As the COVID-19 crisis drags on, we are each feeling the effects of extended periods of stress. Nearly 6 weeks ago now, in the span of one day we lost our daily routines, many of our favorite activities, and for too many of us, our jobs or livelihoods. Of course, this post in no way captures the full range of challenges people are currently facing. We are all experiencing this crisis, but we each have our own paths to walk and battles to fight. It is not my intention to simplify them. With that said, it is undeniable that we are all under stress, and that we have been thrown into a new reality. It is from this perspective that I write today. We must be proactive to protect our mental health. Luckily, there are small steps each and every one of us can take to do just this, through the power of doing.
First: a little background
At the core of my profession (occupational therapy) is the knowledge that participation in meaningful activities has profound healing power. Before it was known as “occupational therapy,” our approaches were used in mental asylums in the 19th century. Individuals with severe mental illness experienced improvements when they were able to engage in arts and crafts or vocational activities, rather than simply being housed. At the time, this was revolutionary. Then, over a century ago, “occupational therapy” was officially born: therapy through occupation in meaningful tasks. Although the profession has had its ups and downs and has evolved significantly in a century, it is still centered around meaningful activities as both the goal of intervention, as well as intervention itself. Every day we work with people who are unable to engage in certain activities, for any number of physical, psychosocial, or environmental reasons. Through the power of holistic assessment and carefully designed meaningful activities, we help our clients to be able to participate in their goal activities successfully.
What's your point?
I gave you this background so that you would understand the knowledge behind my next statement: We all need to redefine our meaningful activities. Maybe before COVID-19, we loved going to happy hour. Maybe we loved playing team sports, or going to the movies, or any number of things that have recently been taken from us. Yes, we can look forward to getting back to them – because in all likelihood we WILL get back to them at some point. But, we cannot afford to sit and wait for the time that we can engage in our favorite activities once again. This is simply not a healthy option.
In the near term, we must find new ways to find moments of meaning. I recognize that this is much more difficult than it sounds. There is no “one size fits all” easy answer, unfortunately. Again, we are all walking our own paths. But every one of us would benefit from finding an activity that feeds our souls. Concepts of “taking your mind off of things” or “getting lost in the moment” are critical right now. Our goal is to find an activity that we are able to become fully immersed in, even if only for a few minutes. During those moments, we aren’t thinking about COVID-19, we aren’t worried about finances or going to the grocery store. Our stress responses relax, and for those moments, we are at peace.
Generally, these activities should involve multiple senses, require focused energy, and include some sort of goal or product. These components will each help you fully engage in the activity rather than harboring anxious thoughts in the background. For some, watching a movie or even reading a book allows the mind to still wander to the dark places of the pandemic. Similarly, chores, working from home, or finding activities for the kids can have a similar result.
But - what can we actually do?
Meaningful activities do not need to be complex, nor do they need to require elaborate materials or large amounts of time. Here are some examples:
- One family I know, with teenagers, has decided to do “character dinners.” Every day a theme is chosen, and each family member chooses characters on that theme and dresses up for dinner. One day it was a biblical theme, one day Disney characters, etc. Each of them has become fully engaged in designing their costumes every day, and it has led to dinners full of laughs even in these scary times. This simple idea, that they have never done before, is giving them a goal through the day, as well as memories for many years to come.
- For me personally, it has been gardening. Something about the monotony of pulling weeds, preparing a bed for planting, or watering the seedlings is therapeutic. I love the fresh air, sense of accomplishment, and visible progress when I’ve cleared an area. Even though I almost always have at least some garden failures, there is nothing that beats a fresh salad from the garden in the summer.
- Helping others. It is no coincidence that there are so many wonderful giving campaigns gathering steam all over the world. Mask makers, bakers, fundraisers, sign makers, and more are all contributing to make the world a little less horrible right now. It is also known that giving to others is beneficial not only for the recipient, but also for the giver (https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/volunteering-may-be-good-for-body-and-mind-201306266428). I’m not talking about accolades or public relations. Giving, done on any scale and in any capacity, provides us with a purpose, a sense of accomplishment, and connections with others. In these ways, it genuinely helps our own mental health while benefiting the community.
The bottom line
This is going to look different for everyone. Whether it is creating art or fully engaging in a family board game, the common thread is that meaningful activities fully engage you. I challenge you to experiment and make an effort to discover one activity that gives you meaning. It might be 30 seconds at first, or a few minutes. It never needs to take up the majority of your day (we do, of course, still have our responsibilities). But these moments of fulfillment help us to relax and reset so that we can continue to face the challenges of our daily lives. How do you know if you’ve found it? When you suddenly realize you haven’t thought about finances for an hour. Or when you look at the clock and are surprised that 30 minutes (or 2 hours) has passed already. Those “time flies” moments are exactly what we all need, now and always: harnessing the power of doing.
For more information:
For more information about the evidence behind the benefits of active engagement in meaningful activities, visit: www.aota.org
For a video with more details of the history of OT, visit: http://www.otcentennial.org/video/history-of-occupational-therapy
For daily activity ideas, resource sharing, and support for parents in quarantine, join our free Facebook group