by Mike Usman, MD
Yes, staying informed is valuable, but seeing and hearing about a crisis 24/7 on cable news and social media will just make you freak out. Figure out how much and how often works for you (one hour twice a day, or 15 minutes 3 times a day, for example) and try to stick with it. Being over-informed can be worse than being completely ignorant.
Constantly thinking and talking about a crisis is just as bad as hearing about it continuously. Try to keep yourself busy and, when you find yourself ruminating about the situation, push those thoughts aside for a while. Go for a walk outside, work in a garden, read a book, listen to music, clean out the garage, etc. Meditation is also great for decreasing anxiety and depression (and can produce better outcomes in physical illnesses), but it’s hard to start learning if you’re already freaking out.
Feeling like you have no control over events can lead to “learned helplessness” and depression. Try to think of small, incremental ways that you can decrease the risks you face. This is easier to do before a crisis hits (like buying storm shutters before hurricane season), but there are still things you can do once it’s already here. For example, if being overweight and out of shape puts you at higher risk for illness, take baby steps to address that. Cut down on sweets, soda (even diet ones), and fast food. Eat more fresh produce (plenty is still in the stores). Start walking, jogging, or riding a bike (no fitness center needed). Gradually increase the amount of whatever you’re doing. The psychological effect of doing something positive will be more important than the actual amount of weight you lose.
Doing just one or two things constantly to pass the time is a bad strategy. How many bad TV shows can you possibly stream before getting sick of it? Make a list of things you might do and rotate between them. Pack a picnic lunch, and go to a park. Try your hand at drawing or painting. Take an online course. Pull that musical instrument out of the closet and practice a little. The possibilities are endless. Just use your imagination.
Doing things to help other people makes you feel better. Volunteer for something. Donate money to a good cause. Run errands for someone who’s shut in. Call someone who might be lonely and bored. Take food to somebody who’s homeless or can’t cook for themselves. Share some of your toilet paper stockpile. It doesn’t even have to be related to the current crisis. Just pick up trash from a public place or sweep the sidewalk. There are a million things you can do, and they will all help you deal with the stress.
Think about all the things you have and are grateful for. Write them down, and update the list regularly. There are so many things we have and take for granted. I often do this when I come back from disaster deployments and I’ve experienced doing without a mattress, hot showers, tap water you can drink, a cellphone signal, air conditioning, etc. Realizing just how much you really have helps put your current hardships in perspective.
None of these suggestions is a quick fix, like taking a pill and feeling temporarily better a short time later. These are longer-term, incremental ways to make yourself stronger and more resilient in the face of what life throws at us.
Dr. Mike Usman specializes in psychiatry and disaster medicine. He is a Pittsburgh City Coordinator at Team Rubicon, which focuses on serving vulnerable and at-risk populations affected by disaster. He also serves on the Board of Directors at Global Links, a medical relief and development organization dedicated to supporting health improvement initiatives in resource-poor communities and promoting environmental stewardship in the U.S. healthcare system. Formerly, he was the Chief Psychiatric Officer for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.