Answers to some important questions about dealing with mental health during a pandemic

Are there any trends, counselors/therapists have been having in response to the pandemic?

Some of the common reactions to current events have been increased anxiety, and not just about the possibility of be­coming infected with COVID-19, but more so, the public’s reaction to this current pandemic. The shortages of food and household items, and the worry about how people are going to react if these things readily available soon are a few of the most common fears.

Unfortunately, for some, the normal first response is to panic and this fear, and if not properly managed, can result in risky and harmful actions, such as buying as many supplies as they can afford. We all want to feel safe, prepared and ready to meet any disaster or event with confidence and this is no exception. The overbuying or hoarding of household items and food is a common response during these types of events. It is far easier to focus on negative reactions than to try and find positives in any situation.

I think it’s important to remember we are not going through this alone. We all have similar concerns and fears about how this event is going to change our lives. It is a good idea to educate yourself with the facts, talk with family/friends about what to expect and acknowledge fears and concerns, and develop a plan for action and safety.

Help is available through local and national resources such as: Community Mental Health Center crisis lines (check your local area); the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a 24-hour disaster distress helpline, 1-800-985-5990, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline @ 1-800-273-8255, and the KCSL's Parent Helpline @ 1-800-CHILDREN.

If people are experiencing any fears or anxiety over current events, first of all, these are normal responses to current events. It is important we all remember these emotions exist to be helpful and protective; the key is how to manage these emotions without letting the emotions manage us. According the Centers for Disease Control, signs of stress dur­ing an infectious disease outbreak can include: 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; poor or increased appetite; and increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.

Tips to manage fear/anxiety:

Knowledge is Power - educate yourself as to how to protect and prevent, and follow the recommended guidelines from reputable sources.

Limit time on social media – stick to updating yourself on family and don’t allow yourself to become overwhelmed with too much extraneous information. It can be easy to involve yourself in others’ drama in order to avoid your own fears. Please avoid engaging in this type of use of social media, and remember, social media can be helpful or harmful, it is up to each of us to manage and be accountable for our own actions.

Reconnect – Utilize this time to reconnect with friends and family – according to recommended guidelines. Instead of texting that family/friend, call them up, talk don’t text. If you have family living with you, take the time to sit down and talk, play games, involve others in chores, especially children.

Take care of your body – take time to start that workout plan, even if it’s just a walk, or following along with an old exercise video. Follow a schedule for meals, and drink plenty of water, and rest.

AVOID using alcohol or illicit substances – using alcohol or illicit substances during may seem helpful, but the reality is you are putting your health and well-being at greater risk.
Tips to manage isolation

Some individual may not have family/friends living with them and may start to feel very isolated and alone. Isola­tion can cause or worsen depressive symptoms, and/or cause increased anxiety or panic attacks. Other symptoms can include poor sleep, loss of appetite, irrational thoughts, impulsiveness, and poor decisions.

Take care of yourself – exercise, eat small meals more often, drink plenty of fluids, attend to hygiene needs and rest. Often, when we start to feel depressed, we don’t want to engage in any of these activities. A good rule of thumb is: if engaging in one of these activities is the last thing you want to do, then it’s a good indicator you need to do that exact activity. Continue medications as prescribed and check in with medical professionals, as needed.

Connect with the outside world – There are many online cultural opportunities being offered to the public, free of charge, by multiple sources: local and worldwide religious organizations; TV and smartphone apps offering free showings of Broadway and Opera shows; celebrity readings of books and poetry; famous musicians offering free mini concerts, and Zoos with webcams for viewing the animals. The list keeps growing every day. Also, check out local library offerings on their websites.

Change Your Geography – If you can, get outside, take a walk, even if it’s just around your yard. Turn on some music and sit outside in the sunshine. Open curtains and let sunlight into your home. Re-arrange furniture, if you can, to create a new space.

Check in with neighbors, especially the elderly – volunteer, if you can, to help deliver groceries or provide other services in your community.

AVOID using alcohol or illicit substances – using alcohol or illicit substances during may seem helpful, but the reality is you are putting your health and well-being at greater risk.

How to deal with being stuck in together with family, children and/or roommates:

It can be very stressful when it is necessary to shelter in place. Each person reacts differently to stress, but some common reactions include increased anxiety, fear, excessive worry about how you will meet and provide for needs, anger, irritability, and frustration about the current situation. Again, these are normal reactions to these stressful times.

Ask for Help – Engage children, others in performing needed chores such as cooking, cleaning, etc. Try to make chores fun, do the chores together as a family, if needed.

Take time outs – Both you and others will need several breaks during the day. These can be naptimes/rest times for kids and adults. If your partner is available, switch off chores and monitoring the kids to give each person time to rest and recuperate.

Play – kids need recess, exercise and playtime. Get silly with your kids, engage those teenagers in age appropriate games, move them outside, weather permitting, and enjoy some fresh air. Have picnics in your yard, scavenger hunts, bug hunts, etc. Get everyone engaged in an activity.

Make an emergency plan - give each family member a job to do in case of emergency and practice that plan.

Identify reliable sources of activities for children - including games, toys, books, movies, online learning sites. Kansas Children’s Services League has a Parents Helpline 1-800-CHILDREN.

Rebecca J Gray, LSCSW
Labette Center Crisis Therapist