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Coping with Confinement during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Psychological Tips for Expats

The current COVID-19 pandemic and the radical confinement measures taken practically overnight all over the world came as a great shock to most people. The massive lockdown was virtually unimaginable by most European and North American citizens only a few weeks ago, and yet many are coping quite well (at least for now, in the short term) with the measures taken to slow down and eventually stop the spread of the coronavirus. Some have taken this time to reflect, meditate, develop new skills, put one’s daily problems into perspective, and even, paradoxically, to reach out to loved ones.

Others, however, have been less successful in activating their coping mechanisms, and are struggling with anxiety, acute stress, anger, frustration, loneliness, and isolation. Being an expat is in and of itself a challenging situation but being an expat in a (relatively) foreign environment, and thousands of kilometers away from loved ones during the crisis we are now facing can be grueling.

Some common-sense advice and techniques may help you to deal with confinement and even take advantage of these exceptional circumstances.

Practice Stress Management Techniques

At this time of intensified health concerns and of economic and social uncertainty, it is completely normal to feel more anxious and stressed than usual. Hence, it is crucial to practice some techniques to bring stress and anxiety levels down. In CBT (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, a scientifically validated type of psychotherapy), we often recommend Jacobson’s Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique to achieve this goal. Mindfulness exercises and meditation, based on connecting to the “here and now” by focusing on body sensations and perceptions from one’s environment, such as sound, can often have a calming effect. It can be particularly interesting to try to be mindful in daily activities such as cooking and having a meal, where one can pay attention to the sights, smells, textures, and tastes while preparing the meal and later while enjoying it!

There are many apps that propose mini-meditations and exercises, such as Headspace. Mindful meditations can also be found on Youtube, or in free live online sessions, which are quite popular at the moment.

Limit Your News Consumption

While it is completely legitimate to want to stay up-to-date with the rapidly evolving events during this crisis, it is also important for your well-being, to limit watching, listening to, or checking the news to once or twice daily and at predetermined times. Make sure to get your news from reliable and scientific sources.

You should try to limit your exposure to conversations regarding this subject if they make you feel anxious: limit social media exposure or change the subject when family or friends obsess over it. You are the only one responsible for what you pay attention to!

Establish a Routine

Having a daily routine gives you a sense of control, which is crucial in these uncertain times. For those who are still working from home and keeping busy, confinement may not be too difficult to cope with, at least during working hours. Try to still make time for leisure, pleasure, relaxation, and exercise.

However, if you suddenly find yourself with much more time on your hands, it may be your opportunity to tackle those tasks on which you have been procrastinating for an eternity. Spring cleaning, catching up with paperwork, but also more pleasurable activities such as reading your favorite author’s latest novel, perfecting a foreign language, or learning a new skill. The sky’s the limit! There is a plethora of free online classes for every type of interest available at the moment. Personally, I have heard many of my patients who were cooking-averse, starting to experiment with exotic recipes and enjoying the process, as much as the result. (Top Chef watch out!)

Stay Connected

Being far from home, and perhaps living in isolation, this is more than ever a time to use technology to stay (or get back in) touch with family and friends. Try to find a regular time for social contact at least once a day, by phone, chat, Skype, or social media. This may also be an opportunity to reconnect and even “meet” new people virtually. InterNations is proposing several online cultural and social events, from operas, movies, and book clubs to chat room Happy Hours. And if you are single, this may be an opportune time to overcome lingering prejudices about online dating. Just think, with no more bars, parties, and flirting on the street or at the office, where are singles going to hang out?

Create a Healthy Lifestyle

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can also help you get through these tough times. Make sure to get good rest and sleep at regular times, eat healthily, limit alcohol consumption, and avoid smoking. Check out the many free online dance and fitness sessions to get your 30 minutes of exercise per day — that may also be more motivating than working out on your own.

Be Positive

Psychologists have long been interested in how to treat mental health issues and emotional disorders. However, over the last 20 years or so, some psychologists have started to focus on factors that enhance our well-being and foster resilience (the ability to bounce back after traumatic events). Among the identified factors favoring resilience and boosting immunity are positive affects (joy, enthusiasm, humor). Try to connect to people or activities that connect you with positive emotions during this particular time (and from now on).

If you feel particularly anxious and distressed during this time, seek the help of a mental health professional. There are many free psychological helplines that are dedicated to the COVID-19 pandemic all over the world. You can also seek online help from a licensed psychologist and/or psychotherapist in your region.

Wishing each and everyone one of us to be in excellent physical and mental health during this crisis and hoping that we will all take this challenge as an opportunity to learn, grow, and transform the world and ourselves.

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