3 ways to stay sane during the COVID-19 crisis

How to organize your news consumption, social media interaction and pandemic engagement so you don’t melt down

I know I’m usually the person telling everyone to spend MORE time on social media, but right now, I want to offer some different advice. Like a lot of folks, I’ve really struggled to find some kind of mental health equilibrium, and find myself gripped by intermittent, intense anxiety — not so much for our own personal situation but for the larger world.

But I’ve found three strategies that have made a huge difference for me, so I want to share them. Here’s the short version:

  1. News consumption: Choose two or three sources you will look at once a day, and consider making one of those a list of verified experts.
  2. Social media consumption: Focus your attention on a small number of people you really want to stay engaged with, plus notifications of responses to your own posts. Other than that, focus on phone and video call interactions.
  3. Pandemic engagement: Choose a specific project or activity you can commit to so that you are immersed in a daily practice of community help and hopefulness. It’s a powerful antidote to despair, and it will keep you too busy to perseverate on the news.

Now, the detailed version….

News consumption

There are three types of news I want right now:

  1. Actionable information that ensures I take care of our family and am a responsible community member
  2. Enough information about the larger health/policy environment to be an informed citizen and an effective writer and consultant
  3. Hopeful stories that let me see the possibilities for positive change coming out of this crisis

What’s not helpful: A constant flood of news, large and small, about all the many many things happening in light of the pandemic. So here’s the entirety of my information regime:

  1. I look at once a day for news about how things are going in British Columbia and Canada, and also let myself read any nice hopeful stories that pop up there. Sadly the situation in the U.S. is so different that it’s really not too relevant to follow U.S. news, at least in terms of understanding what we should be doing here in Vancouver.
  2. Once or twice a day I look at the list I created of epidemiologists on Twitter. There are many self-proclaimed data experts out there, and many news stories out there about the pandemic, but I only want to pay attention to the analyses and news stories that ACTUAL EXPERTS regard as credible or relevant. So most the health, US and international stories I read are the ones I find from this list. You can subscribe to that list here:
  3. Once a day I look at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Atlantic coverage to see what they are publishing about the situation in the US. I do not spend a long time on either site; I try to keep my reading to 2 or 3 articles.

Social media interaction

In my normal life, Facebook is my main online home, and I look at it for a few minutes every hour or two, all day long. And usually, that Facebook scan is a mix of bragging and memes, celebrations and the occasional plea for comfort.

But right now, Facebook is pretty much a solid wall of pandemic posts. So many people are struggling, and even the relatively happy posts are about how people are grappling with the crisis and finding approaches that work. It’s like reading the first chapter of every dystopian novel ever, and it sends me into a rapid anxiety spiral. So here’s how I’ve adjusted my social media usage:

  1. I look regularly at my Facebook and Twitter notifications so that I can reply to any comments on my posts. I am taking a lot more time with my comment threads than usual. For example, when I posted the other day to ask people where their anxiety is manifesting in their bodies, I tried to personally respond to every single comment, where usually I might just use a quickie reaction like a thumbs up or a crying face. I think it’s really important for people to feel heard and seen right now so I’m trying to double down on that with my own circle.
  2. I’ve created a Facebook list called “reasonable people” because all the misinformation that gets shared and circulated was making me crazy. It’s not everyone I know who I consider reasonable, just the people I interact with enough that I feel it’s good for us to sustain our relationship and engagement. It also includes all the beloved friends who might not usually post much on Facebook, but who I really want to keep an eye on at this time. This is the list I look at when I have time and attention for anything other than responding to my own notifications, and it keeps me focused on the people who are most important to me and least triggering.
  3. I’m doing more of my Facebook and friend interaction as one-on-one or very small group messages. Everyone is experiencing this pandemic so differently that I want to be sure I’m keeping my conversations sensitive and relevant to whomever might see them. So I’m trying to do more messaging and less posting.
  4. I am spending more time on Slack, partly because it’s that time of year (I have an annual project with a client who uses Slack a lot) but also because I’m now using Slack to collaborate on a COVID-19-related project (more on that below). What’s nice about Slack is that it tends to be pretty conversational, and also, there is a relatively small number of people I converse with this way, so it feels less overwhelming. The contact throughout the day is a great antidote to isolation, and it just feels very normalizing to be engaged in little practical interactions that aren’t necessarily about talking about our big emotions about the crisis — though in all these conversations, I try to check in on my colleagues’ and collaborators’ wellbeing.
  5. I’ve replaced a lot of my social media time with unscheduled phone calls — remember those? — where I actually just pick up a phone and call someone, usually while going for a long solo walk so I get out of the house, or while cooking something for the freezer. People I usually track via Facebook I now try to call at least once a week, or at least text to check in.
  6. I’ve fallen in love with Houseparty, an app that lets you maintain a kind of ambient availability so that when you and a friend are online and free at the same time, you can quickly connect for video calls or group hangouts. It feels like it’s kind of replaced the slice of my social life that formerly consisted of running into people at the grocery store or coffee shop and stopping for a ten-minute catch-up. Somehow the interface feels more personal than Skype or Zoom, and it’s encouraging me to spend time with people I otherwise haven’t seen in years.

Pandemic engagement

The biggest factor in my own experience of this pandemic is the work I’ve been doing on the and What started as a minor upgrade to a local neighbourhood Google spreadsheet has taken on a life of its own, and I’ve been speaking with community organizations, grassroots organizers and technology developers all over Vancouver, Canada and around the world. That’s made the past 10 days the busiest I’ve had in years — but it’s also helped to keep me from perseverating on the news, and more importantly, it’s helped me focus on the positive potential of this crisis.

Based on this experience, I strongly recommend that you find or create a safe, consistent and meaningful way to help in this moment of crisis. This won’t be possible for everyone, or at every time: Some of us will be flat-out looking for work, figuring out how to meet payroll or looking after sick family members. (Those count as helping out, too!)

But if you find yourself with some free time or resources — and especially if that free time is going into obsessive news-tracking or worrying — it can be very helpful to focus on helping others. It’s the right thing to do, it’s what we need people to do in order to have this all work out OK, and it will almost certainly make you feel better yourself. Some ideas:

  1. Sign up as a virtual volunteer for a community organization that needs help with phone banks, fundraising and other online tasks, or find one of the many online mutual aid groups that have started up online and see what kind of help individual people are asking for. Be aware that many forms of person-to-person help could easily become vectors for transmission.
  2. Look for ways to provide extra help to people who are already in your life or who live in your neighbourhood. If you usually call your mom once a week, call her every day (or every other day). If you’re doing a grocery shop, call an older neighbour or an immune-compromised friend to see if there is anything you can pick up for them. If your friends’ kids are climbing the walls, over to play boardgames with them over Skype. Just note that when you’re providing offline support, you need to keep that 6-foot/2-meter distance at all times: That means no offering rides or indoor visits, and if you’re delivering groceries, leave them outside the front door and ask the recipient to pick them up after you’ve left their porch or hallway.
  3. Create an art or education project that can be uplifting or practically helpful to people who are running out of unwatched Netflix shows, or who have bored kids who are climbing the walls. Can you run an hour-long Skype class where you show kids how to make papier maché sculptures? Can you write funny songs that will give people a two-minute escape from their pandemic angst? Can you make twenty-second stop-motion movies for kids to watch while they’re washing your hands? Anything you can do that will make you feel concretely helpful — while harnessing your unique talents — will help connect you to the growing community of love and compassion that is the best part of this crisis.
  4. If possible, provide direct or indirect financial help to people and local businesses who have been affected by your own efforts at social isolation. Pay your babysitters or housecleaners to stay home; buy a gift card from your hair stylist or favorite coffee shop, which you can use once we’re all back up and running; if your favorite local store has already had to close its doors for the duration, see if you can help them use Kickstarter or GoFundMe to sell virtual gift cards to their loyal customers online.

I can’t tell you that these three strategies will alleviate all your anxiety and make you the picture of mental health. These are hard times, for both practical and existential reasons, and I can’t think of a day when I haven’t had some tears or a moment of panic. But I can tell you that since I implemented these three strategies, I’ve felt far less terrified and far more hopeful. I hope they can work for you, too.