Mental Health – A Berlin Coronavirus Diary

During the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, we're mostly focused on physical health: whether we or our loved ones will catch it, have severe symptoms, need medical care. It seems like half the people with Medium accounts are armchair epidemiologists, and we're all reading and sharing articles holding forth about exponential growth (yes it's real) and prognosticating about the impact of COVID–19.

Still, I have noticed a lot of friends and folks checking in with each other, and being cognizant that social distancing (or shelter-in-place or self-isolation) is tough, even for people who characterize themselves as introverts. There have been lots of jokes about practicing for quarantine their whole lives... maybe you can teach the rest of us! In any case, I really appreciate that my loved ones, friends, and family are treating our collective mental health as an important barometer in what is, for most people, an unprecedented time of stress and chaos.

I'm a pretty social person, generally. Even though I've gone through periods of nesting when I haven't gone out much or seen people, there's something about the current situation that is particularly taxing. Maybe it's the combination of knowing that I can't meet up with friends and the constant worry when I'm out grocery shopping or even just taking a walk, that I might get sick? In the middle of last week, I noticed myself getting an occasional scratchy throat, having some shortness of breath, and heart palpitations.

These only vaguely resemble what people experience when they come down with COVID–19, but they definitely freaked me out. Talking it over with some friends helped me realize that it's probably just a combination of psychosomatic symptoms and some seasonal allergies.

Psychosomatic Symptoms

Not to be confused with being asymptomatic (not showing any symptoms), psychosomatic symptoms are physical complaints that don't necessarily have a physical cause. It can be one way for your body to manifest psychological distress. We're all under a lot of stress lately, and it makes sense that that expresses itself different ways. Even when anxiety isn't my main emotion or I'm not actively thinking and worrying, it occupies some part of my subconscious, and it's important to find ways to deal with that.

I've started journaling again every morning on to write down and express some of what's accumulated in my mind from social media, from reading the news, and the daily changes around us. It's really helped me to make those thoughts concrete and articulate what exactly is running through my head. I've done this writing at various periods over the last few years, but let it lapse recently. So here's to taking up old habits!

Here's a song from Guys and Dolls that always gets stuck in my head when I think about psychosomatic symptoms: Adelaide's Lament (YouTube)

Social Media Diet

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, WhatsApp are all great ways to stay connected while we're mostly staying physically distant from each other. They're also currently an unending stream of news, memes, think pieces, and misinformation about how people, governments, and other institutions are handling coronavirus. It's been really rough striking a balance between seeing what good things are happening (hand sanitizer production, balcony singing, meals for healthcare workers, NY medical staff volunteering) and getting too caught up in daily updates of infection numbers, new medical hypotheses, and economic stimulus theories.

I'm sure my phone's app screen time charts would show that I haven't been so successful, old habits are hard to break. I'm more conscious now though of the effect that scrolling and skimming posts and headlines has on me. It's generally not a positive effect, and being mindful of too much social media consumption has helped my mental state.

Taking time to relax

It's strange to think of needing to take out time to relax and unwind when we're mostly at home these days. But given all the pressures and the changes we're dealing with, it's good to find a few moments each day to breathe and be quiet (and maybe away from screens). On that note, I have two recommendations:

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a bunch of live cams that show jelly fish, sea otters, and kelp forests. They're really soothing, and if it's currently night time there when you're watching, you can rewind back to a different time.

Another friend of mine posted this GIF for a breathing exercise. It's surprisingly helpful to just look at it and follow the breathing in and out instructions. It's been so nice for me that I've copied it to my phone and computer.