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3/29/2020 - Coronavirus Creating Stress? Why You May Need Mental Distancing As Much As Social Distancing And 8 Ways To Get It

by Tracy Brower 

The coronavirus has become all we’re talking about. It’s on every channel, every station and part of every conversation. If we’re not suffering from the virus itself, we are mentally marinating in it based on our consumption of news and information.

It’s not a surprise we would focus on information about the coronavirus and COVID-19. The spread of the virus and precautions about the disease have changed life more than almost anything else we’ve lived through. Government press conferences and news reports are helping to make “flattening the curve” and “social distancing” part of our daily language. But as you focus on your physical health and the health of the broader community through social distancing, you also need some mental distancing and emotional distancing. Our always-on heightened level of concern is mentally exhausting and emotionally draining.

Mental distancing provides for time when you’re not thinking about the virus and emotional distancing gives you the opportunity to take a timeout from worry or anxiety about current conditions. How can you do mental or emotional distancing successfully? Here are eight suggestions for a bit more sanity in the midst of our current uncertainty.

Take a break from (social) media. This probably goes without saying, but it’s easier said than done. Provide yourself with a quiet period each day where you turn off the news, log off social media and stop listening to the cacophony of voices talking about the coronavirus and COVID-19. Just take a break.

Create free zones. Create physical locations that are safe zones. For example, you may decide that when you’re in your car or taking a walk, you won’t consume information about the coronavirus or COVID-19. Or you may decide your kitchen is a free zone where the family won’t listen to, consume or discuss the current circumstances.

Create a friendly boundary. Set a boundary with the people you’re close to or with your coworkers. Agree you’ll get together for (virtual) coffee but plan ahead of time not to discuss coronavirus or COVID-19 while you’re together. Instead you can trade ideas about your favorite shows to binge, or how you’re keeping busy with your family now that typical entertainment outlets like restaurants are no longer available.

Be grateful. Gratitude has been repeatedly found to inspire feelings of positivity and mental health. Find things for which to be grateful—extra time with a spouse or partner, more opportunities to be outside as spring emerges or even the opportunity to spend more time in your most comfortable sweatpants as you work from home.

Support others. Research also shows helping others by supporting community members has significant positive impacts on mental and emotional health. Find opportunities to volunteer and reach out to colleagues, friends or those in need. You may help by distributing food through a donation program, writing letters (snail mail!) or even by making phone calls to those who don’t have as much social connection. Social distancing shouldn’t result in isolation. No matter what your personality style, everyone needs some time alone and time with others. Be sure to find ways to stay in touch and ensure others remain connected with the community as well.

Exercise. In addition to the benefits of exercise for your body, exercise also helps the mind by releasing “feel good” chemicals in your system. While the couch may be calling you, ensure you stay active in whatever way is healthy for you—from a walk outside to toe-touches in your living room—regular movement is good for your overall health.

Get outside. Being in nature tends to expand perspective and even create the occasional experience of awe—proven to contribute to positive mental and emotional health. Breathe in the fresh air, seek some almost-spring sunshine (with the appropriate dose of sunscreen) and find a path through the woods or the urban jungle that helps you rejuvenate.

Focus on the future. Remind yourself this is an unprecedented period of time, but that things will get back to normal. Seek optimism and reconsider all the little things you’ll be happy to return to—your commute to the office, plenty of toilet paper at the grocery store and talking about last night’s episode of addictive television at the water cooler in the morning.

These are challenging and stressful times full of ambiguity and uncertainty. While social distancing is designed to help ensure physical health and to slow the spread of the coronavirus, you also need mental and emotional distancing to ensure your overall wellbeing. Take breaks from your consumption of coronavirus and COVID-19 news, creating free zones and friendly boundaries with others. Be grateful and support others. Perhaps most importantly, focus on the future and reassure yourself things will return to normal. Until they do, take care of yourself holistically—and take care of others.

Tracy Brower - I am a Ph.D. sociologist exploring perspectives on work-life and fulfillment. I am the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations, and a principal with Steelcase’s Applied Research + Consulting group. In addition to speaking and writing about the changing nature of work, workers and workplace, I also devote time as an executive advisor to the MSU Master of Industrial Mathematics Program and Coda Societies. In addition to my Ph.D. and MM, I hold a Master of Corporate Real Estate with a specialization in workplace. You can find my work in TEDx, Work-Life Balance in the 21st Century, The Wall Street Journal, The Globe and Mail (Canada), InsideHR (Australia), Training Magazine, The CoreNet Leader, Facility Executive, Work Design Magazine, Real Estate Review Journal,, Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, and more. Please feel free to reach out if you would like to connect!