Winter is coming. And this year, your mental health may take a greater hit than normal given the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 is already contributing to skyrocketing stress levels. More than three quarters of respondents to an annual survey from the American Psychological Association said the pandemic was a major source of stress.
Importantly, it’s unclear how and when this will end. After a brief dip, coronavirus cases are surging once again, a trend scientists worry could continue into winter. Colder temperatures, will force more of us indoors, likely ramping up cases.
Staying inside and keeping to ourselves more often, may drive us to screens for entertainment and distraction, says Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist who writes and speaks about technology’s effect on us.
This could put a strain on us, because we know socialization is good for our mental health.
“Our screens are such easy distractions that we’ve sold ourselves on [the notion] that they’re actually fulfilling, which sometimes they are, but not always,” says Dodgen-Magee.
Still, she acknowledges it’s unrealistic to completely cast aside our phones and computers, especially when more of us work from home and spend what seems like endless hours on Zoom, whether for school or work. What people really need is for the pandemic and economic crisis to abate or end, and that will only happen through leadership and policy. But the winter will test your resilience nonetheless, so it’s good to start preparing now. In fact, there are ways to use technology without eroding your mental health, all while growing closer to friends and family. And when you need to, you can step away from devices without wrecking your work and school life. Here’s how.
1. Separate work tech from fun tech
The pandemic has blurred the lines between our work and personal lives. You may use the same video conferencing platform for your weekly meetings with your boss and virtual happy hours with your friends, but the vibe shouldn’t be the same.
The physical space you use to digitally get together with friends should be different than the one you use for work, says Dr. Lynn Bufka, the ‘s senior director of practice transformation and quality. Her office works on policy development and issues related to the professional practice of psychology.
“While the set-up might be convenient in your home office, if you’re fortunate to have a home office, don’t do your socializing in the same place…so you at least have a break between the two,” Bufka says.
If you don’t have enough room for that, dress the space up when you hang out virtually with friends. Consider lighting candles or changing the lighting to help you relax, says Bufka. Any way you can differentiate the two settings can help. The challenge, when we’re stuck at home is each day bleeding into the next, she says, and separating your work and fun environments mitigates that monotony.
Similarly, Dodgen-Magee suggests designating certain areas in your home for different types of screen use, while also utilizing a screen-free zone. The bedroom, for example, can be a no-phones-allowed room to give you a chance to mentally recharge away from your devices.
2. Phone it in
When everyone first transitioned into telework, there was a lot of emphasis on video conferencing, says Bufka. Now, the American Psychological Association encourages people to evaluate if video meetings are necessary or if they can be replaced with phone calls.
That’s because physical activity is the foundation of good health, Bufka says. With so many people teleworking these days we don’t have many reasons to be physically active given our short to non-existent commutes and many people are stuck working in one room.
Video calls, says Bufka, tend to limit people to one location, while a phone call can allow people to move around their work area or even go outside. (If you live near nature, know that spending time outside can boost your mental health.)
You could take a video call outside but it requires a different set of cognitive skills than a phone call, says Bufka. On a video call, you may look for visual cues from participants, scanning multiple screens in front of you. But on the phone you can listen without exerting the mental energy required to interpret people’s expressions.
If you don’t have the option of phoning in, try optimizing the experience to reduce the burden on your mental health. It can be hard to concentrate on other people in a Zoom call if you’re bombarded with your own face, says Dodgen-Magee. You also might compare yourself to other people in the meeting. This means you may not be at peace with yourself or present in the conversation, says Dodgen-Magee.
If you find yourself doing this, hide your image. If the video platform doesn’t allow this, place a sticky note over your video image. If your work allows, you can also turn off your camera.
3. Curate your social media
Turn your social media accounts into a place of joy. Bufka, for example, follows Twitter accounts like Thoughts of Dog and Exploding Unicorn, which both share light-hearted and funny content. She says these accounts always make her feel good, which can provide a mental break from heavier content like political updates.
Dodgen-Magee suggests adding accounts that are affirming and don’t prompt us to compare ourselves to other people. One Instagram account she loves is The Nap Ministry, which urges people to take time in their days to rest and calls sleep deprivation a “racial and social justice issue.” She also recommends looking up body positivity websites to find affirming content.
You can also unfollow accounts that cause distress or anxiety. Pay attention if accounts make you feel agitated or irritable after interacting with them, says Bufka. More subtle cues can include rapid breathing or trouble concentrating.
4. Avoid doomscrolling
If you find yourself scrolling through social media endlessly consuming bad news, you’re a victim of doomscrolling.
“When we’re anxious about something we tend to seek out information to allay our anxiety,” says Bufka. “Yet right now, we tend to just get more wrapped into an anxious news cycle and it just becomes a negative cycle.”
Dodgen-Magee says similarly that when our life consists of the same routine day-in and day-out, it can feel monotonous and depressing. When you doomscroll, you’re often looking for a surge of emotional intensity to differentiate the “sameness” of our lives.
While doomscrolling might initially make us feel good, ultimately it damages our mental health, she explains.
“Doomscrolling gives us this boost of dopamine every time we find another infuriating or frustrating or hopeless thing,” says Dodgen-Magee. “This feels like it’s giving us a hit of emotion but in reality it’s hurting us.”
To protect against a cycle of doomscrolling, the first step, Bufka says, is to recognize when you’re feeling unsettled and what you hope your continuous scrolling will accomplish. Once you recognize that cycle, avoid it when possible, Bufka recommends. Try setting a timer and stepping away from social media when it goes off.
5. Use screens to connect with friends and family
Screens can cause isolation, but they can also help you get closer with your loved ones.
Dodgen-Magee uses Airbnb’s online experiences to spend time with her family who is spread across multiple states. There’s a variety of experiences available — from dance classes to virtual trips abroad to check out a country’s street art to magic shows. Each person pays a certain amount per class (which can be as low as $5). Dodgen-Magee also started a virtual book club with her niece; they both read the same books and then discuss them together online.
She also suggests getting physically out into the world with something like a photo scavenger hunt. This can be done with adults and kids. Someone creates a list of places to visit and each group or person competes to travel to all of them first (with a time-stamped photo to prove they were there). Then everyone convenes on a video call to talk about the experience and compare photos.
Ultimately, socializing and maintaining relationships is important. “Making sure that we are touching base with people…will be crucial to our well-being,” says Dodgen-Magee.