Mental Health Strategies for Dealing with COVID-19

As the COVID-19 stay-at-home order marches on into April, so does our sense of isolation and for many, the experience of depression and anxiety. Many of the patients that I have been seeing through tele-mental health have been reporting feelings of loneliness, frustration, restlessness, fear, and difficulty getting motivated or getting along with others in their home. Therefore, I wanted to share with you some of the suggestions that my patients and I have been discussing.

First, if you are able, make an effort to go outside and get fresh air and sunshine. Exercise, walk, ride a bicycle if you can, limit time you spend listening to, reading, and watching updates on your digital devices. Limit alcohol use as it has been reported to decrease your immune system functioning as well as your ability to make appropriate decisions. Alcohol is also considered a depressant and as a result will make you more depressed.

Try other methods of improving your mood and decreasing your anxiety and nervous symptoms. The easiest technique to calm your mind and your soul is taking a big deep breath followed by several normal breaths. There are several websites that give good tips on the techniques of deep breathing or diaphramatic breathing. However, many of these sites instruct readers to take several breaths at a time and in my practice individuals report that when following these guidelines, they become dizzy and often hyperventilate which is very uncomfortable. Therefore, I recommend that you take one deep breath at a time and then breathe normally for 15-20 seconds and then take another deep breath.

After you have practiced deep breathing, try meditation. There are several websites that provide applications for guided meditation including Headspace; Virtual Hope, and Calm that also has guided meditations for children. Include your children in your practice of being calm with apps like Breath, Think, Do with Sesame- for kids. Once you have reached a more calm state, try visualization techniques. Using your “mind’s eye” travel to a favorite calm and happy place by using your virtual “4 senses” of sight, sound, smell and touch. Picture yourself in that calm place and remain there as long as you can. Visit this place to calm, decrease anxiety and even fall asleep. Finally, take it “one day at a time”, and practice these techniques daily. This can help you stay mentally and physically healthy.

Surviving the Anxiety of COVID-19

Tips from a Mental Health Professional.

As a psychologist, even I am not immune to the anxiety of COVID-19 and the constantly changing course of events and how it is affecting our lives.  Married and with children who are still in high school, we have had the difficult discussions of how to cope with the “new normal.”  Anxiety has increased ten-fold even before this virus and is now exponentially greater and even more intense for many people.  Anxiety is experienced or manifests in different ways depending on the individual and their coping resources or tools.  Physically, it feels like shortness of breath, dizziness, nervousness, brain fog and poor concentration to name a few.  It can also feel like you have run out of energy and feel constantly fatigued.  Mentally, and emotionally, it feels overwhelming, stressful, or scary.  It can come in the form of inertia, when you feel like putting tasks off for later, and later never comes.  So, embrace your anxiety and label it, or give it a name like Bob or Jane.  Don’t fear it or feed it.  Change your thoughts regarding your need for control by focusing on what you can control.  

Understand that loved ones will feel angry or irritable as their anxiety increases with each postponement, cancellation, furlough or layoff.  Try to put yourself in their shoes and be patient with them and try to understand the reason for their concerns.    Social distancing and all of this uncertainty is the new normal and we don’t know how long this new normal will last    If you anticipate it to end quickly then it will feel like a car ride that you expected was only going to take 20 minutes and at the 15 minute mark you were informed it would last 9 days in that car with your whole family pilled in and one pit stop per day for lunch and no internet or playlist to access.  So make plans for this to last a while. 

Create a new routine.  All of us are out of our normal work or school routines that allow us to predict what happens next.  We also need to get back as much of an old routine as possible.  If we get up in the morning for work or school at a certain time, then keep that time.  Lunch, exercise, socialization and activities need to occur if possible around that same time to create the feeling of routine and structure.  Structure and routine allow us to predict what is next thus decreasing the feeling of anxiety. 

Balance your day with exercise, fresh air, humor, and new and creative ways of socializing.  Learn a new skill or hobby that will serve as a much needed distraction.  Limit screen time and your exposure to notifications of breaking news, rumors, or false information.  Check your news feed less often perhaps limiting to once per hour.  Add calming activities to your day such as meditation, mindfulness, and deep breathing.  If you are able, get outside and play.  Visit nature and notice all the things that you missed before.  Walk through your neighborhood or park and think about what you are grateful for or record it in a gratitude journal.  

When we are experiencing anxiety and stress it is difficult to be creative and think of things to do so, make a “menu” for yourself and loved ones of things to do when you are feeling anxious.  Get support from friends and family.  Ask for assistance.  It is beneficial to talk to a mental health provider who can support you and help you access and sharpen your coping tools or add to your tool box as you work hard to maintain your loved ones anxiety and your concerns during this uncertain time.

All mental health professionals are now conducting therapy sessions via tele-mental health.  This means that you can contact a licensed mental health provider in your area through your phone, cell phone, or computer.   Stay safe, stay healthy, be responsible and stay apart. 

Survey Finds Constantly Checking Electronic Devices Linked to Significant Stress

Put down your mobile devices and smell the roses.
Over the last decade, I have encountered an increase in patients who are reporting higher levels of stress. According to the American Psychological Association (APA) many Americans have admitted to having an increased level of stress as a result of the significant amount of time spent on their mobile devices. The APA conducted a survey and concluded that Americans admit to constantly checking their social media, texts and email and thus have formed an unhealthy attachment to their devices. Parents also report their struggle in limiting their children’s screen time. Further inquiry into their screen time habits reveals their difficulty balancing addictions, their neglect of others, or their own personal self-care.

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Headaches and stomach aches as a stress signal

Do you experience headaches, muscle tension or stomach aches due to a demanding work/ life schedule?  This is an issue I see all too often in my practice.  Over the years, various patients have complained of these physical symptoms that tended to make their work and home lives less productive and frustrating.

One patient expressed his guilt over being unable to participate in sports activities with his young son because of his tension headaches and severe jaw pain.  In addition, he admitted that he experienced a great amount of pressure from work to fulfill a quota and that his wife was recently laid off from her job.  Financial stressors as well as life and work demands had increased and he was “holding it all in.”  The physical symptoms he was experiencing were directly related to his emotional stress and how he was dealing with it.

We began to explore the ways that he could incorporate relaxation and exercise in his life.  He admitted that he used to ride his bike and work out regularly. However, the responsibilities at home and at his job increased and he was “unable” to find the time to return to these healthy stress relieving habits.  By the end of the session, he realized that it was imperative that he change the way he thought about his stressors and that he needed to make the time to practice self care.  After several sessions of exploring and fine tuning the tools to cope more effectively, he found that his headaches and jaw pain significantly subsided. He was finally able to participate and enjoy playing sports with his son.  He also found he was more productive at work and was able to receive the bonus that helped his family pay their mounting bills at home.  Please do not ignore the physical signs of stress.  They are your warning indicator lights telling you that you have to make changes in your life. l;/