Here is an excellent CNN Health article which I’m reprinting, because it deals very thoroughly with the potential impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on our mental health. The writer discusses several tools we can all use to offset some of the negative effects of living in lockdown, “hiding from death,” as I think of it.
CNN Health: by Sandee LaMotte
Enforced lockdowns. Isolation from friends and loved ones. Loss of job, income, economic stability.
Grief and loss on so many levels — from missing milestones such as birthdays and graduations to severe illness and death.
Difficult times made worse by the fear of an invisible, deadly enemy who strikes via the very air we breathe.
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Such is the anxiety-ridden reality of living in the age of coronavirus for many people around the world. While some of us may be coping well right now, experts worry our emotional resilience will begin to fray as the threat of Covid-19 drags on.
“We’re living constantly with a level of fear, a heightened state of arousal, much like Vietnam vets and Iraqi vets live with every day,” said trauma counselor Jane Webber, a professor of counselor education at Kean University in New Jersey.
“And our sympathetic nervous system can only stay in that overwhelmed, almost frenetic state for so long before we crash,” said Webber, who counseled survivors and families during 9/11’s tragic aftermath.
“I call it ‘chronic threat response’ — the continued state of being in a hyper-aroused survival mode,” said trauma psychologist Shauna Springer, who has spent a decade working with military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD.
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“Chronic threat response is an escalation of many of the same symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress — sleep problems, floods of anxiety, irritability, difficulties concentrating and a hair-trigger startle response,” Springer said.
What are some of the signs that our coping skills are becoming threadbare and our anxieties may turn dark and more dangerous?
As we shelter in place, a focus on watching alarming media reports on the growth of the virus and the devastation to the economy is another warning flag, according to Springer.
“If we are spending our days soaking in this general anxiety and dread about what may happen, in a sort of foxhole waiting for bad news, that’s another sign that things are getting into a more clinical range,” she said.
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“And there’s the guilt of taking our feelings out on loved ones, which is likely to happen when you’re in close quarters with people for a long time and you haven’t adjusted to that.”
3. Loss of interest and pleasure
An even more serious sign, Springer said, is when we lose the taste for connection to others and stop reaching out to friends and family.
“When we can’t find pleasure in anything and we begin to feel numb rather than connecting with others and doing things we value or want to do with our lives, that’s a sign that we may need help and support, she said.
4. Helplessness or crippling anxiety
If the current threat of Covid-19 has reawakened feelings of helplessness, such as in the face of violence at home, or from a loss of identity and purpose after being fired or furloughed from a job, that can also be a key sign of risk, experts said.
“An overwhelming feeling of helplessness is what often leads to trauma symptoms,” Springer said. “Those of us who’ve been let go from a job can feel as if we’ve lost our identity, due to the absence of the roles and relationships that give our lives meaning, and therefore we feel helpless. We can be at risk.”
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Helplessness can turn to a dark and crippling anxiety, which is another sign that we need help.
“Crippling anxiety is where you feel constantly flooded with feelings of panic and this nameless dread about what may unfold,” Springer said. “You don’t have a sense of a hopeful future. Anxiety creates tunnel vision and it really puts us in a state of fight or flight.
“And when we are in that survival mode for a prolonged period of time, that’s when anxiety goes into a darker phase and it really warrants clinical support,” she said.
5. Thoughts of suicide
Being so hopeless and anxious that we begin to think of ending our life is, of course, a sign that immediate professional help is needed, experts said.
“Military veterans say this iswhen ‘whispers of our demons’ begin to take over,” Springer said. “When we start to script out a story in our heads of how others won’t miss us or that we’re a burden to those that we love, that is a critical sign that we need to get help immediately.”
What to do to help yourself
Reach out and connect, just not physically. The first thing to do is stay socially connected with friends and loved ones even though you’re physically apart. Technology is a great way for many of us to do that, but some in the family, such as grandparents, may be as adept at using Facebook, Facetime and Zoom, for example.
“Instead of just relying on social media, we can make a list of the 10 or 20 people that we care the most about and put them in our phone on a rotating basis,” Springer said. “We’re going to call one of those people every day.”
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Next, Springer suggested adding more people from our outer ring of friends and associates that we may not be as close to and put those people into that daily call rotation. That’s especially critical if you think those people may be especially isolated right now.
“Reaching out and connecting with people, especially those who are especially isolated, and giving them space to talk about their experience and anxiety during this unprecedented time of anxietyand then sharing our own experience is how we will get through this,” she said. “When we connect, we survive.”
Breathe deeply. In therapy sessions, Webber said, “the thing we teach most is deep breathing. It’s free, it doesn’t cost anything and it really works.”
Here’s how to do it properly, she says: Breathe through the nose, hold it and then exhale very slowly out through your mouth like you’re breathing through a straw.
“And when you breathe slowly out, you improve your whole picture of life and you reduce your nervousness,” Webber said.
Practice gratitude. Science has shown that people who practice gratitude are happier and more optimistic — and you can easily teach yourself how to do it.
“One thing I recommend to everyone in scary times is to write two or three things each day of what you’re grateful for. It shifts your view of the world,” Webber said.
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“I’m grateful for my daughter because she is home with me right now. I’m grateful for my son, the nurse. I’m grateful for my other son who has figured out every possible way of getting food online that there is in the entire county,” she added with a chuckle.
Take control of your mental state. Fight back against anxiety turning darker, experts suggested, by taking control of how you think.
“One of the ways to do that is to take out a sheet of paper, put a line down the middle and on one side write down the things we can’t control right now, and on the other write what we can control,” Springer said. “And then we form a plan of action that allows us to move on those things that we can control.’
This stops us from “soaking in that feeling of helplessness or if you will just be sitting in our foxhole and waiting for more bad news to come,” she said. “We’re actually moving on things that we want to be doing with our lives, even if there are some very challenging circumstances right now.”
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For some people that may not feel possible, especially if they lost a job or were furloughed when the economy came to a screeching halt.
“Losing a job is a seismic stressor, one of the most stressful things that can happen to you,” Springer said. “But you can sit and ponder on your negative situation or you can use the time to learn something new or deepen yourself or gain some skills.”
She points to the many high quality, inexpensive or free training programs on the internet today that can add skills to your profession or even help you transition to something new.
“So people can use this time to build skills and become smarter and stronger and more prepared for when the workforce really kicks back in and full force,” Springer said.
Establish a schedule. Our days and nights are blending together, and many people find themselves working more hours, or if they can’t work, fretting about finances. One way to fight back to is establish a schedule that separates work or job search from family and play time, especially exercise, which is critical for boosting our mental mood. Meditation or mindfulness are also excellent options to schedule into our day, experts said.
“We have to create routines in order to get through this absolutely surrealistic world right now,” Webber said. “Focus on the little things, such as making a lunch in a special way, knitting, crocheting, meditation, mindfulness, yoga or walking or running to do something physical to help us reach a more calm mental state.”
Be careful with media, especially social media. Be sure to limit the amount of time you spend watching the news, especially if youfeel it makes you anxious, experts said. That can also apply to social media, said Arthur Evans, the CEO of the American Psychological Association, in a recent interview for the Washington Journal section of CSPAN.
“There is a lot of misinformation on social media,” Evans said. “When you couple that with a lot of contradictory information, it creates more anxiety for people.”
For example, he said, social media is filled with conspiracy theories and other wrong information that “is contradicting what we are hearing from professionals who really know and understand these issues … so limiting the information to reliable sources, sources you can trust, goes a long way in helping manage that stress.”
Crack a smile. It’s long been said that “laughter is the best medicine,” and that applies to the anxiety of our times, experts said.
“Remember, you can’t be anxious and smile at the same time. That’s a physiological thing,” Webber said.
So watch funny movies, listen to comedy routines, ask everyone you talk to on the phone to tell you a joke. Give back to them by doing the same.
Stay optimistic. There are so many unknowns when it comes to this new disease that is terrorizing the world. Will it ease over the warmer summer months? Get better or worse as the world begins to open back up? Even worse, will it return with a vengeance in the fall and winter?
Don’t let those unknowns shake you or take away your optimism, Webber said.
“I consider optimism both healthy and an Achilles heel, because of course, being too optimistic might let you down,” she said. “But if I had the choice, optimism is always better than pessimism. And optimism is always better than realism. If we have hope that the best will come, we might be disappointed, but that hope, I always believe, will get to the person that you love.”
I was about to post about managing transitions when I saw this post from the Gottman Institute, realizing how relevant it was to my subject. I’m sharing it with you, hoping you benefit from all the wonderful ideas in it. Having fun and being intentional can be a vital part of dealing with transitions.
Stay tuned for my next (long overdue!) post about managing transitions in general. My husband and I recently adopted a rescue Lab, and have been doing our best to manage all the aspects of that transition, made more challenging by the fact that however adorable he is, he steals a lot off of surfaces – socks, paper, food, etc.! So, one major transition for us is to completely de-clutter to dog-proof the whole house. Ugh!
Tune in soon….
Making plans to share time together as a family, and being intentional about it, can help you grow closer to your loved ones.
Rituals can help us to process our feelings as we move through life’s transitions and to stay connected despite the pressures of everyday life. If you neglect to come together in a regular way, you may miss out on the feeling of being emotionally connected.
With the autumn season almost upon us, it’s time to make new memories and share rituals of connection. Give these fall activities a try or come up with your own ways to celebrate this season together.
Here’s an excellent guest article by Cheryl Conklin from wellnesscentral.info about tools for self nurture and for avoiding negative thoughts and behaviors. These tools are important for everyday life, and even more critical during the pandemic.
Stop. No, really, stop. Those harmful habits of yours are hurting you! Not sure which ones are damaging? Being negative, hanging out with toxic people, getting no exercise, spreading yourself too thin with poor time management, and comparing yourself to others are all habits you should break. Read on to learn more.
Being negative doesn’t necessarily mean being angry or frustrated — those are normal human emotions. It’s how you handle these emotions and the situations in which you feel them that you can work on. Verywell Mind explains that managing negative emotions comes down to embracing the feeling(s), determining why you feel that way, allowing yourself to understand the message your mind is sending, and releasing the feeling(s) to move forward.
Awhile ago, I worked with a couple who had this conversation in a session:
“You know, sweetie, I decided that paying only $3500. for the bike I want would be a great deal! The electric bikes run about $5000 to $6000 average! We could finance it easily with your excellent credit, or just buy it outright. And we could ride up hills on and off road! It would be so handy and fun!”
“$4000 for a bike that doesn’t even require any exercise? Do you think I’m made of money?! We have loads of other, more important expenses coming up! And, why are you leaning so happily into old age? What’s wrong with using some muscles – and paying a fraction of the price – on my dime?!”
Guess who was the primary earner in this marriage? And guess who got their way…
Historically, husbands frequently provided the income and wives stayed home running the household and dealing with the kids. Although wives often managed the checkbook, their husbands often maintained control over the spending choices made. It was an efficient but unequal system in terms of power.
Today, spousal roles are usually more blurred, with both partners earning an income and both sharing household and child rearing roles. What often remains the same however, is the fact that the higher earner generally has more say about what and when money is spent on based on their own assignment of value to purchases – (hence the electric bike discussion).
Because fluid sharing of power seems so vital to modern day marriages, I encourage couples to look at their habits or practices that create a power imbalance. It often is most obvious in this financial realm where the perception of value to an expense gets more votes and credence from the top earner.
So, instead of arguing endlessly about what’s worth spending money on, I encourage couples to set up an “Ours, Yours, and Mine” account system which supports collaboration on joint spending and expenses, as well as individual prerogative and independence around non essential spending. Things like the mortgage, utilities, food and children’s needs would come from the joint account, which the couple would fund equally, but proportionately to their income. The separate accounts would be funded based on an agreed upon monthly amount, also equally and proportionately from each spouse’s income. That way, the husband who wanted to get an electric bike would fund it from his own account in his own time without it having to meet his wife’s “priority” test.
For other one-earner couples I’d encourage them to look at the subjectivity around discretionary expenses. What’s “worth it” to one, may not be to the other. Weighting that based on who makes the money can create a nasty power imbalance that can color the relationship, so better to take turns or negotiate out disagreements about what “we” spend or don’t.
The number one complaint couples refer to when they call with a therapy request is “We don’t communicate.” Sound familiar? And oddly, unless partners are each bound and gagged (that’s another post, I think), or living separately in parts of the world without telephones, video or email, they communicate – maybe not clearly, or respectively, or productively, but they COMMUNICATE.
Communication can be an eye roll, a grimace, a smile, a turning away, a raised eyebrow, a frown, a touch, silence, a scream, a laugh, etc. They are all ways of sending a message. Our 15 month old granddaughter speaks only about 20 actual words at this point, but communicates quite clearly and purposefully with pointing, head shaking, smiling, hand waving, hugs, cries, shrieks, squeals or laughs. Because the family doesn’t expect many actual words we all pay attention to what she’s “saying” and try to respond in a tuned in way.
Our 9 year old Lab has never said one word but also communicates very clearly and consistently with groans, sighs, tail wags, kisses, stares, or nudges. And he runs the household! He usually gets what he wants without ever saying one word.
So maybe, the issue is really “We don’t send or receive clear signals, We don’t listen. We don’t pay attention. We don’t tune in.”
I am a licensed, board certified pyschotherapist and relationship coach in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Through my psychotherapy or coaching services, I can provide you with
skills and tools to transform your life.