The COVID-19 pandemic has altered life—and work—as we know it. If you still have a job and income to count on, you already know how lucky you are compared to the millions of people who are suddenly unemployed. But that doesn’t mean focusing on that job is easy.
Right now, your mind is probably running a million miles a minute, your Google search history and your social media feeds are all coronavirus all the time, and—frankly—you may feel like work is the last thing you care about. There’s a scientific reason why you’re having trouble buckling down: Research has found that acute stress impairs working memory and reduces a person’s ability to pay attention.
However, “This is a time when work can be a positive distraction,” says Laura Rhodes-Levin, LMFT, who founded The Missing Peace Center for Anxiety and is a co-chair for the Integrative & Behavioral Health special interest group for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
Plus, your boss is still expecting you to get things done. So how do you keep mentally “showing up” to work?
1. Limit Your News Intake
While most of us are in direct contact with an ongoing stress cycle by way of constant news updates, “We are free to look at and listen to other things,” Rhodes-Levin says. It may seem difficult to look away right now, but that’s exactly what she recommends. “Hyper focusing on something that is out of our control can only lead to more unneeded stress.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t stay updated at all, but you may want to limit your news intake to no more than a few minutes once or twice a day. Arrange your schedule around when you can take in the latest news without it becoming too overwhelming. Perhaps that means waiting until the end of your workday to check up on where things stand. Ideally, you should avoid doing so right before bed, as stress at that time could lead to sleep disturbances that make it more difficult for you to focus the next day.
Throughout the rest of your day, Rhodes-Levin suggests focusing your attention on things that reduce stress, as opposed to creating it. Listen to music. Read a book you enjoy. Even work can be a welcome distraction, she says.
2. Get Your Information From Reliable Sources
When you do go in search of the latest updates, it’s imperative to ensure the news you’re getting is valid. There is a lot of misinformation going around right now and social media users don’t always take the time to fact check what they’re sharing. They mean well, but in a situation like this, the spread of misinformation only works to increase confusion and panic.
“Credibility and reliability of the news source is key,” says Cathleen Swody, PhD, an industrial and organizational psychologist who teaches at the University of Connecticut.
So who can you get reliable information from? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) are good places to start for updates and advice. You should also look to your local government, your family physician, and trustworthy news organizations that strive for accuracy and adhere to sound journalistic ethics.
But regardless of the source, Swody says, “If it’s creating anxiety for you, limit your intake.”
3. Focus on the Good
“I realize that people are on edge, but another way to look at the situation is through the eyes of the community,” Rhodes-Levin says. “This is the time for all of us to bond and support each other with kindness, compassion, and hopefully some laughter.”
While the current news cycle is scary and traumatic for many, there are also countless examples of people coming together and helping one another. There are folks scrambling to collect and donate masks and other protective equipment to area hospitals, volunteers stepping up to provide babysitting and other services to healthcare workers fighting the pandemic on the front lines, and Facebook groups connecting those who need help with those who can provide it.
Our community is coming together like never before, and there is beauty to be found in that. Focusing on that good, Rhodes-Levin says, is far more beneficial than focusing on the bad.
4. Practice Deep Breathing
If you’re feeling the anxiety and having trouble focusing, Swody recommends taking 10 deep inhales and exhales. “Deep breathing reduces tension and lessens the human body’s stress response (what we often call ‘fight or flight’). It’s a tool that requires no resources and very little time,” she says.
You could take this exercise a step further by focusing on slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth, a practice called diaphragmatic breathing. Research has found that diaphragmatic breathing helps improve a person’s ability to pay attention and increases positive affect, and it’s an exercise you can do anywhere, anytime you’re feeling excess stress, including during your workday.
“Find strategic times to practice deep breathing,” Swody says. “For example, after reading the news, before a challenging task, or before the start of the day.”
5. Get Outside
Breaking up your workday, and the monotony of social distancing, with some trips outside can help each of us refresh and catch our breath. And, at least for now, doing so is still deemed safe for most people as long as you maintain a safe distance from others. Those moments of sunshine and fresh air can help you to reset and refocus so that you can return refreshed and able to work.
“In many ways, exercise is a wonder drug,” Swody says. “Exercise helps reduce sadness, improves thinking, and induces calm.” So if you can, take a walk, go for a jog, take your dog out—anything to get your body moving and your mind working again.
Of course, stay up to date with what the CDC and local health officials are saying on the matter, and ask your personal doctor if you have concerns about going outside with regard to your age, health, or location. But Swody adds, “Even if you can get out to the balcony or open a window, natural light will help.”
6. Establish a Routine
Meira Ellias, a psychotherapist and owner of DC Therapeutic Services, says, “People thrive on schedule and routine. Get up at the same time you usually do for work and do your normal morning routine.” If it doesn’t make sense to continue with the exact same routine, tweak it to create a new version that works for your current situation.
For the record, she says that doesn’t have to mean putting on your regular work attire if you’re working from home—it’s okay to enjoy your comfort wear for now.
But to improve your ability to focus, especially if you’re now working from home, she says, “Try to have a designated place to do work, instead of doing it from your couch in front of the TV.”
As you settle into a new normal, you may start to notice patterns around when you tend to get distracted or stressed. “You might rethink your workday,” Swody says. “Try to align your work responsibilities with when you can focus most. For example, times when you naturally have more energy or when the people you live with tend to be quieter.”
But remember you are human. “It’s natural for our minds to wander given the circumstances,” Swody says. “When you notice the wandering, bring yourself back to the present. We can’t change the past or predict the future, but we can make a difference in the present.”
7. Get Professional Help If You Need It
There is never any shame in asking for professional help, and you are certainly not alone if you find yourself needing that additional support right now. If you’re currently experiencing stress or anxiety that is interfering with your daily life and interrupting your sleep and eating patterns, you may need to talk to a professional—especially if you find COVID-19 is currently the only thing you can think about.
Of course, an in-person appointment with a therapist is probably not an option right now. But there are online and over-the-phone mental health services you can access—and many therapists who weren’t previously offering them are now.
Start by calling your insurance company and finding out what they cover—but if you don’t have insurance, or yours doesn’t cover what you need, there is still help available. Mental health hotlines can help to connect you to the resources you need to get and stay well in this time of high stress and anxiety. (New York State, for example, has launched the COVID-19 Emotional Support Hotline to provide free mental health counseling in the state.)
8. Be Kind to Yourself
“Remember that this is an unprecedented situation, and that we are all in this together,” Ellias says. “It’s OK to not be perfect, to not be able to be in the moment with your children or partner all the time, to not be able to focus all the time. Find the things that help you feel centered and use them.”
Additionally, she adds that social distancing does not have to mean completely isolating yourself. “Reach out to friends and loved ones, do a family Zoom call, reach out for support.” Anything to help you know you’re not alone.
“Remember that everyone is currently in the same boat,” Ellias says. Which means we’re all doing the best we can, and we all deserve a little grace when that best isn’t what it might have been under normal circumstances.