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Mental Health During the COVID-19 Outbreak

Written by Lauren Smaldone, ANP

Caring for your mental and emotional health in an uncertain time.

We are continuing to learn about the new coronavirus and the disease it causes, referred to as COVID-19 or the coronavirus disease. Right now, people around the world are being asked to practice strategies like social distancing and home isolation to help slow the transmission of COVID-19 in their communities. Slowing the transmission of COVID-19 helps to reduce overall illness and death, and protects the most vulnerable individuals such as older adults or those with underlying health conditions.

While it is crucial to ensure the physical wellbeing of yourself and others, it’s also important to take care of your mental and emotional health in this stressful time.

Why do I feel so anxious?

You are not alone. According to the CDC, stress during an infectious disease outbreak such as the COVID-19 outbreak is common and can include things like:

  • Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones
  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

To add insult to injury, the strategies that we use help slow the spread of coronavirus (social distancing and quarantine) can lead to increased feelings of isolation, as well as the inability to use some of the coping mechanisms we might normally use to feel better.

What can I do to feel more like myself?

Taking care of yourself, your friends, and your family can help you cope with stress. Helping others also strengthens community bonds. The CDC offers the following tips for managing your anxiety and stress:

  • Take care of your body. Try to eat healthy well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.
  • Connect with others. Share your concerns and how you are feeling with a friend or family member. Although we can no longer gather in groups, we can connect through phone calls, video calls and social media.
  • Take breaks. Make time to unwind and remind yourself that strong feelings will fade.
  • Take deep breaths. Try to do activities you usually enjoy.
  • Stay informed. When you feel that you are missing information, you may become more stressed or nervous. Watch, listen to, or read the news for updates from officials. Be aware that there may be rumors during a crisis, especially on social media. Always check your sources and turn to reliable sources of information like your local government authorities.
  • Avoid too much exposure to news. Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories. It can be upsetting to hear about the crisis and see images repeatedly. Try to do enjoyable activities and return to normal life as much as possible and check for updates between breaks.

How do I exercise?

Even though many gyms are closed and group sporting events canceled, it is still possible to exercise. If you want to exercise outdoors, you can - just make sure to stay a minimum of six feet away from others during your run or bike ride.

Another option is exercising at home. There are many apps to help you with this goal. Some are designed to work with a treadmill or exercise bike which require you to have home equipment. But there are also lots of workouts that can be completed with weights, resistance bands, a yoga mat, or no equipment at all. Another option is home yoga and pilates. There is a growing number of studios and gyms like the YMCA and CorePower Yoga that are offering free online workout videos. Use exercise as an opportunity to be social - try jogging in place while chatting with friends on speaker phone.

How do I relax my mind?

Anxiety can cause repetitive or racing negative thoughts that can feel hard to control. One way to minimize these thoughts is to practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. Here are some sample steps for a mindfulness meditation:

  1. Sit comfortably. Find a spot that gives you a stable, solid, comfortable seat.
  2. Notice what your arms and legs are doing.
  3. Straighten your upper body.
  4. Soften your gaze.
  5. Feel your breath. Bring your attention to the physical sensation of breathing: the air moving through your nose or mouth, the rising and falling of your belly or your chest.
  6. Notice when your mind wanders from your breath. There’s no need to block or eliminate thinking. When you notice your mind wandering gently return your attention to the breath.
  7. When you’re ready, gently lift your gaze (if your eyes are closed, open them).

Take a moment and notice any sounds in the environment. Notice how your body feels right now. Notice your thoughts and emotions.

The benefits of teletherapy

People with preexisting mental health conditions should continue with their existing treatment plans during an emergency while monitoring for any new symptoms. In this time of social distancing, how can this be achieved? Teletherapy and telepsychiatry refer to the delivery of traditional behavioral health and psychiatric care using a phone or the Internet.

Video teleconferencing allows patients to continue therapy even if they can’t physically travel to an appointment. Research has shown that exposure and response prevention delivered remotely via video teleconferencing was as effective as in-person treatment.

Some apps you may want to consider for teletherapy are Better Help and Doctor On Demand.

How can I help my child through this difficult time?

According to the CDC, it is important to take time to talk with your child or teen about the COVID-19 outbreak. Many strategies are similar to how we recommend that you deal with your own stress and anxiety.

  • Reassure your child or teen that they are safe. Let them know it is ok if they feel upset.
  • Share with them how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn how to cope from you.
  • Limit your family’s exposure to news coverage of the event, including social media.
  • Children may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they do not understand.
  • Try to keep up with regular routines. While schools are closed, create a schedule for learning activities and relaxing or fun activities.
  • Be a role model. Take breaks, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and eat well. Connect with your friends and family members.

Additional resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.

You can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA's) Disaster helpline 1-800-985-6990 or text TalkWithUS to 66746 for support 24/7. This is a toll-free, multilingual, and confidential crisis support service that is available to all residents in the United States and its territories.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, encourages those with a dangerous or abusive home situation to seek out shelters (where available), hotlines, therapists, and counselors. Victims are also encouraged to turn to a trusted friend or family member, if available, who can make a call to a hotline on their behalf should they not be able to do so themselves. Resources include The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233), the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (1-800-537-2238), and National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673).

The bottom line

We are all in this together. Find creative ways to be social while social distancing.Take care of yourself and check in with your friends and family regularly. Use the resources listed above if you need to. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless in a period of uncertainty like this one.

The important thing to remember is that small steps taken by individuals and communities have a large impact to slow the spread of COVID-19. Continue to check in with the CDC for the most up to date information on how to stay safe.

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HeyDoctor, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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