If you have experienced increased stress or anxiety throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, you are not alone. The World Health Organization recently reported a 25% global increase of anxiety and depression during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, as social distancing and isolation measures to prevent spread of the disease led to significant effects on mental health worldwide. Though waves of cases have ebbed and flowed during the past two-plus years, disruptions in mental and other health care services unfortunately remain, leaving many people without support.
As COVID-19 and our daily routines evolve, finding a sense of balance in our approach towards our mental health can have a positive impact on our overall health and wellness. Rick McClung, LCSW, M.Div, mental health therapist at CHI Saint Joseph Health – Behavioral Health, recently sat down for a Q&A to answer common questions around how to keep mental health in check and share his tips for how to best navigate the “new normal.” The recommendations can also apply to other situations of stress.
As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, how can people maintain a good sense of balance with mental health?
Self-care is vital to mental health and living a balanced life, especially when we are in situations that are unpredictable. It is important to make sure we are functioning from an “internal locus of control” rather than an “external locus of control.” This basically means focusing on what is within our power and ability to change instead of what is not.
Simple things within our control that fall under the category of self-care include:
Not over-extending ourselves, when possible
Talking to others and maintaining our relationships
Making a difference in someone else's life
Finding ways to create meaning and purpose in the midst of suffering
Relying on personal faith and feeling connected to something larger than ourselves
Laughter, and the ability to find humor in things
The more rounded we are with our coping ability, the greater the strength of our resiliency.
How can we ease anxieties when changing a routine to get back into a normal life after isolation over a long period of time?
For many people, returning to normal life is going to take practice because any time you get out of a habit, you get rusty.
We live in a world now that involves more uncertainty, and learning how to deal with it is crucial. So again, focusing on what is within your control, like staying up to date on the latest guidance from the CDC and implementing their safety precautions.
Getting back to being in large groups or busy areas may come as a relief for some, but for many it can be anxiety-provoking. I would suggest resuming previous activities in smaller steps instead of all at once to desensitize yourself as you build back your tolerance for socializing and being in public places.
Take things at your own pace but be careful not to practice avoidance. Avoidance is the worst treatment for anxiety because it just gives it more power.
How can people deal with the anxieties that many of us have with the unknown – am I or a family member going to get COVID; how will it affect us, etc.?
Anxiety is fueled by the unknown, and there are a lot of unknowns out there; however, entertaining those thoughts just makes things worse. What many people do not realize is there are always thoughts underlying our emotions that fuel their intensity. And it’s easy to get caught up in the storyline that we are weaving in our minds. So it is important to be aware of negative thought patterns and recognize when they are fueling painful emotions like: fear, sadness, anxiety, worry, anger, helplessness, etc.
The ability to catch ourselves when we are using unhelpful thinking styles like black and white thinking; catastrophizing; predicting the future; labeling; blaming; and “should” statements, and then reframing our thoughts to something more bearable and tolerable, can really reel us back into to more healthy levels of functioning.
Statements like: “This will never go away” (black/white thinking), “What if I get sick and die” (catastrophizing/ predicting the future), “This is horrible” or “This is stupid” (labeling) and “I shouldn’t be having to go through this” (should statement), can be reframed with statements like: “I know this is difficult but I’ve been through hard times before and I survived” “I can do my best to let go of what is outside of my control and learn to live with uncertainty” “I have things to be grateful for and if I take one day at a time I can keep my symptoms within tolerable limits until this subsides.”
I call this practicing healthy mental hygiene or having balanced thinking.
For many people, while things may seem OK, there is always an underlying sense of anxiety that could lead to things like stress-eating, jumpiness, etc. While they may not be able to point to a specific incident or thought, there is something just below the surface that makes them anxious. What can they do to recognize that and deal with it?
If you are experiencing a lot of jumpiness or unease just below the surface, I would encourage practicing mindfulness, which is just paying attention to what is happening in the present moment.
Think of your five senses and go through them. What colors do you see around you? How big or small is your depth perception? What sounds are in the air?–in the room, outside of the room, down the street, or overhead. Are they occasional, constant or subtle? What can you feel?–the ground underneath you, the weight of your body standing or sitting, gentle breezes in the air, the pen in your hand and how it feels to make marks on a piece of paper. Are there smells present? Where are they coming from? If you are eating – being aware of taste, textures, chewing and the actual process of nourishing the body.
The point is to be exactly where you are at that moment. You may not like or condone the present moment but mindfulness says, “If I must be here I might as well fully experience this.” It is a shift in perception. Instead of judging our circumstances and trying to control them, we can accept the present moment and let go of our expectations and iron grip on reality.
Learning to accept the problems that are out of our control leads to less anxiety, anger and sadness when we are dealing with them. The more we judge our emotions, experiences, life situations and despise them, loathe them, want to get rid of them, the more intense our emotions and experiences become and the more they control us. However, when we make space for them, accept them for what they are, get curious about them and make friends with them, the less they overwhelm us and the better we are able to manage them.
When we practice mindfulness we are less likely to self-soothe in unhealthy ways such as stress eating because we are cultivating an attitude of acceptance and have less of a need to escape.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, don’t wait to seek help. Learn more about behavioral health services at CHI Saint Joseph Health.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255 or call 911 in case of immediate danger.
For more resources, visit www.nimh.nih.gov.