Quick Tips On How To Stay Sane In A Pandemic, From A Psychologist

Just close your eyes and imagine you're retreating at Esalen in 1966.
(Photo courtesy of AMC)

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It's hard to find good news when you're living in the middle of a pandemic, especially when you're wrapping up week SEVEN of quarantine.

Sure, there's been some positive updates lately — like the Governor announcing that California will move into Phase Two of reopening this Friday, with L.A. County following suit.

But there are still so many unknowns about what life will look like as we emerge from this, and how we'll feel in the next day, month, year. It's a lot for anyone to process.

That's why it's not shocking that one reader submitted this question:

"I think we all intellectually understand the need to stay home, but the news of, one, flattening the curve and, two, other states and counties beginning to formally lift restrictions, gives people the itch. I'd love to hear from medical [or] psychological experts about how to reinforce our resolve while also providing coping mechanisms to deal with the psychological toll of staying isolated."

To find the answer, we called up Nataria Joseph, a clinical health psychologist at Pepperdine University. She explained how physical distancing may be taking such a strong toll on our mental well being because it directly ties to our identity.

"For a lot of individuals, they're finding themselves feeling a lack of a sense of self, like 'Who am I if I'm not this person that's connected through these relationships?'" she said. "That's one of the primary reasons why it's very, very difficult for people to resist the temptation to defy the best practices."

So what's one way of mitigating these feelings?

"Think about the fact that a lot of people are just waking up and feeling badly or feeling negatively. And they don't quite know the source of that," says Joseph. "Psychological research suggests that identifying the source of that emotion, as well as labeling that emotion, is a very simple, but also very powerful tool by which to begin to cope with those emotions."

In other words, identifying the problem and figuring exactly where these negative emotions are coming from, is the first step in dealing with them. Joseph explains that with clarity comes a sense of agency over some of those emotions that can otherwise feel amorphous.

While it's hard enough for adults to process big feelings in a productive way, it's even harder for kids. Another reader wrote:

"My four-year-old granddaughter doesn't understand why I can't pick her up and bring her to my house like I've been doing. How do I explain it to her? It hurts to hear her crying because she doesn't understand, and I don't know how to tell her."

When it comes to kids, Joseph reminded us that kids are in fact extremely resilient and it falls on the adults in the room to help them cultivate that resiliency. Parents and, in our listener's case, grandparents, can do that by validating their emotions with a warm approach and keeping explanations as simple as possible.

One approach: frame the situation around the concept of rules, because that's something most kids can understand.

"They understand that there are rules on the playground, rules in the classroom or at school, etc," says Joseph. "And so for an adult that's trying to explain to a young child why they can't do certain previous behaviors, I think keeping it simple and saying, 'You know, we have these new rules that I'm being asked to follow right now."'

Likewise, kids do best when they feel like they have some power over the situation, which is why it's important to give them a say. A way we can grant children agency in this situation, Joseph suggests, is by asking them what they want to do when the "rules" change.

"Perhaps having them draw or create a vision board of what they'd like to do as soon as the rule is over," she said, "or even as the rule is continuing to play a role in their lives, what are other things that they'd like to do in the meantime?"

Concerned parents have also written in about particular behaviors that have cropped up since the start of the stay-at-home order.

Another question we received:

"My Potty trained three-year-old grandson had just started preschool and loved it. He asks his mom every day if he can go to school and even says he will run away. Now he is having bedwetting accidents."

Anecdotally, we've heard similar things from parents about stomachaches, sleeping issues and nightmares occurring in recent weeks.

Joseph says, it's possible that there's a connection between these new behaviors and the anxiety brought on by the pandemic. Any particular lack of consistency or routine can trigger anxiety, especially for kids, who we know thrive on schedules.

"One main thing that I would advise is to try to incorporate consistency as much as possible," said Joseph. "In this particular example, you discussed a kid who really liked preschool. What does this child like about preschool? How can we replicate all of the child's likes and preferences from preschool and actually incorporate them into the home environment and do so in a consistent way?"

Listen to the full interview with Dr. Joseph below:

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