Mental, Emotional and Social Health During COVID-19

 By Melanie McCulley, MS, BCC, HHP Support Services Program Manager

Maintaining mental, emotional and social health may sound like a tall order in the midst of a pandemic requiring social distancing, self-isolation, cancellations, school and business closings and related job, family and financial challenges. Add to that a breast cancer diagnosis, and it sounds nearly impossible. But times like these are exactly when a commitment to self-care and mental, emotional and social health has to be nonnegotiable.

Social distancing, quarantines, cancelling group gatherings, and working and schooling remotely, are necessary to help flatten the curve of COVID-19 progression, but that doesn’t lessen the apprehension, the sense that we’ve entered an alternate universe, and feelings of loneliness and isolation that may come with this new reality. Physical distancing does not, however, mean social and emotional distancing. On the contrary, it’s imperative to maintain social networks and remain connected as part of one’s overall physical, emotional and


health. Actions that support this well-being include:

  • Eating healthy

  • Staying hydrated

  • Getting moderate exercise

  • Adhering to a healthy sleep schedule and good sleep hygiene

  • Spending time outdoors/in nature

  • Practicing spiritual or religious beliefs, if applicable

  • Maintaining balance and perspective

  • Remaining calm and challenging thoughts based on fear rather than fact

  • Practicing mindfulness, meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, stretching, etc. (there are online guided

    meditations and yoga, tai chi and exercise classes to follow along with).

  • Managing stress and anxiety through activities such as the above and cognitive coping, EFT, breathing

    exercises, connecting with social support, journaling, playing or listening to music, time with a

    companion animal, working with a therapist, and so on

  • Laughing often and enthusiastically

  • Practicing gratitude

  • Exercising your resiliency muscle

  • Staying connected to social support and spending in-person time with friends and loved ones (when not

    socially distancing)

  • Avoiding alcohol, tobacco/vaping, and other drugs unless recommended/prescribed by your physician

  • Devoting time daily to self-care and activities that bring you joy

  • Supporting and helping others/working for a good cause

  • Being aware of sensationalism, getting information from reputable sources, and limiting exposure to

    social media and an excessive level of news

  • Calling your healthcare provider if stress is disrupting your (or a family member’s) daily activities or quality of life, or if you/they are feeling overwhelmed by anxiety or depression

  • Being flexible as the COVID-19 situation evolves and trusting that this will pass

Times like these can feel chaotic, surreal and “out of control,” but we can choose how we navigate circumstances,

and having a plan in place can help reduce related stress and anxiety. For example:

If you are presently in cancer treatment and/or surgery has been advised, speak to your medical team about your situation, in light of COVID-19, and find out what preparation and arrangements need to be made, how you will continue treatment, what precautions are advised, etc. Don’t hesitate to express concerns and ask all the questions you need answered.

In terms of general planning, in this COVID-19 era, you may find it helpful to consider such things as below, with the caveat that planning will differ depending on individual circumstances, whether you are in treatment or not, have children still at home or others living with you, etc.

  • Do you have enough food if you need to isolate for a couple weeks, or a plan to have it delivered?

  • How is it best to budget for potentially higher or unexpected expenses? If you are home more can

    transportation savings, for example, be used for other needs?

  • If you have children and they are schooling remotely, are they able to be mostly independent if you are not feeling well or can you and your family develop a plan?

  • Can you work from home? If not, what are your rights to payment or benefits if it’s too great a risk for you to be in the workplace, especially while in treatment with a compromised immune system? Speak to your supervisor and/or Human Resources about your situation and concerns and let them know you can provide medical verification. There may be accommodations in place, or room for flexibility, if they fully understand your circumstances.

  • If your responsibilities do not lend themselves to working from home (i.e. you are a server in a restaurant, etc.) are there jobs within your organization that can be done remotely (bookkeeping, web design, grant writing, marketing and social media, etc.) that you have some experience with and could do in the interim? It never hurts to speak to your supervisor. They may have their own suggestions for making this work.

  • If you are a caretaker for parents or others, what arrangements need to be made for their care if you are unable to visit or otherwise manage your usual responsibilities for a period?

  • Do you have a supply of any prescription medicine or a way to have it delivered if it’s not advised to leave your home for a time?

  • Can you reschedule any upcoming appointments (dentist, etc.) to a month or two from now when things are more stable? If you are seeing a therapist, are they willing to do sessions by phone or video chat if you are unable to come to the office?

  • If you have a companion animal do you have food and supplies for them for a period, and what

arrangements can be made for someone to walk your dog or take care of other such responsibilities?

• Do you have a supply of things like cleaning and laundry products, diapers, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, toilet tissue, first aid, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, feminine hygiene products, etc.?

  • What do you want on hand for entertainment and leisure if you and/or your family are confined to your home? Do you have a supply of good books or can you download books from the library or another online site? Can you access audio books, podcasts and movies? Do you have supplies on hand for creative pursuits and hobbies?

  • Do you have updated contact information for everyone you want to stay connected with?

  • If you have others living with you, have you thought about how to establish a routine or household

    schedule and how things will function if everyone is home all day?

Lastly, if you are self-isolating, your employer is requiring remote work, or you are formally quarantined at home, the following may be beneficial to your mental, emotional, and social health. Again, considerations will differ depending on individual circumstances, whether you are in treatment, are recovering from surgery or COVID-19, have family at home, are feeling well or not, etc. If you are recovering or in cancer treatment, rest and healing are the primary focus, and you can add activities as your health and medical providers allow. Be gentle, kind, compassionate and patient with yourself.

  • Continue accessing treatment and support and taking any prescribed medications

  • Create or maintain a routine, including showering and getting dressed for the day, even if you are

    working remotely and your children are distance learning.

  • Consider this a “staycation” and create an oasis of calm and comfort in your home, allowing yourself to

    rest and rejuvenate.

  • Use this time to reconnect with family if quarantined together. Talk, have game and movie nights, take turns listening to each other’s favorite music, cook or bake together, research your family genealogy, etc.

  • Whether quarantined with others or solo, this is a good time to also connect with neighbors, friends, and other family members via phone, text, email, and video chat. Don’t isolate beyond the necessary physical distance. Perhaps you can start an online chess game with a friend, ask friends or extended family to read the same book or watch the same movie or documentary and have a conference call or online chat discussion. There is even an app, called QuarantineChat. It allows quarantined people to connect and share their experiences with each other.

  • Let people know what you need in terms of support, including check-in calls, and meal, grocery, prescription drop-offs outside your door (but no visitors or contact).

  • Keep your mind stimulated in positive ways

  • Read the books and magazines you’ve not had time for

  • Look for the opportunities in this unprecedented experience

  • Start or continue an exercise and/or meditation routine

  • Go outside (no further than your own front porch or back yard--if approved by health professionals) and

    get some fresh air daily. Make sure not to be within 10 feet of others who are not isolating/quarantined

    with you.

  • Teach yourself to cook dishes you’ve been wanting to try and dishes from other countries and cultures

  • Sketch out your garden for this year and start some seeds

  • Map out a dream vacation for when all of this is over

  • Take up a former or new hobby

  • Be creative: art, writing, music, drawing, painting, decorating, sewing, knitting, etc.

  • Make a vision board, or a list, with your intentions/goals

  • Journal about your experience and what you’re learning from it

  • Use this time to complete home and organizational projects that have been on your list so you have even

    more time for family, friends, and fun when this is over

  • Seek out hopeful stories of the human spirit, resilience, and compassion for others. We need look no

    further for inspiration than the videos of quarantined Italians stepping out on their balconies to serenade equally quarantined neighbors with their flutes and violins, and people breaking into spontaneous song together, from their windows and balconies. We are writing history right now and determining who we are in times of crisis. Let us be about connection, kindness, compassion, and our global community. That is how we all survive and thrive through COVID-19 and beyond.

  • Think about others. Send a card or letter to first responders thanking them for all they do. Send letters and cards to people in nursing homes who may not be able to have visitors during COVID-19. If your children are home, they might want to write letters or draw a picture to include.

  • Research has shown that volunteering is as effective as anti-depressants for some people, so now may be the time. Sites like Volunteer Match often include online and phone opportunities such as mentoring at- risk youth or checking in on lonely individuals via phone. There are few things that get us out of our own heads and worries as much as helping someone else.

  • Seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed or concerned that COVID-19 is affecting your ability to care for yourself and/or your child(ren).

    These are challenging and unnerving times. Non-stop news, counts of confirmed COVID-19 cases, a total change in our usual routines, and empty store shelves bring apprehension. By remaining calm, grounded, community-minded and doing our part, we can get through this. Even if we are physically a part for a period, to

flatten the curve of community spread, we are still a community and we can stay connected and supportive/supported through this challenge. Now, take a collective deep breath... and exhale. We’ve got this.

Melanie McCulley is the Support Services Program Manager at To Life! For information about To Life!’s individual and group support services, to schedule an appointment with Melanie (including phone and video chat during COVID-19), or to learn more about our breast health education programs and health conferences, please contact Melanie at

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