Kathy Calabrese caught a cold while visiting friends in New York City the first weekend in March and struggled to shake it off after she got home.
The 72-year-old mental health therapist grew annoyed as her stuffy nose and cough persisted through the next several days.
Her two daughters and close friends grew terrified. They urged her to get a test for Covid-19.
“That began a merry-go-round of phone calls to agency after agency, none of which had the ability to test,” Calabrese said.
Such frustration, coupled with a growing global pandemic that alters even the simplest dynamics of everyday life, can turn up the emotional temperature for even the most well-adjusted.
“Every human being is going to respond differently to this crisis because every single day we are faced with the unknown,” Calabrese said.
Calabrese and other mental health providers suggest a tried and true approach to uncertainty during this very different time.
Choose to see the coming months as an opportunity to grow and learn more about yourself and others, build a greater appreciation for loved ones and community, and gain a better sense that what unites us matters more than what scares and divides us.
These ideas will help.
1. Breathe deep
Each morning and evening, and in moments between as tension climbs, Calabrese sits quietly and takes deep breaths. She puts one hand over her heart, palm first, the other just above her belly. She closes her eyes, breathes in and counts to four, pauses, and exhales for a similar count. She repeats this until tranquility results.
“The conscious connection to breath and breathing in this way activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is where we connect to the relaxation response,” said Calabrese, who owns the Brain-Body-Health Technology Institute in Kenmore, holds a doctorate in counseling and educational psychology and has been in private practice for 35 years.
When you connect to breath – a key part of yoga – you stay more present and less consumed with future fears, she said.
A deeper sense of tension and frustration colors these Covid-19 days for Calabrese, too, so she turned to Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey for more support before bedtime. The celebrity duo teamed up to offer a free 21-day online meditation program, “Finding Hope in Uncertain Times,” at chopracentermeditation.com.
“Sleeping is often disrupted during times of anxiety … ” Calabrese said, “and sleep hygiene is critical because it supports the immune system.”
2. Step away from screens
Calabrese would rather read the New York Times, Washington Post and The Buffalo News online than sit rapt in horror at the 24-hour TV news cycle.
“We all have the power to turn off the television,” she said. “Bad news activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is the fight or flight part of us. It activates that fear response, so taking in too much news disrupts the balance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. You do not want to pour gasoline on a bonfire.”
Calabrese advised those who have become all too glued to Covid-19 news to step away regularly – and often – especially if it feeds your fears and impacts relationships with those who live with you.
Take time to talk and strengthen personal connections, even with those who live elsewhere, said Jessica Pirro, CEO of Crisis Services.
"We have to be socially distant, but we don't need to be emotionally distant," she said last week during a telehealth news conference.
For Calabrese, that has included connecting by FaceTime on her smartphone with her sister in Detroit, nephew in Washington, D.C., and loved one closer to home who right now remain out of physical reach.
One of her daughters started having virtual dinner parties with friends she’d otherwise see in person.
“During this time, we have to do everything in our power to connect to ourselves and to one another,” Calabrese said. “We are learning more and more that depression is considered a disease of loneliness, so this is critical. There is so much more available in regard to connection, because of our technology.”
3. Take time to learn
That includes becoming more familiar with yourself and your tendencies, Calabrese suggested starting a journal. Write about your feelings and activities during the coming weeks, reflections that can help set new goals and provide fresh inspiration in the future.
“When people understand themselves and how they work, they're better able to make good choices and good decisions,” she said.
She also turns to podcasts, Netflix and a pile of books in her home to challenge her mind and brighten her perspective.
Covid-19 dynamics also forced Calabrese to become more technologically savvy if she wanted to see her daughters, son-in-law and three grandchildren in the coming weeks. Their daily conversations now take place through FaceTime.
The experience gave her the confidence to ask a friend to show her how to conduct a Facebook Live “Chat with Dr. Kathy” from 12:30 to 12:45 p.m. weekdays on her Brain Body-Body-Health Technology Institute page, in which she shares strategies about how she and others are making the most of pandemic life.
4. Take time to move
“Resilience is critical,” Calabrese said, and physical resilience helps build mental flexibility. She has practiced yoga for 45 years. Her group yoga and Pilates classes are now on hold. She’s replaced them with video classes, as well as squats, lunges and taking the stairs a bit more quickly at home.
Fitness continues to be part of a regular schedule that now includes seeing most of her clients by Skype on her computer. The routine builds predictability.
She continues to walk her dogs – a pair of West Highland terriers, Tansey, 11, and Finnegan, 8 – at the start of every morning. They’ve also taken longer walks as the days grow warmer at Forest Lawn and along the Niagara River.
“Being outdoors and as close to nature as you possibly can be is very helpful,” Calabrese said. “It's calming, and while you're walking, you can focus on your breathing.”
5. Eat right
Choose nutritional meals regularly, balanced with lean protein, fruits and veggies, and healthy fats. For breakfast, Calabrese particularly enjoys making toast with almond butter, sliced apples and cinnamon, cutting some extra slices for her two Westies.
6. Make time for fun
Sustained panic is draining and frightening. Levity is a tonic.
“Laughter boosts the immune system,” Calabrese said. “If we support the immune system, then our ability to confront anything is improved.”
A friend recently shared a YouTube video with her that showed a dog named Stella leaping headlong into piles of leaves. “I'm telling you,” Calabrese said, “by the end of that I was laughing out loud.”
Smartphone game apps and old-fashioned puzzles and board games create other enjoyable diversions. Many also educate, improve memory and bolster hand-eye coordination. Hula hoops help, too.
“Tap into that creative part of yourself,” Calabrese said, “and give yourself full permission to do whatever you think might be kind of fun.”
7. Perspective matters
To be sure, Covid-19 leaves much tragedy in its wake. More than 500,000 people around the world have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. More than 22,000 have died. Who knows how many more have been infected, untested and died uncounted.
Still, 80% of those who contract the virus don't need medical treatment, vigilance by the vast majority of those in most affected countries appears to have lessened the impact, and researchers are working hard to find treatments and a vaccine for a disease with no known cure.
Calabrese is among the many fortunate ones. She waited out her bad respiratory infection with help from a neti pot, rest and yoga. She is taking Covid-19 in stride, at home with her dogs.
“This doesn’t really rattle me,” she said. “I'm not sure why it doesn't, but maybe it's because I've been through so many things in my life and I see that this will have a beginning, a middle and an end. It's not infinite, and we can get through this.”