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How to safeguard your mental health in the new normal

Israelis are used to stress, but the new reality, with its reduced social contact, pushes us to accommodate our strengths and weaknesses in fresh ways
A woman wears a mask to protect her from the Coronavirus in Ramla, March 16, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A woman wears a mask to protect her from the Coronavirus in Ramla, March 16, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The past few days have introduced us to a strange new world, one where we are relearning the rules of engagement and, for most, battening down the hatches and making preparations to weather the corona-storm. As a team of psychologists and psychotherapists at METIV — The Israel Center for Psychotrauma, we are used to dealing with the range of traumas Israel exposes us to, but coronavirus is posing new challenges and causing us to regroup and reconsider how we can best adjust to our new, temporary reality. In addition to overcoming minor technical issues — like training our team of therapists to use Skype, Zoom, and other tele-health compatible programs — we are also working to tackle larger, more fundamental mental health matters: helping Israel’s citizens draw on existing inner strengths and learn new ways of coping.

News Overload

It is completely natural to want to hear the latest updates and keep up with friends and acquaintances  on Facebook, Twitter, and the host of social media apps at our fingertips, but unfortunately this also exposes us to news overload. We face so many conflicting pieces of information that our sense of proportion goes out of the window. Finding a middle ground between news overload and staying in the dark is critical in order to manage our anxiety and make sensible choices. Choose where you get your information from in advance, and try to stick to it. This may mean turning off push-notifications from some of your daily news providers or subscribing to only one or two reputable sources. Limit the amount of online forums you access with unfiltered, anxiety-inducing information and try to notice whether online browsing is actually increasing your anxiety or whether it is comforting and enhancing your sense of community.

Connection

Humans are a social animal and many of us furthermore rely on touch for self-regulation, feeling connected, and feeling safe. At a time when we are keeping our distance from those around us, on the street, in our neighborhood — and even in our own homes, in some cases — it is important to consider how to get these needs met in other ways. Perhaps this will involve having video-calls with friends and family in Israel and abroad or it may include discussing with partners and children how to maintain (or replace) physical contact while protecting one another from passing on the virus. Social connection is important for our well-being, and the current situation causes us to think concretely about how to get this critical need met.

Re-defining normal

In families, house-shares or even among newly cohabiting couples, there is normally a sense of routine. There are times of togetherness and times when each member is at school, work, or taking part in their own social activities. Suddenly, this has all changed. We are forced to spend a lot more time with the family members or roommates sharing our living space. For some, this may be a welcome change; for many, this will raise a number of challenges that need to be addressed. Discussing the implications of this change will ensure that each “family” member is able to decide for themselves whether they need to designate some alone time or whether they need added support or company. For all of us, this involves choreographing a new dance. There will be moments of tension followed by moments of closeness. This is completely normal. By being aware of potential pitfalls, we can learn to create a new environment where everyone can address their own needs and the needs of those around them.

Routine is important, whether there are children at home or not. Making sure to include periods of exercise, “togetherness” (online or within your household), and relaxation will help maintain balance. But a sense of fulfillment is also critically important to our mental well-being.

Feeling effective, feeling well

It is tempting to deal with increased stress levels by switching off and going into self-care mode, but if there is one thing that we know helps people get through times like these, it is maintaining a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Finding ways of working from home, setting up daily schedules or goals, and supporting those around us are especially useful in maintaining mental well-being in the long-term. Taking care of ourselves is vitally important, but we can also address feelings of loneliness by finding ways to contribute to the wider community: how can I support those around me (virtually if needed)? How can I pass on my skills or help my neighbors and friends?

A time for reflection

This strange new reality can be seen in many ways as similar to the bubble of the therapy room. We are faced with an immediate reduction in social contact and are suddenly confronted with both our strengths and our weaknesses during a time of extreme stress. Taking the time to reflect on where our priorities lie, what our key values are, and what truly helps us regulate ourselves during this difficult time can teach us life-long lessons, which in other situations take years of therapy to understand!

Throughout the coming days, METIV will be uploading videos and blogs to our Facebook pages for adults:  and for parents and children, and we will remain open with a smaller office staff for those in need of support.

About the Author
Anna Harwood-Gross is a Psychologist and the Director of Research at METIV-the Israel Center for Psychotrauma in Jerusalem.
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