Image is a cool-toned black and white closeup photo a person’s face in profile with their head slightly bowed, hands over their face. Text says, “ The coronavirus is a legitimate and terrifying threat. But we still have meals to cook, meetings to schedule, dishes to wash, friends to call, projects to finish, groceries to buy. – Reese Piper, ‘How To Get Work Done When You're Panicking About The Coronavirus,’ awnnetwork.org”

How To Get Work Done When You’re Panicking About The Coronavirus

If you’d had asked me a few months ago how I’d handle a global pandemic, I would have laughed and said flat out terrible. I’m a nail biter, insomniac, and chronic worrier. I worry about not having enough money for rent when I have five times the amount needed in my bank. I worry about getting fired when I’ve done nothing wrong. I worry about my friends dying in a car accident when I watch them drive away. I worry so much that I find it difficult to sit down and write, grocery shop, show up on time, or focus on any given task on a normal day.

My worries are a byproduct of my imaginary mind. I immediately picture every possibility, run through each possible scenario, all the while wrapping myself in a circle of fear. I’m naturally distracted but obsessive ruminations leave me particularly scattered. Partially because fear traps us to the moment, impacting our capacity to focus, multi-task, and complete projects that require more than a few steps. But also because fear clouds our sense of time and impairs our ability to plan for and keep in mind events that aren’t in the immediate future. It keeps us glued to our phones, incapable of thinking or doing anything more than the news in front of us. Fear takes an already frazzled mind and explodes it into shards.

Coronavirus should have left me sluggish with fear. Unable to act or escape the cyclical nature of my thoughts. But after losing my night job, liquidating all my savings needed for rent, and living with the very real possibility that my loved ones could die, I have been surprisingly okay. Scared. But okay. I’ve been able to focus and write. Plan out a two-week grocery list. Buy enough flu supplies with the little money I have left. I’ve been vigilant with hand washing but remarkably calm.

Perhaps it’s because the worst is happening. That everything I fear is unrolling before me and somehow I’m still here, somehow I’m still okay. But I think I need to give myself a little more credit. For the past five years, I’ve dragged myself in and out of therapy to improve my organizational skills, calm my ragged thoughts, and learn how to prioritize tasks. I’ve spent countless hours trying to find a ray of peace through the chaos of my mind. And those hours have prepared me for this moment.

Unlike before, the fear is real this time. The coronavirus is a legitimate and terrifying threat. But we still have meals to cook, meetings to schedule, dishes to wash, friends to call, projects to finish, groceries to buy. We still have to function. Not just for our mental health and productivity, but for our survival.

Below I list four strategies that have helped me stay focused and complete tasks done when I’m stressed, overwhelmed, and afraid.

Chunk Tasks

Stress about the future can make cleaning up or mapping out your day overwhelming and frustrating. Whether it’s your workday, cleaning up around the house, or grocery shopping, when we’re stressed it can be hard to finish tasks that require a lot of steps. We can’t magically erase our anxiety, but we can change how we approach things to accommodate our fragile mental states.

Chunking is the concept of breaking up tasks into more manageable parts. Instead of cleaning your entire kitchen, set a timer and try cleaning for only five minutes. This way, the project has an end in sight and it doesn’t feel so overwhelming. Or you could try cleaning the counters one day and tackling the dishes another.

Similarly, if you’re overwhelmed by grocery shopping, break it down into smaller tasks. Make a list of food at home but group it into perishables, frozen food, food that can last on your shelf, and toiletries. When you’re shopping, think that you’re shopping for perishables until you’re finished and then move on to frozen food, etc. Scaffold the task. Bring headphones to tune out all the nervous chatter around you.

Chunking can be used for your workday or housework or errands. It’s a way to be productive when our brains can’t multi-task.

Set Timers On Social Media

I know it’s hard. Every hour the world changes. One hour Trump closes the borders. Another hour Californians can’t leave their homes. Any hour now Cuomo will officially lockdown New York. In this high stakes, news heavy world, it can feel impossible to pull away from our phones and focus on anything else for a second. Even as I’m writing this, I’ve checked twitter once (okay maybe twice). Don’t get me wrong – we should watch the news. We should be aware of what’s happening in the world so we can be prepared for the virus. But it’s important to step away from the doom and gloom, so we don’t overwhelm our nervous system and can experience some joy in our lives.

Try to set downtime with your electronic devices. Downtime limits access to all your electronic devices for a predetermined time period. In the mornings, I try to set this from 9 am from 11 am, so I have time to meditate and exercise without worries sloshing around in my head. And then when my mind is stronger, I face my twitter feed.

Alternatively, you could try to set app limits on your iPhone (or use the Stay Focused app on your Android) that allows you to set a specific time duration to spend on Instagram and Facebook throughout the day, after which they get locked. This will allow you to have control over social media usage and have a boundary between the panic.

But, of course, some of us can’t turn off our phones because we use our devices to communicate. Not everyone has the privilege to walk away from the phone for an allocated amount of time. In this case, it may be helpful to add tabs for specific facebook groups or particular sites you use on your home screen. This way you can go to specific sites directly without accidentally getting bombarded with the doom and gloom of our newsfeeds.

Use Multiple Visual and Writing Aids To Improve Working Memory

The stress hormones from ‘fight-or-flight’ can thwart our working memory. In the past week, I’ve walked to the grocery store and completely forgot what I was doing there (I even forgot that I had a list in my pocket). At my doctor’s office, I forgot the name of my antidepressants. I stopped speaking mid-sentence on the phone with my friend, our conversation erased from my mind. The threat of the virus has dulled my memory and hindered how I process information.
Write down valuable information and use charts, tables or tackle boards to reinforce the details you need to know. I use lists and more lists. Then type information on the notes app on my phone. But you may find pictures helpful or voice notes. If you have a work phone call or a zoom meeting, write down everything you may need to say ahead of time. Similarly, have a few lists of your medications, doctors’ phone numbers, and potential hospitals in easy to find places in your house. In a time of emergency, your brain may blot out important details.

Exercise and Meditation and Hobbies

Exercise is a simple but effective way to calm down, center your thoughts, and release a lot of the stress stored in your muscles, so you can be more relaxed and focused throughout your day.

My morning routine consists of fifteen minutes of meditation and twenty minutes of yoga. I don’t always complete it. Sometimes I jump right onto my phone. Sometimes my mind is racing a thousand miles a minute and I can’t settle down. But I do notice a difference in my mental health and productivity when I’ve incorporated exercise into my day. Luckily, there are plenty of exercise and meditation videos on Youtube that range in expertise levels. Even a tiny bit of movement can help reduce the sense of helplessness and keep us mentally strong to prepare ourselves for this pandemic.

But not everyone can exercise due to mobility issues or space constraints. Also, some people find the traditional-close-your-eyes-and-stay-still-and-silent type of meditation quite unbearable or impossible because their minds struggle to focus. If this is the case, don’t fret! I spoke to a few autistic people who suggested diving head first into hobbies, like knitting, painting, baking, reading, or video games to take a much-needed break from the world. As well as listening to music or watching a television show. I find listening to a podcast while my hands are busy doodling or cooking to be enjoyable. But everyone has their unique style of what works best for them.

Lastly, immerse yourself in your special interest. Our favorite hobbies or topics help ease anxiety and offer us an escape from our overwhelming days. They give us control over our surroundings and help us find ourselves in the midst of uncertain times. This way, when we’re ready to face the world, we’ll be more prepared.

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