Experts share tips to manage anxiety during crisis

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The anxiety, fear and stress seems to come in waves these days.

News announcements come at a furious pace. Grocery stores are packed with people, and shelves are often stripped of essential goods. Families are all in the house together, balancing work and eLearning while finding ways to entertain themselves.

With so many unknowns and new normals during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed, said Kimble Richardson, a licensed mental health counselor for Community Health Network.

“Sometimes, those things are moment to moment. Especially if people are having to shelter in place or remain in their homes, those closed quarters change the game a little bit,” he said.

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Attempts to limit the spread of the coronavirus, a potentially deadly respiratory illness, has focused on maintaining the community’s physical health. But while social distancing and increased hygiene will hopefully slow the virus and prevent more deaths, it has also impacted people’s collective mental health.

By using strategies to keep perspective and find a release for those feelings, you can ensure that your whole body remains healthy throughout the crisis, experts say.

“Fear and anxiety are totally appropriate and normal responses to what’s happening right now. But if we’re not acknowledging those emotions, it has the capacity to run away with us,” said Melissa Atlas, an outpatient clinician for Franciscan Outpatient Behavioral Health. “We’re going to be in this for the long haul; we’re going to be at home for a long time, potentially. So keeping a good eye on our mental health and focusing on what we can control will make a big difference.”

On a sunny and warm spring afternoon, the Franklin Greenway Trail was bustling with activity. Walkers, runners, skateboarders and cyclists zoomed along the walkway, taking advantage of the nice weather to get out of the house.

For the past weeks, social distancing and stay-at-home orders have left most people confined to their own homes to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

But as long as you maintain that 6-feet distance from other people, taking a walk or getting outside is vital to managing stress, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“It’s essential to make your health a priority during this time. The critical self-care activities are sleep, physical exercise and a healthy diet,” said Katherine Ponte, a mental health advocate, lawyer and entrepreneur, on the alliance’s website.

The biggest mental health risks during the coronavirus are anxiety, obsessions related to cleaning and sanitation, loneliness and traumatic stress, according to the alliance.

A poll published by the Kaiser Family Foundation on March 17 found that 62% of people were worried that they or someone in their family would get sick. As the stock market fluctuated wildly, 51% of people worried that their retirement or college savings would be negatively impacted.

The poll revealed that 51% of workers worried about lost income due to closure or reduced hours.

This situation is one that is completely unique and new, said Richardson, a crisis intervention specialist for more than 30 years.

But even with all of his experience, he’s never seen anything like this, he said.

One of the best things people can do right now is limit their exposure to the news, social media and the torrent of information resulting from the coronavirus crisis, Richardson said.

“Holding back on the amount of time we spend on social media and watching the news in particular is helpful,” Richardson said. “Believe me, I’m a person who likes to be in the know. I’m looking at news on my app quite a bit. But I have to remind myself all the time — you have to put a limit on it, because it’s very stressful, and it creeps up on you.”

The crisis has increased mental health issues among all people, and exasperated those issues in people dealing with pre-existing conditions, such as anxiety.

Atlas has been working with patients, helping them deal with the issues that have stemmed from this crisis. Telephone sessions has allowed them to continue meeting, and much of those patients’ concerns are due to the coronavirus, she said.

“Everyone’s trying to deal with parenting at this time, and how to suddenly homeschool their children. It’s very challenging right now,” she said.

Mental wellness is always important, but is particularly vital at this time, Atlas said.

“There is direct correlations to your immune system during this time. The more anxious and stressed you are, your ability to fight infection and disease is decreased,” she said. “It can be a protective factor.”

Atlas has also been helping her patients take appropriate measures to be physically and mentally safe. One thing she stresses is that social distancing is important to limit the spread of disease, but that doesn’t mean you have to cut out all contact with others, she said.

“It’s important to re-categorize that as physical distancing. We need each other now more than ever. It’s very important for people’s mental health right now to be talking to friends and family in whatever ways they can,” she said.

Atlas has found a useful tool in acceptance and commitment therapy, which asks people to open up to unpleasant feelings, not overreact to them and not avoid them. Dr. Russell Harris, author of “The Happiness Trap,” created a nine-step mnemonic device, FACE COVID, to help people cope.

Using the device, people are encouraged to focus on what’s in your control, acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, come back to your body to be grounded with what’s happening right now, and engage in what you’re doing.

The second portion of the mnemonic device recommends committing to action, opening up when you can, values, identifying resources, and distancing and disinfecting your space.

“Getting people to focus on the moments and what’s in front of them has been really helpful in getting them out of that panic zone,” Atlas said.

As people are balancing work, school and parenting, it’s useful to try to be mindful of living in the present, Richardson said. He uses breathing techniques to slow down when he’s feeling overwhelmed, taking a few moments to place himself back in the moment.

“It means focusing your attention and energy on what’s happening right here in the moment, right now,” he said. “When people start feeling anxious and worried, the focus is on the future, not on what they can control.”

At a glance

Mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

What are the potential symptoms to watch out for?

Anxiety

Obsessions about disease prevention

Loneliness

Traumatic stress

What can I do?

Be mindful of your news consumption: The news can be helpful by encouraging precautions and prevention, but compulsively and obsessively reading and watching about the outbreak can be detrimental to mental health.

Make a plan: Education can be critical to alleviating stress and anxiety. Make a plan for your household needs — a shopping list, a pharmacy list. It may also help to develop an emergency plan.

Stay connected: Connect with friends and family by Skype, Facetime, email, messenger and text, especially those who may be isolated. Be ready to listen to their concerns and share yours.

Take care of yourself: It’s essential to make your health a priority during this time. The critical self-care activities are sleep, physical exercise and a healthy diet.

Find things to do: Activities that distract you from current events can be helpful. Here are a few ideas:

  • Household chores, such as spring cleaning, will give you a sense of purpose and accomplishment when completed.
  • Free online university courses and courses through Cousera, offer a great learning opportunity.
  • Movies are moving from theaters to online. Netflix is also a good option.
  • TV programming has expanded during the crisis, particularly through streaming services like Netflix. You can also currently stream the Met Opera for free. The NFL and NBA are also offering complementary access to online streaming platforms.
  • ​Virtual parishes, which the Pope and other faith leaders are offering, can help maintain religious connections.

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness

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