Maintaining calm amidst a global panic – Lindsay Hall, MSW
*(the examples provided below are composite cases, synthesizing disguised information and not any patient in particular)
The uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 virus has led to confusion and has heightened anxiety for many of us, regardless of our mental health status. Recommendations to create social distance and self-quarantine can feel excessive or frightening. Although social media has been a useful platform for connecting with others during the quarantine, combatting boredom is not as important as the focus on the fear and isolation that many people are experiencing. For many of us, the circumstances we find ourselves in now are reminiscent of darker times. Many people worry these circumstances may negatively impact their mental health. Here are some tips that are useful for defending against the impact of panic and isolation.
Prepare, but don’t panic.
That is easier said than done. But living in an extended panicked state exhausts your body and mind and weakens your immune system. Taking care of your body with regular sleep, set mealtimes, and scheduled movement are ways to maintain routine during a time of significant changes to your daily life. It is important to take recommendations of health professionals seriously in order to keep yourself and others safe and try to avoid panic. Take a deep belly breath and remind yourself: “I am safe right now, and I am going to be okay.”
- Differentiate between CDC-recommended isolation and self-isolating behaviors.
If you have dealt at any time with mental illness such as depression, anxiety, or OCD, you may find these circumstances – especially social distancing and self-quarantine –trigger unhealthy thinking patterns. Staying grounded in the facts can help you to identify and challenge thoughts that come from an unhealthy place.
- Reach out to other people. Depression feeds on the feeling of being unlovable or burdensome to others, leading to social isolation and suffering in silence. Without the distraction of work or social situations, some people experience negative thoughts about the larger world and themselves. Through these next few weeks, remind yourself that the reason for isolation is a public health concern, not a reflection on your worth. It is a good time to use technology to spend time with others remotely, whether you are calling a relative, playing a game over Skype with friends, or just chatting with someone while you go about your day. Connection is key to maintaining your mental wellness.
- Keep your eye on the end of quarantine. Generalized anxiety makes it easy for people to worry excessively and fear the worst possible outcome. Social anxiety promotes fear of public places or of interaction with others. The warnings to avoid public places or interact with other people are sources of anxiety. These fears are compounded by recommendations to stay home and to limit physical contact with other people. While we are in this crucial period for social distancing and quarantining, remind yourself that this will come to an end. It is important to maintain distance right now, but that won’t always be the case. Consider your health status but try to engage with the outside world. Open your window to let in a breeze, talk a walk around your home, or pick up a meal from a local restaurant.
- Remember what you can and cannot control. Because of the constant presence of social media and endless updates in the news, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the threat of COVID-19. People with OCD or specific phobias may be more susceptible to obsessing over the virus, to the news associated with it, about the danger of contagion, or other people’s responses. If you notice your thoughts are becoming obsessive, create distance between yourself and the trigger. Take a break from the news or from conversations that amplify anxiety, anger, or hopelessness. Concentrate on what you can control (your thoughts and your actions) and what you cannot (the actions of others). Take action based on CDC recommendations, and not based on irrational fears. For example: Although it is wise to maintain social distance, you won’t cause thousands of deaths if you need get toothpaste.
- Be compassionate with yourself.
It is normal to feel a range of emotions during these uncertain times. You might feel anxious, lonely, sad, and listless. You might be obsessed with news related to COVID-19. You might also feel relieved or at-ease practicing social distancing. It’s all valid! We can look to health officials for instructions on what to do, but not how to feel. Don’t discount yourself because “others have it worse.” Perhaps you are upset about an event being cancelled. Forgive yourself for the guilt you feel about your reaction. Perhaps you are criticizing yourself for an irresponsible social decision. Forgive yourself for not knowing better and use the knowledge when making new decisions.
- Speak to a therapist.
No matter what is coming up for you during this pandemic, your therapist is there to listen and help you process your responses. Check with your therapist to discuss options for phone or video sessions. We are happy to help you through these challenging times from a safe, social distance!