What Psychiatrists are Doing to Stay Sane in the Pandemic
As the pandemic and safer-at-home orders drag on, people are searching for ways to cope with the heightened stress, anxiety, and depression. In a recent webinar, three board-certified psychiatrists from Amen Clinics— Dr. Melissa Quinn, Dr. Michelle Flowers, and Dr. Jennifer Love—shared some of their own personal survival secrets.
Here are 5 strategies they use that you can try too to feel better fast.
1. Practice “square breathing.”
Dr. Quinn—a psychiatrist who is also board-certified in holistic/integrative medicine and trained in transcranial magnetic stimulation and ketamine-assisted psychotherapy—is an advocate of a technique known as square breathing. “We call it square breathing because we do it in counts of four and it forms a square.” The technique is simple: inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, then hold your breath again for another count of four.
“I like to incorporate my mantra—live, love, connect, serve,” says Dr. Quinn. “So as I do the diaphragmatic breathing, I say ‘Live two, three, four. Love two, three, four. Connect two, three, four. Serve two, three, four.’” Dr. Quinn says that of all the things she does in her own practice, “this is the one that grounds me the fastest.” If you want to try square breathing with a mantra, you can choose any four words that have special meaning to you.
2. Allow yourself to let go.
Letting go of some things has helped Dr. Flowers, a general psychiatrist and a child and adolescent psychiatrist who is also the mother of four, get through these trying times. “I had just finished a fitness challenge when this thing hit. I was in my best shape in years, but it was high-intensity exercise,” she says. “And because of all the stress of the pandemic, I decided to take it back a notch. I have continued to walk, but the high-intensity exercise has been out for me because there’s plenty of stress in the environment right now.”
High-intensity physical activity can ratchet up stress levels even higher, and according to the American College of Sports Medicine, it may suppress the immune system in some people who aren’t used to vigorous exercise. Give yourself permission to adjust or let go of some goals or habits that don’t serve you now.
3. Accept the ups and downs in energy levels and emotional health.
Like so many others, Dr. Love— who practices adult psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine—has experienced fluctuating energy levels. And she admits that some days, even with all the coping tools she has in her psychiatrist’s toolbox, it isn’t enough. “A few weeks ago, I just crashed and felt exhausted,” she says. “It’s like we work all day, we’re living in a pandemic, and it takes three hours to go to the grocery store. On top of that, I had someone steal my identity, file my taxes, and steal my tax return.” In times like these, Dr. Love—who is also the author of the upcoming book, When Crisis Strikes: Five Steps to Heal Your Brain, Body, and Life From Chronic Stress—says her coping strategy is basically acknowledging it’s a lull and riding out that wave. Expecting that you’ll experience ups and downs can help you accept the downs rather than feeling overwhelmed or defeated by them.
4. Be willing to help others but also to accept help.
As a psychiatrist who provides therapy, Dr. Flowers says she’s typically very comfortable helping others. But a story she heard author David Kessler share on Brené Brown’s podcast really stuck with her and reminded her of the importance of allowing others to help her. It’s called the allegory of the long spoons. “Basically, there’s a woman who wants to see what heaven and hell are like,” she says. The woman is taken into a dining room where this amazing aroma hits and her mouth starts watering. “But then the next thing that hits her is this sound of wailing and people who are groaning. And she looks around the room, and they’re all starving,” she says. “There’s food available, but the spoon is so long that people can’t get the spoon to their mouth.” In essence, this is what hell is—when what you need is available to you, but you can’t get it to yourself.
Then the woman in the story asks to see heaven. To her surprise, she ends up in the same room, and again, the same aroma hits, and her mouth starts watering. But the sound is different in this room because people are laughing and conversing. “What’s different is that instead of trying to feed themselves with the long spoon, they’re feeding each other,” says Dr. Flowers. “Over the last several weeks, I’ve had to remind people, myself included, that we need to allow ourselves to be fed.” If you’re a natural caregiver, it’s important to remind yourself to accept the kindness of others.
5. Remember, you’re doing the best you can.
For Dr. Quinn, reminding herself that she’s doing her best is a powerful feel better fast strategy. “When I’m washing dishes for a half an hour and my little guy is screaming and running around in his undies, I tell myself, ‘I’m doing my best,’” she says. Consider making this a daily mantra that you recite to yourself in challenging times—doing my best, doing my best, doing my best.
Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and other mental health issues can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.
At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.