While you’re protecting your physical self from the coronavirus, don’t neglect your emotional self — or that of your loved ones.
That’s the fervent advice of local mental health professionals, who are urging everyone to take special care to attend to their mental health needs during the COVID-19 shutdown.
“We know a lot about what causes anxiety, and this pandemic is the perfect storm,” says psychologist Carla Counts Allan of Children’s Mercy Kansas City. “We don’t know what will happen, we don’t know how long it will last, and many of us have lost a sense of control. Coupled with the loss of our routines and social support, the world can feel upside down right now.”
It’s worse for some than others. We’ve all heard how the virus can be most dangerous to those with existing physical ailments. But the same can be true for those with underlying mental health issues: Uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the pandemic can exacerbate existing mental health issues. Indeed, area mental health professionals tell The Star they fully expect increases in mental health dilemmas and crises as mandated self-isolation stretches into weeks.
In truth, though, most everyone must be conscious right now of how they’re processing these unprecedented events and handling heightened levels of anxiety over threats not only to health, but to jobs, the economy and the social fabric.
“While we’re focused on our physical health care, and protecting ourselves from getting the coronavirus, we need to start paying attention to the mental health impact of this, because this is a global trauma that’s happening,” says Randy Callstrom, president and CEO of Wyandot Behavioral Health Network in Wyandotte County (crisis hotline: 913-788-4200).
Tim DeWeese, director of Johnson County Mental Health Center, says he’s shifting resources to double the two-person staff manning the county’s crisis hotline, at 913-268-0156.
“Nobody’s experienced anything like this before,” DeWeese says, noting that it’s perfectly normal to feel anxious when such a maelstrom menaces safety and upturns routines.
You can take deliberate steps to reduce anxiety, Callstrom and DeWeese say, such as controlling your intake of media and social media; finding opportunities to exercise; getting outdoors while observing social distancing; deep and purposeful breathing; good nutrition; meditation; and using technology to maintain social contact.
Safe social contact, particularly now, is so important that DeWeese opposes the term “social distancing.”
“I personally think we should be saying ‘physical distancing,’ because we’re social creatures,” he says. “We need to have social interaction. I would prefer to say, let’s keep our distance from one another, but still socialize. We have to be careful that we’re not socially isolating ourselves.”
Callstrom agrees, noting that his own relatives were arranging a “virtual happy hour” with each other to stay close. “That physical contact, but also that emotional connection, is one of our basic human needs. That is definitely a part of the loss that people can be experiencing right now.”
Callstrom suggests practicing mindfulness, which he says is objectively taking note of your thoughts and emotions and consciously choosing how to act and react, even to your own thinking.
“You can reprogram your own self-talk,” Callstrom says.
It’s also vital to reprogram your day to fit this new, temporary normal.
“Developing a routine that can get us back to kind of an even keel, that’s something that we should strive to do,” DeWeese says.
Creating a new routine is decidedly important for children to experience and to see parents modeling, Allan says, suggesting maintaining standardized bedtimes and dressing normally.
In short, don’t stress about what you can’t control, and take charge of what you can.
While anxiety is perfectly normal right now, it slips into a problem area if it starts to impact your sleeping or eating patterns or your ability to concentrate. And although local liquor stores have oddly enough been deemed essential businesses during this crisis, these mental health professionals caution against increased use of alcohol or other substances to self-medicate. Seek the above internal and behavioral elixirs instead.
For children, changes in mood and behavior “are almost to be expected” right now, notes Children’s Mercy pediatric psychologist Christina Low Kapalu. Such changes, she says, can include increased irritability, social withdrawal, sadness or worry, tearfulness, chronic changes in sleeping or eating habits, increased somatic complaints (headaches, stomachaches), and a strong focus on death, dying and the safety of family members.
“It would be expected that many children will display some of these symptoms during this time,” Kapalu says. “They become of greater concern when symptoms occur in groups (more than a few symptoms at the same time), throughout the day and for many days or weeks, and impact their ability to participate in daily activities.”
It’s critical to monitor young children or children with developmental disabilities who may not be able to express their feelings, Kapula says.
“Most of all,” Allan recommends for the entire family, “recognize that even though you may be feeling helpless, you are actually quite powerful. By staying at home, you have stopped the virus from spreading to others, who would spread it to others, etc. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure. You’re practicing powerful medicine indeed.”
The thing is, if you take care of yourself in the coming weeks — in both body and mind — you may come out of this better than before.