With the daily news briefings and constant updates, talk of the coronavirus is everywhere. Sometimes it seems as if we are literally eating, sleeping, and breathing COVID-19. For many of us, the onslaught of information and constant warnings results in feelings of fear and anxiety.
The first thing to recognize is that these feelings are perfectly normal. Threats trigger our “fight or flight” instinct. Our natural response is to flood the body with adrenaline which heightens our awareness and puts us in a position to run or fight. The trick to managing these feelings is to not let our biological response take over, but rather to approach this pandemic and the associated challenges it raises in a rational way while still acknowledging the concern and uncertainty we feel.
For a concise explanation on managing emotional health during the pandemic please refer to the SAMHSA Fact Sheet, Taking Care of Your Behavioral Health: Tips for Social Distancing, Quarantine, and Isolation during an Infectious Disease Outbreak, published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
In an online article published in Forbes on March 18, 2020, Containing the Coronavirus Pandemic Seriously Threatens Our Mental Health, therapist Megan Bruneau looks at some of the worries many of us currently share including “massive unemployment, an impending recession, and a potential health crisis.” She acknowledges that these fears exist for all of us but are more manageable for some than for others depending on the safety of one’s job and the health of one’s bank account. Add to that worries about managing children when the schools are closed, and frustration over limitations on our movements and activities, and you have a situation ripe for crazy-making. Bruneau goes on to list several strategies to protect and maintain our mental health:
Connecting with others in a time of “social distancing” creates challenges, but the telephone and social media can help alleviate the isolation. Moreover, as professional or family caregivers we interact with our clients or loved ones, and friends and colleagues are just a phone call away. But for older people, feelings of isolation may be more acute as friends and family members take precautions and stay away. For that reason, it is more important than ever to spend time with your client or loved one.
Remember: There WILL be a vaccine. This WILL end. We won’t be socially distancing forever
Sometimes, when grappling with uncomfortable emotions, we forget that the situation won’t last forever. We know that scientists are actively working on a vaccine and that the quarantine is designed to limit exposure to the virus.
“This is a season of discomfort. This is a season of mental and emotional challenge. This crisis is temporary,” writes Bruneau.
Get creative with self-care
Self-care is more important than ever. Rather than devouring pounds of comfort food, the author suggests building “a toolbox of more serving ways of supporting yourself”, such as limiting media exposure and engaging in activities that feel replenishing: journaling, catching up with old friends through email or by phone, walks, at-home exercise videos, meditation apps, movie nights, reading, making art, gardening, cleaning, baking, baths, and puzzles.
Don’t judge yourself for feeling… everything
“Discomfort is a universal, natural, and – in many cases – healthy response to our current reality,” writes the author. We depend on a certain degree of predictability, and it’s normal to feel “on edge” during a period of uncertainty. So instead of scolding yourself (or others) with phrases like “just relax” or “stop thinking about it 24/7!” try telling yourself, “It’s understandable you’re feeling [insert difficult emotion/s here] during this time of uncertainty. Anyone else in your shoes would be feeling this way.” This is called practicing self-empathy and it is a big part of preserving mental health.
Trust in our individual and collective resilience
There is a big gap between assuming the worst and cheerfully saying “Don’t worry! Everything will be okay!” We have survived despite wars, pandemics, natural disasters, depressions, and recessions. Many of us who are immigrants have experienced difficult and traumatic incidents that brought us to the United States. Bruneau states, “We are programmed to adapt, heal, and support and care for each other. Look back on the difficult times you’ve been through thus far: you are stronger and more resourced than you know. We will get through this. We will rebuild. And we will do so together.”
Fear is an understandable, even appropriate, response to external danger. Fear can motivate us to take actions that have the best promise of keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe. The key to maintaining mental health is to make sure that the fear does not take over our lives; that we don’t allow the worries about “what if” to develop into full-blown panic.
If you feel yourself spiraling out of control, please reach out to friends, family members, your work colleagues or, if you are an employee, you can call your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or access their services online. Share your worries with someone else. No one needs to suffer alone when we are all in this together.