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Everything You Need to Feel Okay Right Now, According to Therapists

Photo: Mad Men, AMC

Just as the coronavirus has disrupted the ways we work and cohabitate, it has completely upended many people’s emotional well-being, too. “I like to let people know that it is completely normal right now to feel a full range of emotions in a single day,” says family therapist Sarah McCaslin. “You might feel really grateful and fortunate, and then five minutes later feel overwhelmed and sad.”

We asked a handful of therapists how to navigate all of the feelings (and all of the headlines) we’re currently enduring, and they all said to go easy on yourself right now. As counselor Camille Lester puts it, “Taking care of yourself in the most basic ways is, sometimes, all we can and should be expected to do,” like making sure that your needs for food, safety, prescription refills, and supportive community — TrevorSpace for queer youth and allies, or free support groups at Sesh Therapy for people of various identities — are met.

In addition to seeking (low and no cost) virtual therapeutic support during the pandemic, our eight experts — including social workers, family therapists, and psychologists — recommended all sorts of resources, books, and even board games to help you through this crisis, whether you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, lonely, or having a hard time coping.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed

All of the experts we spoke to mentioned that establishing a daily routine can be an important part of staying grounded. “We’re getting messages that we have to do all of these home-improvement projects and reorganize our closets right now, and I think it’s okay that we take really tiny steps, and are able to reflect on those steps not as small steps, but as actual big wins,” says Paloma Woo, a social worker and senior crisis-services manager at the Trevor Project, who suggests that items on your daily schedule can be as simple as waking up, eating, and unwinding for five minutes while checking your phone. Similarly, Lester says that it can feel hard to differentiate between parts of the day without our normal routines, so she recommends having rituals for different times: “Try to be consistent with the little stuff, like every morning wake up at a certain time and make coffee, and that can become your routine for the morning,” she explains.

A couple of therapists mentioned that writing down your daily routine can add to your sense of purpose, and make the parts of your day feel more tangible. Lester suggests starting your morning by writing on the prompt “I think, I feel, I need,” and structuring your day around that. “Less about productivity and what you need to achieve, and more about what your body needs and what your mind needs,” she explains. Psychologist Eric Fields suggests penciling in tasks that are varied, and, when possible, setting aside time “to touch base virtually with a friend or family member, because that’s going to make us feel less lonely,” he says. Any notebook will do, but this Public Supply one was the most popular in our list of the 100 best notebooks (if you’d prefer something with a grid, or a linen cover, or perhaps a touch more color, we have 99 other favorites).

For parents with younger children, family therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas recommends adding simple, daily activities — including things like lunchtime and bedtime — to a big calendar, so that children can know what their day is going to look like. “It creates stability, constancy, security, and normalcy,” she says. Woodward Thomas also adds that it’s important to not overschedule because people are coping with a lot of loss. “Everyone’s grieving right now, whether they’ve lost a loved one or a job, so it’s a tender time, and the routines we make have to reflect the kind of gentleness we’re all needing at this moment,” she says.

Several experts noted that journaling about your feelings can also be a calming part of your daily routine. Lester suggests “ending or starting your day really trying to think about what you need, and committing to that every day.” For those who haven’t journaled before, psychoanalyst and creative-arts therapist Cora Goldfarb recommends starting with a couple lines a day about how you’re feeling. Lester likes the Five Minute Journal, which includes four three-sentence-or-less daily prompts to help you get started with journaling.

For families, couples, or roommates who are sharing space, McCaslin says it is important to create routines, especially ones that honor peoples’ need to be together and to have space apart. “Rituals that repeat can be very comforting for any of us when we start to feel anxiety,” she explains, adding that rituals can include anything from talking to grandparents at the same time every week, to going around the dinner table and saying what people are grateful for. One ritual McCaslin uses during family downtime is a boredom jar: “We each got six pieces of paper and could write down things that we could do as a family when someone says ‘I’m bored,’ from watching a movie to watering the plants,” McCaslin explains. “It’s a mixed bag, and redirects energy when children start to feel bored or antsy.”

Playing board games is another pastime that both of the family therapists we spoke to recommend. McCaslin suggests playing cooperative board games, which “require that everyone work together to achieve the same end,” and avoid “board games where there’s a winner and a loser, which often end in really bad feelings and tears and anger.” McCaslin likes the line of Forbidden games, including Forbidden Island, which James Kling, behavior consultant and founder of Alternative Teaching, also recommended in our roundup of family-therapist-approved board games.

If you’re feeling anxious

All of the therapists we spoke to recommend mindfulness and meditation as stress-relieving practices. “A lot of the fears and anxieties that we’re coping with are about the future, and I think that meditation gives us the opportunity to just become fully present in the here and now, and to coexist with our feelings without necessarily being so lost in them,” explained psychologist Alexis Conason. Lester says that mindfulness strategies can be as simple as sitting down in a chair with your feet on the floor, closing your eyes, and focusing on your breathing while you feel your body in the chair. “Everything is so dysregulated around us, so this is a technique for just trying to ground yourself in your space and in your body,” she explained. Similarly, if you feel comfortable going outside, McCaslin says that being barefoot in the grass, while maintaining appropriate social distance from others, can be a mindful activity. “We’re all feeling really unmoored right now, and this is one way to feel grounded and rooted,” she says.

Several therapists say that mindfulness apps can be a helpful meditation tool; Goldfarb recommends Headspace or Calm, especially if you’re new to meditation. “They’re very user-friendly, and have short guided meditations to get started,” she says, adding that some people find it especially helpful to listen to a meditation to calm their mind before sleep. Woo agrees that a calming app can be a good tool for starting the centering process. “I think there’s a lot of power in engaging in these apps because we’re doing it on our own, so we’re really taking an intentional step to make time for ourselves independently,” she says. Both Headspace and Calm are free and have added additional free resources during the pandemic, but they include the option for priced subscriptions.

Conason also recommends Insight Timer, which allows you to choose guided meditations based on an amount of time and topic, including meditations for sleep, stress, and getting through recovery and addiction. The app includes 40,000 meditation and music tracks, plus various in-app purchases starting at a $1.99 meditation-teacher donation.

In the vein of mindfulness, three separate therapists recommended the teachings of Tara Brach, a psychologist and meditation teacher who has authored several books, including Radical Acceptance and most recently Radical Compassion, which explores the four-step mindfulness practice of RAIN (recognize, allow, investigate, and nurture). McCaslin says that Brach’s newest title “allows people to accept their emotions in a compassionate and nonjudgmental way, in order to nurture our emotional life, which is going to create a lot more comfort in difficult times like this.” McCaslin, Conason, and Goldfarb also all vouch for Brach’s pandemic-related guided meditations, which are available for free on her website.

Another book that Lester highly recommends for this moment is Belonging: A Culture of Place, by black feminist writer bell hooks. “This is a thought-provoking read as we think about what it means to belong and exist as human beings in the world right now,” says Lester, who has begun to reread the book during quarantine.