How to support your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

This content is sponsored by MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

With the COVID-19 pandemic dominating the news cycle around the world, it’s absolutely expected for people to feel fearful and anxious. But just know, you’re not alone.

“Fear and anxiety breed uncertainty, and that uncertainty tends to be most intense in the earliest phase of any crisis,” said Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, chair of psychiatry at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “As COVID-19 spreads across the country, we see the same concerns: fear of infection and of spreading the disease, and the stress of not knowing if you’ve been exposed.”

With news that the U.S. has surpassed China in known COVID-19 cases, the current situation can feel overwhelming. But despite a long history of dealing with unfamiliar diseases — from the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic to the 2002 SARS outbreak — people are resilient, Dr. Ritchie said.

If resilience feels far away for you, that’s OK. If you need help managing your mental health during this pandemic, Dr. Ritchie has these tips:

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Focus on what you can control.
  3. Participate in activities that make you happy.
  4. Stay in touch with your loved ones.
  5. Try to disconnect from social media and the news for a bit.
  6. Help others.
  7. Do what you can. It’s OK to not have all the answers.

(1) Take a deep breath.

Breathe deeply, 10 times, through the nose, Dr. Ritchie said. She recommends doing this daily, as part of a routine and also whenever you feel your anxiety levels start to rise.

“Deep breathing can calm you and give your brain time to pause, reset and slow down,” Dr. Ritchie said.

(2) Focus on what you can control.

“Anxiety often results when you feel you’re losing control,” Dr. Ritchie said. “When events are bigger than us and changing rapidly, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless.”

Instead of focusing on what you can’t control, think about things you can do right now. What’s your outlook for today? Or even just over the next few hours?

“Some of those answers are clearly laid out: maintain social distance, limit travel, wash your hands often — all guidelines we have been following,” Dr. Ritchie said.

If you have children, short-term planning is especially important. And though it’s healthy to plan for the day, flexibility is key, as it’s possible for a schedule to get knocked off-track, Dr. Ritchie added.

(3) Participate in activities that make you happy.

Now that you’re home more, what are some hobbies or skills you can build up that bring you joy? Maybe you can tend to a garden or indoor plants, dust off that guitar in your closet and learn a new song, or learn how to do that still-life painting you’ve always wanted to do.

(4) Stay in touch with your loved ones.

“Remember that distancing doesn’t mean isolation. We are going through this with technology that makes staying connected easier than ever,” Dr. Ritchie said.

Whether by phone, email or social media, reach out to your loved ones and check in on them, too.

(5) Try to disconnect from social media and the news for a bit.

In the evenings after answering COVID-19 emails for 30 minutes, I spend 30 minutes reading,” Dr. Ritchie said. “Then, I go to bed early. Turning off the barrage of information can be good for your mental health.”

(6) Help others.

“Caring about others is a very effective way to care for yourself,” Dr. Ritchie said.

And it may even help improve your own outlook. Help your kids out with their schoolwork, check in on elderly neighbors and, if you’re able to, look into volunteering around your area.

(7) Do what you can. It’s OK to not have all the answers.

Officials around the world continue to learn more about the new coronavirus pandemic. So if they don’t have all the answers, it’s OK for you to not have all the answers either.

“Do what you can, right now,” Dr. Ritchie said. “We are all leaders. So we must act like leaders, with a mission and a sense of purpose. That will empower you and those around you to stay calm and focused.”

For more information on COVID-19, please visit

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