How to Handle Your Mental Health During Quarantine

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and there has probably never been a better time to acknowledge the importance of psychological wellness.

With so many people trapped inside and cut off from our usual support systems, a lot of us are succumbing to negative thought patterns and dangerous behaviors. Whether your particular struggle is with anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, an addiction, or any of the myriad other issues that can be exacerbated by isolation—quarantine presents a lot of potential pitfalls.

Maybe you haven't even acknowledged to yourself that you have an issue, but being alone and feeling lonely, bored, scared, angry has brought things to light that you used to be able to ignore. Maybe you used to go out most nights for some drinks with friends. It seemed like just an aspect of socializing but now that you're drinking alone, you're starting to realize how much you rely on alcohol. Or maybe without the need to go outside on a regular basis, your routines have fallen away and you're finding it hard to get out of bed, wash and clothe yourself, or avoid dark and oppressive thoughts. Maybe you're wallowing.

A lot of people find relief in naming their issue. A diagnosis is not a magic pill, and it won't solve everything, but it can make it feel more like there's an issue you can deal with, rather than feeling like you are the issue. It can also help you find the specific sort of support and treatment you might need. If you have good health coverage, you may be able to get a professional diagnosis, or maybe you'd feel better just doing some research and arriving at an informal diagnosis on your own—a label to assign whatever you're struggling with.

While you should be careful diagnosing yourself, as a misdiagnosis can cause more problems down the line—and may offend people with official diagnoses—there's nothing to stop you from having an internal label if that helps you. And if it doesn't, well, then you don't need a diagnosis to work on your mental health. Label or no, it's important to acknowledge the problem rather than finding ways to ignore it—denial and rationalization are no good for anyone.

But now that you've identified your what? Naming it and pointing to it and wanting it to go away aren't going to do much. Once you've stopped denying the problem, it's time to actually start the work. In some cases that means medication or specific types of therapy—some people may even require surgery—but for almost everyone, working on your mental health means talking about it. Unfortunately the conditions of lockdown and social distancing that are highlighting these problems also make talking about them complicated, but there are options.

For a start, there are online communities where people discuss and provide support on various topics of mental health. Whatever you're struggling with, you can find a group of strangers on Reddit or Discord or Facebook who can remind you that you're not alone. While some people find keeping a journal helpful, others need the support and perspective of other people—even if you never know each other's real names—to help in getting a handle on their issues. And sharing with strangers can be great practice for working up the courage to share with loved ones.

Ultimately that's the direction that we should all be headed. Having people in your life whom you trust enough to share your vulnerabilities is a huge help in terms of mental health. If you don't have anyone like that now, it's never too late to start building those bonds of trust with friends, coworkers, family, or mental health professionals—who are increasingly available to provide online therapy through services like Talk Space or Better Help. You don't have to open up all at once, but easing toward a more honest and intimate approach to communication is one of the keys to good mental health, and the fact that you may be stuck inside doesn't mean that you can't get started right now.

Of course there are other basics to keep in mind, especially during quarantine. Sunlight and fresh air—even just a little through an open window—can make a huge difference to both your physical and your emotional well-being. Any kind of exercise you can manage is also a great idea—no one is built for 24/7 lounging, as much as it feels that way sometimes. Getting blood pumping and endorphins flowing is crucial, plus working up a little sweat can be a good reminder to hop in the shower and keep up your hygiene.

All of these fundamentals are good ideas as you come to terms with your own mental health struggle and hopefully find a support system that helps you open up. But maybe the most important thing to keep in mind—during quarantine and beyond—is that you don't need to do everything at once. Any small step you take—whatever you think will help you most—can move you in the right direction.

If letting some sunlight into your bedroom helps you get out of bed rather than wallowing under the covers, then even opening your blinds can be something to celebrate—take a picture of the sun streaming in and share it if that helps. And even if you fall back into old habits—close those blinds again next week and let yourself sleep in—there's no sense in beating yourself up.

During hard times it's especially important to celebrate small victories and let the little lapses slide. We all struggle sometimes, and that's fine. Life is a struggle—it's what makes us human. Just remember that it's worth staying in the fight. And if you ever need a reminder, you can always text or call a crisis hotline to get some help.

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