Staying calm during coronavirus: Therapists share their personal stress-busting tips

As the world grapples with COVID-19, even shrinks find themselves struggling to practice what they preach.

“The hardest part about being a therapist during times of crisis is that the advice we often give, which is to limit exposure to the news, is impossible for us when 30 clients in a row need us to help them process what’s happening,” says Jenny Maenpaa, a Chelsea-based psychotherapist.

And the best way to help others, says Natalie Robinson Garfield, an Upper West Side psychotherapist, is to help herself first, through a variety of calming and centering techniques.

Of all the stress-busting advice NYC therapists are giving to their patients during the outbreak, here are the tactics they’re actually using themselves.

Limit social media
Maenpaa says she consults “one to three” reputable news sources when she wants an update, but silences her phone. “I don’t get alerts, which means that every noise my phone makes does not automatically trigger my brain into thinking it’s bad news,” she says.

Take control of the things you can
You can’t control the outbreak. But you can control little things in your own life. For Renee Exelbert, a therapist with practices in Midtown and Manhasset, that means eating healthfully, getting enough sleep and exercising at home with light weight-lifting and basic strength exercises and stretches (pushups, lunges and leg lifts). Keeping her body healthy, she says, helps to keep her stress levels manageable.

Make something
“When we create, it gives us a sense of hope that we’re renewing,” Exelbert says, adding that she loves baking banana bread, but others may want to paint, write or scrapbook. “When we build something from scratch, it shows we can create again. And that’s very powerful when we’re feeling so out of control.”

Picture something peaceful
Dr. Zlatin Ivanov, a Midtown psychiatrist, believes in the power of visualization to cope with the crisis. “It could be anything,” he says of that special place. He likes to picture himself and his wife on a beach while the sun sets. “A place in the back of your head is the perfect place to be.”

Reach out
“Like those old telephone commercials used to say, it’s nice to reach out and touch someone” (metaphorically), says Robinson Garfield, who’s currently conducting all her sessions by phone. But don’t just talk about the crisis — that’s crazymaking for everyone on the line. Maenpaa sets boundaries by saying, “Can we take the next 10 minutes to talk about how your wedding planning/child’s activities/book club is going?”

Let your senses guide you
“It could be walking outside, looking at the trees, smelling the air, listening to the birds, feeling the breeze on your face, and swallowing,” Exelbert says. “All those things bring you to the present moment, and being in the present moment makes it harder to be anxious.”

Help someone
Reaching out to those more vulnerable pays mental health dividends, Exelbert says. She’s been checking in on her older neighbors to see if they need help getting groceries. “Acts of kindness boost our own mood and make us feel better,” she says.

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