Being mindful of your mental health during COVID-19 outbreak

Published 9:21 am Wednesday, April 1, 2020

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From staff reports


With the country rolling out social distancing measures, schools and businesses closing, and companies declaring work from home necessary, Americans are forced to face a new reality.

“We are social beings. We like to connect and touch and be close to people, and we’ve had to change our behavior, which can create a feeling of isolation,” Patricia Thornton PhD, a licensed psychologist in New York City, told Healthline.

While it may feel like life has stopped, there are ways to keep these times in perspective and learn how to carry on.

“Focusing on preparedness, staying calm, reaching out to check on the well-being of others, and self-care will help you through this challenging moment in history. Remind yourself that COVID-19 is a serious but temporary illness, and that life will return to normal in time,” Deborah Serani, PsyD, psychologist and author of  “Sometimes When I’m Sad” told Healthline.

Here are some tips for making sure you’re taking care of your mental health during the coronavirus disease outbreak. 

Many people with and without anxiety disorders are feeling anxious. 

Thornton describes anxiety as an anticipated worry or rumination about something that might happen in the future. She says our world is feeling a “drumbeat of anxiety” due to the novel coronavirus. 

“Because the virus is a virus you can’t see, and not enough people are being tested, you don’t know who carriers are, so you’re hypervigilant about other people and surfaces you’re touching and places you’re going, which makes you more anxious because there is real danger, but the uncertainty and lack of information about the virus causes anxiety,” she said.

Witnessing others feeling anxious also heightens the worry. 

“Anxiety is contagious. If you see someone near you who is panicking and is saying, ‘The world is coming to an end,’ you may begin to worry because you don’t want to feel like the person who is not worried,” Thornton said.

She points to evolution for this mentality. 

For example, if a tribe were out in the field and one member saw a tiger in the distance and began running, the rest of the tribe would follow suit. 

“We look to others to get cues of how we should behave,” Thornton said. “While the coronavirus is a real threat, we all need to be in the gray: embrace uncertainty knowing we can’t do everything and move on within in the confines of what the new normal is.”

For those living with a mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or PTSD, Serani says you may be particularly vulnerable during this pandemic. She suggests filling prescriptions for the month and considering home delivery from your insurance carrier or local pharmacy.

She also recommends asking your therapist to hold telemedicine sessions or via HIPAA-compliant video conferencing. 

“This way you can stay safe and continue addressing your treatment — and address any concerns that arise from COVID-19,” Serani said.

If your pandemic concerns are difficult to manage, she suggests creating an emergency plan with your mental health professionals.

While the situation is frustrating, Thornton advises to only allow yourself 15 minutes of anger per day, and then move on.

“Don’t think of it as doomsday. Look at it as finding a new normal. Ask yourself, ‘How do I want to live my life right now with these constraints?’ And limit talking to family if they are getting worked up. Say, ‘We’ll talk about it for 15 minutes and then [move on],’” she said.

Serani agrees, noting that thinking positively during a disaster is easier said than done.

“One of the best ways is to ground yourself in science. Stay connected to your local or state health department for information. Avoid watching or reading news or social media, where facts can become blurred or even exaggerated. Remind yourself that infectious disease outbreaks have been part of our history, and this too shall pass,” she said.

Thornton also suggests watching reputable news once a day to stay up to date. 

“New norms can change every day, so you can say, ‘Every day I’ll limit my news to a half hour in morning and in the evening to see if there is anything I need to change about my behavior.’ And don’t rethink your decision,” she said.

If you have children, Serani says to be sure to limit their exposure to the news because it can be overwhelming for them to process. Being mindful about how you talk about COVID-19 around children is important, too.

“Oversharing, ‘catastrophizing,’ and even joking about death or sickness can traumatize little ones. While this can be a scary time for kids, it could also be viewed as a moment in history that can reach and teach. I’ve been encouraging my little patients to see how ‘helpers’ are everywhere, and how communities are rallying together during this difficult time,” Serani said.

She adds that being cared for, protected, and loved are crucial things for children to feel and hear during disaster. 

“Another tip is to encourage children to draw, write, or journal so they can express their feelings. And finally, keeping a routine for kids is always helpful during a crisis,” Serani said.

Keeping a routine is important for adults and kids who are confined to their home. 

“Try to stick to your normal routine as much as possible. Keep the same bedtime and same awake time. Get dressed in clothes you’d work in. Take a walk outside to get exercise, and see other people to feel a sense that everyone is in this together,” Thornton said.

Serani also suggests people try to get creative about activities that they can control in the house.

“Choose activities that soothe you or give you purpose,” she said, such as playing board games, reading, putting together puzzles, or bathing.

Make it a part of your daily routine to reach out to friends and family.

“Make sure you call, text, FaceTime, or Skype daily with others. During traumatic times, having a sense of connection and a feeling of community is essential for hope and healing,” Serani said.

And because fun, meaningful experiences reduce the stress hormone cortisol and raise feel-good hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, both experts suggest adding humor to your day by reading cartoonists or watching funny movies and comedy shows. 

“It can’t be all doom and gloom. Laughing about the situation doesn’t hurt anyone and shows that we’re all in this together,” Thornton said.

Samaritan Counseling Center of Southeast Texas is offering TeleTherapy Sessions to continue providing services to the community.

TeleMental Health sessions are shown to be as effective as in-person sessions, according to a press release.

All one needs is access to internet and a computer, tablet, or smart phone with audio and/or video capabilities. 

One can meet with your counselor from the comfort of your own home.

“For those with mental illnesses, be sure to continue your treatment regimens. Consider developing a plan for telehealth sessions with your provider if you (or your provider) are quarantined or must avoid exposures to the public for any reason. And, reach out to friends and family for support, virtually if necessary,” national Institute of Mental Health Director Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D. said. “This last piece of advice is really important for all of us. It is important to realize that social distancing does not have to mean social isolation, especially with modern technologies available to many of us. Connecting with our friends and loved ones, whether by high tech means or through simple phone calls, can help us maintain ties during stressful days ahead and will give us strength to weather this difficult passage.”