Cooped up for weeks — no, it’s months by now — during the pandemic, many of us have reacted rather badly.
A study of behaviors by Blue Cross Blue Shield shows that, since the outbreak began, there’s been a 23% increase in alcohol consumption at home, a 19% increase in smoking, a 15% increase in vaping, and a 13% increase in nonmedical drug use.
This is all-too-familiar territory for psychologists such as Thea Gallagher, an assistant professor and director of the outpatient clinic at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
We spoke with her recently to sort out the issues of habits and mental health during the pandemic.
You’re an anxiety expert. What’s the connection to habits?
I kind of joke that I’ve never been busier. This is causing a lot of anxiety for everyone. There is a lot of uncertainty, a lot of change, and a lot of things that are out of our control. People may have had coping mechanisms, but now they don’t work as well. So they had to adjust.
In the beginning of the pandemic I heard things like, “OK, I’ll make adjustments. How do I pivot and adapt?” But everyone kind of had an end in sight. Now that it looks endless, it’s calling on a different reserve and a different skill set. Also, people are experiencing grief, in a way. They’re grieving expectations and plans and normalcy. We don’t know when things are going back to normal, if ever.
Every day, I talk with people who are struggling, myself included sometimes. They are experiencing a lot of emotions and feeling fatigued or frayed or overwhelmed.
To understand the connection to habits, think about exercising. A lot of people like that they’re working toward a goal, that they’re seeing results, that it’s measurable. That’s exciting. But when we realize it has to be an everyday habit to maintain health, and there’s no huge result or dramatic finale, that can be hard for people.
Now, we’re settling into the realization that this is how our lifestyles are going to look for a long time. It’s about settling into good habits. But for some, it feels like a little bit of a grind rather than something that has positive benefits. People feel like they’re just treading water. So they give in to bad habits.
Are people also forming good habits?
Yes. A lot of it comes down to being intentional. Before the pandemic, I got up at a certain time every day, took a certain train, walked to the office, got my coffee, and so on. I had my routine. I had intentional spaces and places. But for people working at home, for instance, we have less demarcation of space and less intentionality. There’s been this blending of lines between home and work. When you’re in the office, there’s no kitchen right next to you. Social media is always at your fingertips. People are having email fatigue and feeling overwhelmed.
So I’m encouraging people to be intentional with their time and with their space. I’m going to eat lunch in this space at this certain time. There’s a lot of literature about the value of creating a workspace, creating a structure for your day, going outside.
When it comes to good habits, some people are establishing more regular workout routines. I’ve heard a lot of people say — and I endorse this — that they are taking a break from the news. They are physically separating from their cell phones. They are trying to do things with their kids.
I’ve also been encouraging people to be intentional about how much time they’re talking about COVID-19. Let’s talk about the good things that are going on in our lives. How can we focus on what’s more in the present? One of the great things I’ve seen is people reaching out to others they haven’t talked to in a while and rekindling those relationships.
That may sound more like a coping strategy than a habit. But a coping strategy is something you need to manage your emotions in the moment, and a habit is doing it consistently. That’s so important. If you practice gratitude one night out of the blue, that might not be as helpful as doing it every night.
Why is it that the bad habits are so much easier to make, and so much more difficult to break?
It’s easy to fall into bad habits because they can be initially rewarding and don’t take as much effort. If you have a drink of alcohol, in that moment, you’re going to get a chemical boost. But in the long term, your health and sleep are affected, you can get more depressed. Then there’s the cycle where you feel guilt and shame, which leads to more of that habit. Staying focused on the long term takes motivation and willingness and effort. That’s what is difficult.
Or you might say, “I really want to read more books,” but you find yourself scrolling social media or answering banal texts. That’s more satisfying in the moment. The problem is that long-term goals seem to feel overwhelming.
Any broad recommendations for letting go of the bad and keeping the good?
It helps to make it more manageable — just 20 minutes of that book or workout. It can be helpful to make a list of the things you really want — your values and goals, some things you always wanted to do, or that you know would benefit your life and make you feel better. Then think how you can turn them into bite-size pieces. Or employ the technique of starting the hard things first, in the beginning of the day. Or give yourself a reward afterward. These are little things that can trick your mind into being more willing.
I’ve been encouraging people to spend 10 minutes at the end of the day doing reflective journaling. I think it’s also going to be helpful for us to have a log of how we managed emotions, or what our emotions were, during this historical and unprecedented time. It’s also helpful for us to see what worked and what didn’t work. Some days are not going to be great. That’s OK, too. There is also research showing that it can be cathartic to get our feelings out there — to honor them, accept them, explore them.
Any final words of encouragement?
Have patience with yourself. Some people really are taking quarantine by the horns. They’re gardening and redoing their homes. But many of us are struggling. We’re in survival mode a little bit. So take it one day at a time, one moment at a time. Stay as present as you can. Try not to get ahead of yourself. There is a lot of uncertainty ahead. With the pandemic and social unrest, there’s a lot weighing on us emotionally. If we try to solve it, we can’t. All we can do is keep managing what’s right in front of us, and giving ourselves praise for the things we’re doing right.
This is also a great time to get a therapist. Restrictions on telehealth visits have been lifted. It’s a chance to explore deeper feelings and cognition and behaviors.