still have a lot of work to do. But one of the greatest things I’ve learned about coping with anxiety is that environment matters.”
7. Challenging thoughts
Those couch sessions weren’t my first therapy experience. In fact, as I prepared to potentially go through PPA again during pregnancy #2, I found a therapist who specialized in pre- and post-partum support. One of the first things I learned from her was the best: We don’t usually challenge our anxious thoughts — we just accept them as truth and decide they’re bound to happen. A variety of techniques exist for finding ways to stop doing this, but even before you know them, it can help to simply pause and recognize that just because you think of something doesn’t mean it’s true or going to happen.
(P.S. There’s a great book that offers tools for challenging thoughts and coping with anxiety in general that I learned about in pre-partum therapy: “The Pregnancy and Postpartum Anxiety Workbook.”)
8. Limiting fear scrolling
Many of us turn to our phones when we’re bored or anxious, and it can be easy to get lost scrolling. This showed through even in the beginning of COVID lockdowns, when phone usage was way up for many — including me. I’ve learned since that reading article after article about COVID numbers, SIDs precautions or other anxieties does not help my mental wellness. That being said, sometimes just the right amount of knowledge can help. I choose a few key experts I trust, like our pediatrician, and ask them questions to help me better understand the things that make me anxious. The times I listen to them and leave the scrolling behind are the best.
9. Live-streaming experiences
During postpartum, the simple act of listening to music helped me remember there was a whole world outside of my house. It helped me feel connection, something we’re wired as human beings to crave. During COVID, I’ve found this feeling during live-streamed events, like workouts and church services, when I realize there are others sharing in the experience. It helps. Numerous studies show that connection not only impacts our mental, but even physical health. It’s especially imperative during times of isolation.
10. Trying to sleep
Easier said than done, right? We all know anxiety can interfere with sleep. But many clinical trials have found that sleep deprivation can be a trigger for anxiety. This is another one I’ve felt directly. When I really started paying attention, I noticed some of my most anxious moments arrived in the midst of my deepest levels of exhaustion.
11. Remembering: This will end
Because it will. And I learned during severe morning sickness that remembering that your present will not always be your future can help.
My husband and I are trying to focus on this idea that there will be a day in the future when we miss being locked in our house with our little family. That’s not to say we don’t recognize right now is difficult (see #4), but this reminder does encourage us to try and look out of a positive lens as often as we can.
12. Paying attention to environment
I still have a lot of work to do. But one of the greatest things I’ve learned about coping with anxiety is that environment matters. When I start to feel anxious, I immediately assess the environment I’ve created for myself: When did I get outside last? Am I tired? Have I exercised at all recently? Then I start testing out what can help, based on the list above. When I can stay on top of it ahead of time, even better.
Feeling stuck inside during COVID, an anxiety-ridden maternity leave or any other circumstance is not easy. Hang in there. Do what you can to create an environment that promotes your mental wellness, with the help of the staples above. And please remember this: You are not alone.
What am I missing? What’s helped you? Leave your tips in the comments below.