When it comes to work, Dr. Bond suggests communicating openly with your colleagues and manager if you feel comfortable. You don’t need to disclose anything specific about your mental health if you don’t want to, but you can ask for their expectations in terms of projects, due dates, and attendance when you just need a mental health day (or a personal day or sick time, if you don’t think it’s safe to bring up mental health at all). If you feel that the expectations are unrealistic, you can try to ask for flexibility. Before having this kind of conversation, it may be helpful to take a thorough look at your responsibilities and schedule, thinking about how much time you need to complete each task and what kinds of changes might help you be as productive as possible while also preserving your mental health. You can then talk to your boss and see if you can get on the same page about how to prioritize your workload while balancing productivity and flexibility.
3. Make a very incremental to-do list—and celebrate every completed task.
“It can be hard to be productive during the pandemic, and it’s easy to just think negatively about yourself when you don’t accomplish your goals,” Dr. Bond says. To help counteract this, he recommends organizing your to-do list starting with the smallest, most achievable tasks, which can be a good way to build momentum. This can help you ease into tackling bigger projects, Dr. Bond says. (There are numerous apps and websites that can help you focus in various ways, like blocking outside distractions while you work.)
You may decide to do something that you always put off, like following up on ignored emails for 15 minutes or folding the clothes in your laundry basket. Then take a moment to acknowledge your success after you finish each item. “Allow yourself to feel good about what you did,” Dr. Bond says. Once you develop a sense of accomplishment, it can help you feel more positive, he says. This can start a very good upward cycle.
4. Don’t forget to make time for things you enjoy.
Chances are you will feel burned out at some point if you haven’t already (with good reason). If you’re an essential worker, you may be emotionally exhausted from the stress of working in public settings during a pandemic. Remote workers may give up more of their personal time to focus on their jobs (which is another good reason to try to establish your schedule). Adding to that, some activities that helped you decompress may no longer be accessible. All of these can contribute to burnout and impact your mental and physical health.
“It’s hard for us to do the things we enjoy during the pandemic, but try to find something you enjoy like cooking, or hanging out with friends on Zoom, finding a new hobby, or even praying or meditating. Forcing yourself to have that time away from work and do things that recharge you and refresh you is critically important,” Dr. Bond says.
At times you might find it impossible to think of an enjoyable activity. Brainstorming ideas when you’re in a more contented state can help you prepare for those times. The activities can be super simple, like drawing or finding a tutorial to make friendship bracelets that you can send to loved ones you haven’t seen for some time. The main thing is choosing something you’re interested in.
5. Do your best to manage anxiety.
Almost no one is productive when they feel overly anxious. Just think back to the last time you tried working on a project while dealing with an onslaught of worrying thoughts. You can’t avoid these feelings completely, but you can make your emotions feel a little less all-consuming. The next time your thoughts spiral with dread about deadlines, the pandemic, or you know, life, try a few grounding techniques to bring you back to the present. There are numerous methods out there, but paced breathing is an option you can do anywhere. To practice this, breathe in for three seconds, then hold your breath for one, and exhale out for six seconds. Sometimes, you may need to try several strategies before you feel calmer. If you’re still anxious or worried about triggering a mood episode, then you might want to contact your psychiatrist or psychologist if you have one. Depending on your situation, your clinician may change your medication or recommend therapy sessions.
6. Lean on other people for support.
Getting honest feedback from people who care about you and can recognize that something seems wrong is invaluable, says Andrew Nierenberg, M.D., director for the Dauten Center for Bipolar Treatment Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital. You might not always recognize when you’re at risk of slipping into a mood episode. Or you may need someone to point out that you’re in a situation where it’s best to focus directly on your mental health instead of how much you’re getting done.