With cities throughout the country issuing stay-at-home orders, the fear and anxiety associated with COVID-19 are spreading as fast as the virus. Adjusting to this new reality has been stressful—and everyone’s feeling it. In these uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to hold kindness and compassion for yourself and others.
We recently sat down with Dr. Mimi Winsberg, a Stanford-trained psychiatrist and the co-founder and Chief Medical Officer at Brightside, a direct-to-consumer telemedicine company that offers expert and evidence-based treatment for depression and anxiety from the comfort of home. Here, Dr. Winsberg shares some of her strategies for prioritizing mental health amid COVID-19. We hope her insights help support your physical and emotional well-being.
It’s hard to process everything that’s happening. Where do we even start?
With the closures of businesses and schools, creating a go-forward plan for you and your family will help keep your mind at ease. This could mean creating an at-home routine and schedule for remote work amidst social distancing. Emulate your life before COVID-19 to the best of your ability—follow the same schedule of when you wake up, when you eat, and when you go to sleep. Focus on things that are actually in your control and create action plans to address them. Excessively worrying about unknowns outside of your control can exacerbate anxiety.
The never-ending stream of news is enough to overwhelm anyone. How do we find the right balance?
A 24-hour news cycle can be stressful even outside of a global pandemic, but when a singular topic has grasped the attention of a nation, news coverage can greatly exacerbate stress. That’s not to say it isn’t important to stay up to date. But you don’t need to keep your eyes glued to the TV set to remain informed. Try choosing two times per day to catch up on the latest developments or sign up for alerts from a singular news source that you trust.
When it comes to coping mechanisms, food is often at the top of the list. What’s your advice for people who find themselves making more frequent trips to the kitchen?
Stress can spike cravings for comfort foods that are high in sugar and saturated fats. While the instant gratification may be appealing, these types of foods often lead to an immediate high and subsequent crash that can increase stress, irritability, and anxiety. Keep this in mind when choosing snacks and meals. Foods that are high in protein and potassium have shown to help calm moods.
Exercising has also shown to greatly help in calming nerves, and if you’re now working remotely, you might have some extra time that would ordinarily be spent commuting. Find opportunities to get a breath of fresh air and move your body. If you’re uncomfortable leaving home, try opening a window and using an at-home workout app.
What are some easy techniques that we can do at home to help quiet our minds?
The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique has shown to re-instill a sense of calm and help you feel grounded when you feel like you’re losing control. Here’s how it works: empty your lungs of air and breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds. Then hold your breath for 7 seconds. Then exhale forcefully through the mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat this cycle up to 4 times or until you feel better. Mindfulness is also important—with so much uncertainty, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed about the different ways the coming weeks could look. Practicing mindfulness is a good way to bring yourself back to the present, which can help you focus on managing the moment at hand, not the past, present, and future all at once.
Social distancing and shelter-in-place orders are making it increasingly difficult for people to see a therapist, psychiatrist, or get prescription medication. How is this impacting depression and anxiety care, specifically?
Continuity of care is very important when it comes to treating depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. As traditional ways of getting and delivering care are being challenged, it’s more important than ever that people with pre-existing conditions are able to continue with their treatment remotely—whether that’s medication, therapy, or both.
If you aren’t currently working with a health professional and are experiencing more severe anxiety, depression, sadness (or other symptoms), know that help is available wherever you are. Doctors and therapists are available to provide immediate care, including through telemedicine platforms like Brightside, which makes it easy to get expert care from home.
Mimi Winsberg, MD, is the co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Brightside. A Stanford-trained psychiatrist with 25+ years of clinical experience, she is also the on-site psychiatrist at the Facebook Wellness Center. She’s held leadership positions at several digital health companies and has developed algorithms for diagnosis, triage, and treatment selection, designing tools to offer technology-enabled services provided by therapists and psychiatrists. She’s also a world-ranked triathlete, having competed in ten Hawaii Ironman World Championship races. Winsberg holds a BA in Neuroscience from Harvard College.