Plan, don’t panic

By Dr. Brian Dixon

|Mar 31, 2020

Plan, don’t panic.

That’s what the news, social media, and many members of the global medical community—including me—have insisted over the last few weeks.

But most of us have never lived through anything like COVID-19. How do you begin to plan for something none of us have experienced?

It starts by returning to our foundational needs: safety and health.

As a psychiatrist, I wrote this article to help you plan toward greater mental health during this pandemic. I’ve learned in my career that humans are communal creatures. We love connection and thrive within structure.

Coronavirus has unfortunately disrupted both of those frameworks. This article and template are meant to help you re-access those core mental health needs.

Groundedness is a choice

Our lives have been uprooted and shaken in the last few weeks. It’s natural to wonder when things will revert back to normal.

Since that’s still uncertain, the best we can do is define a new healthy normal within the confines of social distancing.

It might be helpful to put this in perspective using something familiar. Last time you traveled, what happened to your workout routine or diet? If you were one of the rare souls who stayed consistent with both, it probably took a lot of intention and planning.

When we’re outside our element, most of us tend to drop the healthy lifestyle choices we make during normalcy.

Most of our social structure is built into our society. We have rules literally painted on our roads. Ideally, we structure our days around habits that help us live our best selves, making time to work out, foster close relationships, and eat healthy.

Many of those structures have recently been ripped out from under us.

We’ve collectively grounded to a halt due to a novel biological virus. Finding stability again will require intention.

As a full believer in the “team approach” to tackling any complex problem, I feel blessed to advise my patients and families on how to build structure at home during this stressful time.

Since the common advice has been to “plan,” I converted the word into an actionable, mental health acronym to make it easy to remember how to live healthily during this season. You can listen to P.L.A.N. described in an interview with NBC-DFW or keep reading below.

How to P.L.A.N.

P. Precautions

Pay attention to what science- and medical professionals are advising during this time. Make these disciplines part of your regular lifestyle.

  • Wash your hands
  • Don’t touch your face
  • Practice social distancing
  • Keep 6 feet from others when you must go out

L. Long-term

With coronavirus still in full swing, it’s best to plan for the long term. Expect that your life will be altered for the next two to four months.

In that case, you must make time in your schedule for core activities that boost your health and productivity. (I.e. Don’t get stuck watching nonstop Netflix for the next two months.)

  • Adjust your diet
  • Exercise
  • Stretch
  • Take regular breaks from screens

A. Activities

Find activities that bring you life and help you stay active. Use this time to be creative and finally work on that project you’ve been meaning to get to.

  • Play
  • Sing
  • Dance
  • Stay active
  • Journal

N. Network

This doesn’t have to be a lonely time. Pick up the phone. Jump on a Zoom date with friends. It’s important to maintain close connection with your network. Everyone is experiencing similar fears and boredom. It helps to hear the voice of friends and loved ones.

  • Educate and support your family, friends, and coworkers
  • Call loved ones regularly
  • Schedule online game nights with friends

Why planning matters

Even before the crisis struck, many of us struggled to maintain our idealized, healthiest routines.

We’re all consuming a lot more media these days than usual, which can lead to depression and anxiety.

In general, we work too much.

And I probably don’t have to tell you that, as a society, we don’t relax enough.

Not to mention, even our healthiest routines may have been turned upside down, inside out, and backwards since COVID-19.

None of this is doing any favors for individual mental and physical health. That’s why I designed this mental health preparedness template.

Free mental health preparedness template »

Every week I build individual treatment plans for my patients. With all the growing stress lately, I wanted to find a way to make mental health planning more accessible to more people.

I designed this basic template to help others achieve mental health preparedness. (Standard medical advice caveat: I’m not your physician, you assume responsibility for using this template and advice. Ask your physician or therapist if you need individualized treatment, etc.)

Start by making a copy of these templates. Then, follow this 2-step process to design a schedule for improved mental health.

Step 1. Adjustable time schedule

Start with the adjustable time schedule sheet, using color codes as suggestions. A few pointers for this sheet:

Keep the weekends. Resist the temptation to schedule school/work on the weekends unless absolutely necessary Set the same sleep/wake up times: now’s a great opportunity to build a strong sleep hygiene habit

Step 2. Weekly schedule

Next, fill in your weekly schedule with options from the Legend and Appendix. Working from home—as many of my patients have done lately—can be hard to build a healthy calendar around. It’s easy to let work time slip into times of rest. Your home and office are now the same place. Make a strong effort to not let them overlap too closely during the day.

By putting your week on a calendar, you can separate your day into productive vs leisure chunks to prioritize your mental health and focus.

Post this on your refrigerator or near your computer. Stick to the schedule for the week. Start fresh next week and adjust things as necessary.

Be safe!

P.S. If you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, stay home and contact your local health department.

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About the author

Dr. Brian J. Dixon

With accolades spanning my career as a child psychiatrist, entrepreneur, writer, and public speaker, I advocate for a more sensible U.S. healthcare solution that appeals across all party lines. I am a Texan, born and raised. My psychiatry practice, Progressive Psychiatry, is based in Fort Worth.

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