9 Social-Distancing Activities That Have Proven Mental Health Benefits

by Alli Maloney
Originally Published: 
A collage of a crossword puzzle, a woman kneading dough, and working out, all activities with anxiet...
Getty Images/Caroline Wurtzel

As the COVID-19 pandemic threatens lives around the world, many state governments have imposed stay-at-home orders, requiring people to stay inside except for absolutely essential tasks. Businesses and schools have closed their doors, and in-person group activities have come to an abrupt halt.

Whether you’re working from home, working more hours, or out of work entirely as a result of coronavirus, your day-to-day likely has had to adjust. Changes in routine can tax your mental health even under less trying circumstances, and symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other negative feelings can come up. You’re not alone if you’re scared for your loved ones or freaked out about the global economy — you’re one of many trying to navigate this difficult new normal.

“I think we can all agree that life is very weird right now,” psychiatric nurse practitioner Kimberly Meehan, NP, tells Bustle. Interacting with your family or roommates — or no one at all — in a confined space is challenging, Meehan says, but even when you’re stuck at home, there are science-backed mental health tools at your disposal.

Get Off Your Phone

Before all else, Meehan says, set boundaries around the amount of time spent reading news. Without these restrictions, “your body may be in a constant fight or flight response, which raises your baseline anxiety level,” Meehan says. Decreasing your proximity to other people’s panic will help maintain your own mental health because emotions can and do spread from one person to another, a phenomenon called emotional contagion (ahem). Plus, one 2018 study of almost 1,000 people described the positive correlation between depression and cellphone use as “alarming,” so stay informed without getting overwhelmed by limiting screen time. Using your phone’s screen time features, setting alarms, and deleting apps entirely can eliminate the urge to mindlessly scroll. And if you think you won’t have anything else to do, this list has 45 things to do at home that don’t involve a screen.

Create A Schedule For The Fun Stuff

Without the anchor of knowing what’s going to happen in, say, a world plagued by an invisible, highly contagious virus, your brain’s prefrontal cortex might start laying out different, equally scary future scenarios. Knowing what’s next in your day can ground you in the present moment.

A daily schedule that leaves room for creativity teaches our minds what to expect even when things are unpredictable, Meehan explains. “Scientifically, routines are important for maintaining proper sleep cycles, nutrition intake, and energy levels, [which] all are important for emotion regulation,” she says. "Start your day with something you ‘want’ to do, rather than ‘have’ to do,” like reading a few pages of a novel before diving into data entry. Then, once you work your responsibilities in, frame the rest of your routine around things you “get” to do, like finally tackling the huge stack of magazines you subscribed to but never got around to reading.

When You’re Not Washing Your Hands, Use Them

Touch is a sense that helps ground your mind. Right now, new stimuli are likely limited — especially human touch, which researchers have found triggers the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex to communicate emotions like compassion and love. Try rhythmic movements like kneading dough, chopping vegetables, playing an instrument, or sewing up the three-month-old rip in your favorite jacket. Cooking in particular, Meehan says, can help build up that feeling of being grounded: “The act of cooking forces one to be comfortable with losing control a little of the situation,” she says. “While we don't quite know the outcome of how it will come out, or if we can't plan exactly, we can trust the process.”

Work Out, But Don’t Sweat It If You Can’t

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Exercise is a major help for your mental health. If you’re stuck inside, try yoga, which in 2018 was shown by Boston University researchers to treat anxiety and depression symptoms short and long term, as it helps build flexibility, strength, and breath regulation, as well as relieves physical pain. Setup only requires a bit of floor space (for those with teeny-tiny spaces, try yoga in bed). Strength-building at home is another option, even without weights. Look up a routine to maximize strength in whatever part of the body you choose, and set a starter goal: maybe five reps in the morning, five at night. Be gentle with yourself, especially if you didn’t really have an exercise routine before social media peer-pressured you into trying an at-home workout.

Play An Old-School Game

Work on a puzzle, crossword, or sudoku. Cognitive games like these hone memory, attention, and reasoning skills, according to a 2019 study from University of Exeter researchers. They also involve logical thinking, which “prevents your mind from ruminating or worrying about anything else,” Meehan says. She adds that these activities can help reduce depressive symptoms because they build a sense of accomplishment, which comes with self-esteem boosts. Playing card games, too, has proven mental health and cognitive benefits.

Get Organized, Emotionally

This pandemic has impacted daily life on the most intimate levels. Break down big emotions piece by piece to understand what exactly you’re stressing out over. Meehan recommends VirusAnxiety, a therapist-run, coronavirus-specific toolkit that has individual guides for stressors like xenophobia or finances.

For example: If it’s money you’re most worried about, sit down and fully assess your financial situation. Check your bank accounts and debt balances; take spending and saving notes; do the math to see what’s the norm for you and your money and what can change under these new circumstances. Even with a low account balance, you can contact your creditors and loan lenders about repayment plans, create a budget for these particular emergency circumstances, or call on government assistance programs for help. With a clear starting point, you can feel more secure in a path forward.


Pick up a pencil and doodle a little, giving yourself permission to let your mind wander. A report published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts in 2016 said 15 minutes of drawing has emotional health benefits. Blind contour is a fun exercise to make art without overthinking it: Pick a subject and without lifting your instrument from the paper or looking down, try to draw it using a continual line.

And When You’re Really Panicking, Actually Apply A Grounding Practice

If you feel your mind spiraling or body tensing up while you’re at home, check on your emotions. Meehan offers an exercise to help keep the mind and body present. First, start with exhaling deeply. Notice five things around you that you can see. Say them aloud, or write them down, and make it detailed. Then, observe four things that you can feel on your body — your clothes, the hair on the back of your neck, or your feet on the ground. Name three things that you can hear and distinguish what makes the noises different. Then identify two things that you can smell. (“That sweet smell of Lysol,” Meehan jokes.) Lastly, reflect on one thing that you appreciate.

“We are all in this together and we will get through this together,” Meehan says, “one day at a time, one breath at a time.”

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