A Hit of Happiness

23 Ways To Stay Calm, Happy and Give Back During a Pandemic

“Everyone has masks on. It’s a ghost town. The hospital across the street is geared up for casualties. They’re telling us not to go outside.”

That’s an excerpt straight out of “After 9/11“, and before it was there, it was originally written in my journal at the time. I was 12 years old. Now 19 years later, it’s happening again right outside.

Before I get into my list, I want to give you a quick rundown on why I wrote it.

Sept. 11, 2001 was the second day of seventh grade at I.S. 89, a middle school just three blocks from the World Trade Center. Trying to get to my home, also in the neighborhood, we ran through the smoke and ash, collapsing buildings, people running and bleeding. But there was no more “home.” We lived in what was now a war zone that night and every night after, with toxic particles and rancid smells in the air, the National Guard on our block, police barricades everywhere, little access to food and water, no phones, spotty electricity, and nobody was “allowed in or out.” For six years after that, a revolving door of medical professionals tried to “fix” me and only left me feeling drained of hope, nobody mentioning Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When it came time for college, I started to wonder if “normal” was something I’d ever be able to feel again. It was, and I did find recovery and a new beginning, all while still living in NYC.

But normal is always a relative word. Right now, it certainly feels like one.

I spent years and years working hard to learn things and unlearn things to be able to find calm and happiness in a world that still felt very much scary and unpredictable. 

This list is not meant to minimize the countless struggles people are going through but to focus on what we can control right now. 

Now, your situation may not allow for some of these things, and of course nothing is ever meant to take the place of the support of a mental health professional, therapist, mentor, or anyone else that you should absolutely be leaning on right now. 

And if you or a loved one are being affected in any way—physical health, loss, livelihood— please know my thoughts are with you and you are not alone. I wish you hope, healing and comfort during this time. 

But as I say on my website, Hope Lives Here, and if even just one of these things can make this time more bearable for anyone, I will be incredibly grateful.

Staying Calm:

1. Limit your news consumption or nix it all together for as long as you can. Five minutes in the morning and five at night still feels like a lot to me. Right now, we know what’s going on here in New York City, i.e. the “epicenter of the apocalyptic crisis.” We’re not really gonna get any more updates on what to do or not do unless we all need to get on a rocket to the moon in a few hours.

2. Stay focused on the present moment. Right this instant. You can meditate if you’d like, guided or not, you can count your breaths, but remember to ground yourself and tell yourself that right now, in this instance, you are okay. You’re ok. You don’t feel ok. But you’re okay.

3. I made the mistake of trying to see if I could handle the news by watching the short New York Times five minute documentary “People Are Dying: 72 hours in a NYC Hospital” (not linking it. nope). and it woke up my trauma from 9/11 so badly that I had to call my therapist first thing in the morning. Now, I’m able to access my calm again because I’m literally not consuming news.

(Listen, it can be really hard to feel like we “aren’t staying informed” but the information overload is undoubtedly going to hurt us. We weren’t built to consume as much news as often as we do right now, and we especially weren’t built to take in this much bad news. You don’t need to do this to stay safe. You are probably safer exposing yourself to less of it. Rely on a friend or family member to tell you if there is something you urgently need to know. But chances are, you’ll find out.) 

4. On Social Media: Don’t scroll. Truly, don’t scroll. Go directly to your friends pages, go to pages you like, do not scroll. But you need to put blinders on to protect yourself because you don’t know what you’re going to see or bump into in that scroll.

5. Straighten up, organize, clean, donate whatever you can, sell other stuff online. Studies have shown that this gives us a sense of control which lowers anxiety levels.

6. I don’t know what’s going on with this Baby Boomer generation, but I’m hearing a lot about how the older folks in our lives seem to be giving us all a mixed bag of either not following the rules/suggested precautions closely or panicking and hoarding things. Say what you want about millennials, but we are taking this very seriously, at least everyone I know is.

One of the greats, Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, says we need to practice radical acceptance around our parents, aunts, uncles, and other people who may not be following the rules very well right now. There is literally nothing we can do except express our concern in a caring way and know we cant force them to do or not do anything. 

7. Dr. Hartstein also advises making yourself a to-do list every day to keep from getting overwhelmed. whether you’re working from home, working more, working less, not working, its a weekend, make yourself a to do list (not too long or you’ll get flustered) and stick to it. I don’t care if “play solitaire” is on there or “make sure nobody stole my underwear today” is on there. Make the list and create structure.

Having Fun and Getting Happy:

8. Learn something new that you actually want to learn, whether it’s a hobby, a skill, or just trivia. I took up knitting two years ago and here I am! For example, you can learn to knit online, and a few sites are still absolutely delivering materials like yarn and needles. (I have a help group for beginners on Facebook called In A Stitch if you need support so you don’t feel overwhelmed or alone!)

There are so many YouTube tutorial videos and places like BluPrint are offering all free classes for another 10 days or so on things like sewing, crochet, and other crafts.

9. Make your pet an instagram. My little guy is @WileyGoneWild and he is making people laugh, thankfully! You know your pet has a personality. You know your pet has likes and dislikes and quirks, and you sing songs about your pet to your pet, and you have ridiculous nicknames for them that you cant even explain to people, and you like the way their paws and tummies smell after they’ve been laying down for a while because it smells like Fritos. This will now take up about half of your day for the next 6-12 months. (Don’t have a pet? Find a creative commons photo that you can legally grab and make up a pet character. Use a stuffed animal or an action figure).

10. Find one really funny mini-show on YouYube and watch a few episodes every day. I love Ryan George of Pitch Meeting/Screen Rant. I always laugh out loud and send links to my friends, who also laugh. I’m glad I discovered him long before this so I could go right to him when I need it most! 

11. Get creative: don’t just play board games, put a spin on them! My husband and I have been doing our own take on Scattegories ever since we landed on a movie category one night last week and kept coming up with more titles for that letter way past the 60 second mark…on and off all day, actually! Now we roll the dice, pick a letter and leave it open for 2-3 hours thinking up movie titles. There’s also online Trivia you can play alone or with a friend on almost any of your favorite shows or topics. Yay!

12. Text or call your friends and family every day. If your worlds can collide for a laugh, even better. For example…my parents have been sending me random stuff like a note I left for the tooth fairy when I was six years old asking for my teeth back…..along with my baby teeth in an envelope. Sound weird? Probably. Worth texting all of my friends about? For sure. Be that person who finds funny memes or great comedy clips or shares ridiculousness. People will be so grateful for the smile. 

13. Have a living room dance party, whether it’s by yourself, with roommates, your partner, spouse, pet….dance away! We can use all of the extra movement we can get right now in order to get good endorphins pumping.

14. Organize a themed Google Hang Out! Just do it. Whether you’re all fans of baking shows or Anime or you want to organize trivia about a certain topic, find a commonality and get people together.

15. A good friend of mine, Mary Kaba Valis, is a life coach and a wonderful beacon of positivity, and she always suggests taking any negative thoughts or beliefs and writing down their opposite. Grab a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle, and even if you don’t believe it, even if it feels like it’s not true right now, turn the negative statement on its head and jot down that bright side. For example, “I’m not safe no matter what I do and we don’t know how to keep ourselves safe anymore” would be countered with “I am doing everything I can to keep myself and my loved ones safe and we will be ok.”

Giving back:

There are nonprofits right now still trying to serve the people they help remotely and safely, so check in on your local organizations whose purpose is to serve at-risk children, the elderly, shelter animals, etc. They are likely still running. Just Google or check their Facebook or Instagram pages.

16. Many of us are experiencing financial uncertainty right now, but even a single dollar can make a difference, so don’t feel intimidated or down if you can’t make a big, grand gesture. Every little bit counts, so think only about what you can afford. If you can’t afford to donate money…..

17….Ask an organization you care about how you can help them the skills you have by volunteering from home. For example, if you can foster a dog or cat from a shelter, you can do it from home. An organization may need help figuring out how to use certain remote technology to stay operational. Just ask. They will have needs, they will tell you what they are. 

18. Talk to people! I got to talking to someone who bought a shirt from me on Mercari (Ooh! This is another thing to do—list the stuff you no longer want once you’re done ‘organizing’ for a total steal and make someone’s day!) and found out she has a baby with her at home, so I slipped in some diapers (I had them in my closet leftover as a free gift from a health store we order from) and a couple of other little gifts for her. 

19. Services you may be using to order in from (yes please, always do this if you can avoid going in person, and tip well) like Fresh Direct are giving you the chance to donate meals, for example, to New York Common Pantry, for less than two dollars each. Do it if you can. 

20. Check on your neighbors, but do it safely—when our elderly neighbor’s package was left in the hallway for two straight days, we called our management office and asked someone to check on him to see if we could get him anything he needed and to make sure that he was okay. Turned out he was fine and the package was delivered to the wrong door. This was very fortunate, but the worst case scenario is very real for many of our older population. Please look out for them.

In closing, three things to remember:

1. If you are bored, and this is just my two cents, I think you’re lucky. Right now, for many people, the alternative to being bored is not a good one.

2. Keep your perspective in check. A phrase has been going around that you’re not “stuck” at home, you’re “safe” at home. (I removed the part about how “and one cough can kill you” because do we really need that? I don’t!)

3. From someone who has witnessed and lived through what felt like the end of the world and thought nothing would ever be okay again, remember that at some point, it will be over. We don’t know when, but it will be over, and it will get better. 

Helaina Hovitz Regal is an editor, journalist, author, storyteller, and native New Yorker who has always had the unreasonable notion that she can help change the world. She is a mental health advocate and hope-finder.

She is author of the memoir “After 9/11.” 

Her bylines can be found in over 50 publications such as Forbes, Huffington Post, The New York Times, Salon, Newsday, Teen Vogue, Glamour, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, HEALTH, Fast Company, Women’s Health, and more. She has appeared on CBS, PBS Newshour, The TODAY Show, 1010Wins, PEOPLE, New York 1, WPIX11, The Atlantic, Psych Central, SHAPE, NBC, Epoch Times, CTV (Canada) Wall Street Journal, The Australian TODAY Show, VOX News, Scholastic Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Toronto Star, and in the Washington Post.

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Featured photo by Namphuong Van.