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People are experiencing the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and various states of lockdown very differently. An large area of concern is the impact of the pandemic on mental health and how this is affecting certain people more than others. This is our fourth article on this topic.

Six tips for keeping your sanity during COVID-19 pandemic by John A. Hovanesian, MD, FACS

For many of us, the biggest challenge in enduring the coronavirus pandemic is the uncertainty about the future. As we manage our lives and our practices, we face new uncertainties every day. Our medical training and business experience never prepared us for this. In private practices, we don’t know if our businesses will survive. In larger institutions, we don’t know how our working conditions will change. The uncertainty does not sit well.

Angela Huntsman, PhD, a clinical psychologist on staff at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, California, advises there are steps we can take. Here are her six — abbreviated POGHIM — that we all should consider:

1. Plan what you can. Maybe it’s a trip over the holidays. Maybe it’s a hike this Friday. Or maybe it’s the meals you are going to eat at home for the next week. Planning events that are unlikely to be affected by current circumstances gives us anchors in our lives that mitigate worry. 

2. Organize. Whether it’s uncluttering a closet, emptying unneeded files in a drawer, clearing the paperwork off your desk or making your bed every day, organizing elements of your life gives you a little structure and sense of control. Says Dr. Huntsman, “It does something to the brain when you accomplish something, even small.” 

3. Gratitude should be a habit. Expressing thanks quells negativity, which can consume us in times of turmoil. Despite current hardships, we all have much to be grateful for. Actively focusing on these positives crowds out the negatives that have demonstrable harmful effects on our health. 

4. Health deserves investment. Eating less sugar, taking vitamins, getting adequate sleep, staying drug-free and limiting screen time are even more important when we are mentally assaulted with uncertainty about the future. Simply getting outdoors for at least 2 hours per day is proven to lift spirits. As Nike says, “Just do it.”

5. Inventiveness heals. Invest in creative efforts. They can be practical, like spending time writing a skit for your holiday staff party, or fanciful, like writing a piece of music or a play or sketching artwork in whatever medium moves you. 

6. Manage relationships. Says Dr. Huntsman, “Your social net worth equals your social network.” This does not mean spending more time on Facebook. It means having meaningful interactions with the people who are close to you, whether they are distant or near. Contact friends and relatives with whom you don’t regularly interact. Express concern and relate. As I suggested in my earlier blog about physician superpowers, there is particular positive mental value in repairing strained relationships during a time of worldwide shared vulnerability. Say hello to people and smile at the grocery store. (Even with a mask, they can see you smile with your eyes.) Hug everyone in your house every night and every day. We gain a sense of place when we strengthen and build our social network. 

In the busy routine of our daily lives, many of us don’t actively think about our mental health, but our thinking on everything has changed since the coronavirus pandemic. Proactively addressing our mental health affects not just our well-being but that of the people we love. It’s worth the effort.