UMD expert provides tips for working from home, dealing with anxiety, staying active, and maintaining connections.
Julie Slowiak is an associate professor in the UMD Department of Psychology. An expert in self-care and wellbeing, she agreed to answer some questions and offer strategies for coping during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many people are now working from home or distance learning. Do you have tips for maintaining structure and balance with this new mode of working?
Working and learning remotely may be a new experience for many. As with any new experience, it’s common to experience increased feelings of anxiety during the initial adjustment phase. Here are some tips based on my own experience while working remotely last fall (and supported by behavioral science and the literature on professional self-care and remote work).
- Create structure where none or little exists. Develop a daily/weekly schedule that fits your “new normal.” Since this schedule will require some flexibility, it’s helpful to intentionally identify “anchors” during the day or week that you can reliably count on. Anchors can be specific elements of a daily routine (e.g., morning coffee, walking the dog, quality time with family) or weekly events (e.g., movie night, family night, themed meals).
- Set up an effective workspace. Our physical and social environment can help support desired actions. When setting up your workspace, think about elements you could add (or remove) that will support productive versus unproductive work activities. This might include finding ways to minimize distractions like social media or electronic notifications —or interruptions from others living with you. It may be helpful to put a note on the door or let others know when you are in “work/study mode” and should not be interrupted.
- Maintain (or create) supportive connections. Whether you have been asked to work or learn remotely, stay connected to your colleagues, supervisors, advisors/mentors, and/or classmates. Doing so will help you avoid isolation. It allows you to share resources, brainstorm solutions, and problem-solve. It gives a chance to commiserate about stressful experiences and highlight positive ones. We are fortunate to live in an era where the availability of technologies for staying connected and communicating is vast.
- Engage in professional development. Many professional organizations have had to cancel large in-person conferences and events. As a result, online professional training and development opportunities have erupted. Working and learning remotely means that you aren’t spending time traveling to/from work, and this might mean that you have extra time on your hands. Take some time to learn new skills and stay current in professional knowledge.
- Take mini-breaks throughout the day. Checking in with yourself regularly throughout the day will help maintain daily balance and will allow you to more effectively identify and respond to triggers, feelings, and needs. When working remotely in the past, I found that mini-breaks were a great opportunity to throw in a load of laundry, put away clean dishes, get the mail, stretch, or take a brisk walk outside.
The Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (SIOP) offers additional, evidence-based resources and suggestions for working remotely.
What are some strategies people can use to address feelings of worry, anxiety, and distress?
Feeling overwhelmed and anxious is completely normal, especially given the uncertainty of current circumstances. Anxious thoughts and feelings are our mind’s way of alerting us of potential danger or threats. In fact, we should thank our mind for doing this, as it’s likely our anxiety has allowed us to respond effectively to threatening situations in the past (e.g., walking slowly on icy sidewalks, studying for an upcoming exam, practicing a speech, preparing for an important meeting).
Below are simple grounding strategies that can help you respond effectively during difficult situations or uncomfortable experiences:
- Be present and engage your senses. This is an activity that you can easily practice throughout the day. It can be done anywhere:
- Focus on your breathing, then…
- Look around and notice five things that you can SEE.
- Listen carefully and notice five things that you can HEAR.
- Notice five things that you can FEEL in contact with your body.
- Finally, do all of the above simultaneously.
- Mindful breathing. While there are many ways to practice mindful breathing, a simple practice involves focusing your attention on your breath as you inhale and exhale. This exercise can be done while lying down, sitting, or standing. You can keep your eyes open or closed. Choose whatever works best for you to remain focused for whatever length of time you prefer.
- Mindful activity. A more informal way to practice mindfulness skills is to engage in normal, everyday activities mindfully. The next time you wash the dishes, fold laundry, or make the bed, focus all of your attention on the activity at hand. Acknowledge the thoughts and feelings that you notice, and then bring your attention back to what you are doing. When I engage in mindful activity, I’ll often catch myself saying (to myself), “Oh, there’s ‘worry’ showing up” and then direct my attention back to whatever it is I am doing. I also find it helpful to engage my senses in order to transform mundane activities into mindful ones.
Note: The strategies recommended above are based on Acceptance & Commitment Therapy/Training (ACT), the goal of which is to promote psychological and behavioral flexibility.
Do you have suggestions for practical ways people can connect socially to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness while maintaining physical distance from one another?
Having to distance ourselves physically does not mean that we have to distance ourselves emotionally. Social isolation is not healthy for our psychological wellbeing. Humans need social connections. This quote by well-known author and researcher Brené Brown is quite fitting:
“We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.”
For the first nearly 2 years of our relationship, my fiancé and I lived 1000 miles apart. People often ask how we managed to stay connected and close during that time. Simply put, we prioritized communication. Nightly “phone dates” became part of our routine. We spent hours on the phone and on FaceTime doing “normal” things, such as eating dinner and brushing our teeth!
Maintaining social connections during this period of physical distancing requires that we get creative with communication. Schedule regular check-ins, both formal and informal, using video calling/conference technology. The face-to-face connection through video allows us to engage in verbal and nonverbal forms of communication with one another. You can schedule virtual coffee/tea breaks, lunches/dinners, and happy hours or host a book club, dance party, or sing-a-long. Students might find it helpful to schedule virtual homework and study groups.
What are some key ways to stay active in light of Minnesota’s stay at home order?
Minnesota’s stay at home order places limitations on how and what we do outside the home. If we’re spending more time at home our general level of physical activity will likely decrease—just think about the number of steps we’re missing out on by not having to walk to/from a parking lot to go to work or attend classes and meetings! That said, there are several ways in which we can stay physically active while the order is in place.
If and when you can, go outside! Outdoor physical activity has a positive association with self-reported levels of mental wellbeing. Outdoor activities like walking, hiking, biking, fishing, and hunting are not off-limits so long as you can safely engage in them while following the physical distancing guidelines.
One of my go-to strategies is to schedule a walk-n-talk with a friend, colleague, or family member. Depending on where each of you lives, walk-n-talks can happen in-person or via the phone. It’s not unusual for me to start a walk-n-talk meeting over the phone and head outside with my dog, Hurricane.
A fun twist on going for a walk is to turn it into a game. You can create an easy alphabet scavenger hunt of sorts by engaging with your surroundings through your senses (sight, sound, touch/feel, smell). As you are enjoying your walk, identifying things that begin with each letter of the alphabet.
There are ways to stay active indoors, too. If you have a treadmill at home, now is a great time to dust it off. I recently transformed an old treadmill into a walking workstation by attaching an old shelf across the handrails and stacking thick books on the shelf to raise the height of my laptop to make it more ergonomic.
For avid gym-goers, figuring out how to get a good workout at home is an opportunity to get creative. You might not have a seated row machine in your basement, but you can mimic the movement with a band, a pole, a broomstick, and a chair. Health and fitness professionals, locally and around the world, have also been offering live, virtual workouts. Alternatively, you might dig out workout DVDs, find recorded workouts on YouTube, or subscribe to an on-demand fitness program. Whether you’re into yoga, bodyweight/strength workouts, or a good sweat session, there is something for everyone!
Do you have any additional insight to share about caring for ourselves during this challenging time?
In any situation, we have choices, and we can control our actions—both what we say and what we do—in response to the situation. I have seen many individuals comment on what they can’t do with the new restrictions that are in place. Try to focus on what you CAN do.
When I notice negative thoughts, I stop and ask myself, “What can I do right now to best support my health and wellbeing or the health and wellbeing of others?”
Additionally, self-care may not be as time-consuming or complex as you think. I find it easiest to integrate self-care practices into my daily routine. You can practice self-care while walking your dog, walking to/from the mailbox, or while enjoying your morning coffee.
Are there self-care and mental health resources you can recommend?
While many recommendations exist, I’ll share my top five below:
- FACE COVID – How To Respond Effectively To The Corona Crisis eBook & animated video (Dr. Russ Harris).
- Mindfulness apps can be a helpful tool. Those listed here have free versions or are offering free resources right now:
- Headspace is offering free meditation resources from their “weathering the storm” collection.
- Calm has compiled a free resource with a variety of activities.
- Insight Timer has a free library in addition to its paid resources.
- ACT Companion is offering free access to all app content (use the code “TOGETHER”).
- UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center website. They have put together a comprehensive Guide to Well-Being During Coronavirus, with practices, resources, and articles for individuals, parents, and educators.
- New Harbinger, a publisher of science-based self-help books and workbooks, is offering a number of free resources (guided audio meditations, exercises, and worksheets) to help reduce needless stress and anxiety.
- ACT Guide was designed by psychologists at Utah State University. It’s an evidence-based, online self-help program designed to help individuals cope with mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and stress.
Julie Slowiak is an associate professor in the UMD Department of Psychology. She can be reached by email: jslowiak at d.umn.edu.