How to stay sane when the world’s going mad

Take a deep breath. Now, tell me … how are you feeling? There are no wrong answers, and no one else needs to know. Give your day a score out of 10 if you can’t think of the right words. Even better, write it down. Set a reminder to write down how you’re feeling every day. Now you’ve started a mood diary.

These sorts of techniques are usually reserved for the therapist’s chair. But with anxiety rising during the pandemic and many psychologists unwilling to take new clients during lockdown, we need to get people help now, before the stress they’re feeling spirals into something worse. A solution might be to teach them how to help themselves—virtually. (Scroll to the bottom to get a list of tips to stay calm during the crisis.)

The stage seems to be set for a global mental health crisis. Nearly half of Americans say the coronavirus crisis is hurting their mental health, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Stress levels are even higher than they were during the 2009 recession, a Washington Post poll found. 

It’s not surprising. So many of the pillars keeping us sane have been toppled: we’re confined to our homes, unable to see many of the people we love; money and health worries abound; the news is like a disaster movie; our sleep is disrupted. Not only is the pandemic beyond our control, but there is no clear, identifiable end point. Both those factors are known triggers for anxiety that can spiral into something more serious, such as depression or addiction. 

Turn to the apps

But anxiety is treatable and manageable—even when all you have is your smartphone. For many people, their first port of call is a mindfulness and meditation app like Headspace or Calm. For a few dollars a month, these offer guided meditation for beginners, breathing exercises, and tutorials on a range of topics intended to help relieve stress. These apps have only started to be studied in the last several years, but evidence to support their use is emerging. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that regular use of a mindfulness app can help make people feel less stressed. Another CMU study found it can reduce loneliness. A study published in Nature concluded that meditation apps can boost young people’s ability to focus and remember. There’s little evidence that these apps can be as transformative for mental health as therapy, but they can be enough for some.

Rachel White, a 34-year-old New Yorker who works in tech, credits a meditation app with pulling her back from the brink of a breakdown. “I didn’t leave my apartment for the first month of lockdown. I constantly heard sirens and was afraid to go outside. It got completely overwhelming. Everything was too much,” she says. To cope, she would lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. “I knew I had to do stuff, but my brain wouldn’t let me,” she recalls “It was shutting down. That was the catalyst that made me download Calm.”

She’d never tried guided meditation or a mental health app before. Without it, she believes, her mental health would have deteriorated further. “I’ve shifted from a general sense of fear and panic to accepting that what’s happening is out of my control. I’ve adapted what I can to improve my own health, and I’m making longer-term changes that will make me better off,” she says.

For those who want more fine-grained,

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