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How to Protect Your Mental Health During COVID-19

03/27/2020

Life has changed dramatically in the last month and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The spread of COVID-19, now a global pandemic, has upended our routines, pushed pause on travel and many businesses, locked down entire countries, brought children from preschool to college back into our homes for an unknown time and is a relentless foe for healthcare workers and officials. 

This is a stressful time for everyone. The worry and fear associated with this disease can be overwhelming. Just as it's important to stay physically healthy by following the CDC guidelines for hand washing and social distancing, it's just as important to take care of yourself emotionally.

So, with all that said, if you’re not quite feeling like your usual self, cut yourself some slack. These are unprecedented times. It’s perfectly natural to feel nervous, anxious, sad, scared, hopeful, motivated or lethargic. Or even all those things at once.

According to Lesa Van Horn, who is the director of clinical services at INTEGRIS Decisions Mental Health & Addiction Recovery Programs in Oklahoma, the health system is actually seeing lower numbers of people reaching out for therapy in group settings. Van Horn says she thinks people might be ignoring their mental health right now because they are afraid of getting the virus. “I think it’s possible we will see mental health and addiction problems surge this summer, after the COVID-19 surge starts declining.”

The Centers for Disease Control tells us that stress during an infectious disease outbreak can include: 

  • Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones 
  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns 
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating 
  • Worsening of chronic health problems 
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs 

The trick with good mental health is in many ways the same as the trick with good physical health. Consistency is important, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and good habits are key. In many cases, good mental health is a habit, which can be maintained and improved upon.   

During this pandemic, if you are already in treatment for your mental health, the National Institute for Mental Health says, “For those with mental illnesses, be sure to continue your treatment regimens. Consider developing a plan for telehealth sessions with your provider if you (or your provider) are quarantined or must avoid exposure to the public for any reason. And, reach out to friends and family for support, virtually if necessary.” It’s also very important to make sure you continue taking any mental health medications you’ve been prescribed.

If you aren’t being treated for your mental health but need some help calming your anxiety right now, here six straightforward tips for managing the stress created by the pandemic, courtesy of Yale Medicine.

  1. Information is useful, but too much information can be unhelpful. Limit your news intake to sources that are actually providing new information. There’s no benefit in watching the same news over and over. Also, make sure you stick with reliable news sources. 
  2. Take the necessary and recommended precautions to stay safe, like social distancing and washing your hands often, but don’t try to “innovate” new ones. The goal is to be ‘careful enough.’ When we try to ensure perfection and 100 percent safety, we can get caught up in unhelpful behaviors and obsessions.  
  3. Keep up daily routines and make changes only when necessary. Maintaining regular schedules and routines is a good way to keep anxiety at bay and feel normal. Even if some changes need to be made, maintaining your overall routine is helpful. If you have kids, try to maintain the normalcy of their routines as much as possible as well. At the same time, it's important to be flexible and develop new routines for the “new normal,” which could include fun new rituals like virtual game nights or book clubs.   
  4. Don’t completely isolate yourself from other people. Fear of contagion and mandatory stay-at-home orders can cause people to withdraw socially, but maintaining relationships and social support are good ways to combat anxiety. Even if you are in self-quarantine or mandatory quarantine, keep in close contact with your family and friends outside your home through technology, such as FaceTime, Skype or Zoom, or through phone calls and text messages. Reach out to your connections to hash out feelings and fears. Develop a mutual support plan – regular check-ins on mental health with one or two people who are close to you.
  5. Stay physically active and get outdoors if you can. Spending time simply walking and getting fresh air can help keep anxiety down. Exercise has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and depression. However, it’s still necessary to maintain a 6-foot distance from others.
  6. Limit screen time. Too much time on the phone, computer, social media or websites can lead to less activity and more anxiety.

Many experts stress the importance of self-care during this trying time."COVID-19 may leave us feeling out of control," says George Everly, a professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who specializes in disaster mental health. "Taking care of ourselves is the best way to take care of others, whether they be family, friends, patients, or co-workers." 

Here are some tried-and-true methods for practicing self-care now, and in the future. 

  • Direct energy toward diversions, hobbies, and creative outlets. Doing activities you enjoy has a positive impact on your neurochemistry and helps lessen stress. 
  • Develop a new regimen of scheduled times to get up, move and stretchVideos and apps can guide you, and many yoga studios now offer streaming services.
  • Surround yourself with familiar things you enjoy. Keep watching your favorite TV shows, keep listening to your favorite music and podcasts, and keep cooking your favorite foods if you can. 
  • Indulge a little. Let yourself eat treats, kill time with video games or mindless apps, and catch up TV shows you never have time to watch. However, experts caution against using alcohol or drugs to cope with stress; your mental health will suffer more.  
  • Protect your sleep. Quality, sufficient sleep not only helps support your immune system but also helps you better manage stress and regulate emotions. 
  • Accept a lack of control. Control what you can; accept and cope with those things outside of your control. Remember you may not always be able to control what happens, but you can always control how you react.  

And finally, perhaps most importantly, be kind to yourself and others. Please take good care of yourself, physically, spiritually and emotionally. The staff at INTEGRIS Decisions Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Programs is available if you need help. Decisions offers treatment for both adults and adolescents. Simply call them at 405-717-9840 and they can help you get the mental health services you need.

Or, if you're looking for resources, the following list may help.

  • INTEGRIS Mental Health Assessment Team: 1-405-951-2273  
  • NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness): 1-800-950-6264
  • SAMHSA (Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration): 1-800-662-HELP (1-800-662-4357)
  • The Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • OKC Intergroup Substance Use Hotline: 1-405-524-1100
  • Narcotics Anonymous: https://www.na.org/meetingsearch
  • Online AA meetings: http://aa-intergroup.org/directory.php
  • Online Smart Recovery: smartrecovery.org/smart-recovery-toolbox/smart-recovery-online-community
  • Other Online 12 Step Group Meeting resources: https://www.12step.org/social/online-meetings/
  • Diversity Center of Oklahoma, Inc.: 1-405-622-3191 or 1-405-604-5217; website: https://diversitycenterofoklahoma.org/wp/
  • Q Space (Teens age 18-25): 1-405-315-9901
  • Trevor Project (LGBTQ+ Age 25 and under): https://www.thetrevorproject.org; text START 678678 to talk with a counselor
  • Trevor Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386
  • GLBT National Hotline: 1-888-843-4564
  • GLBT National Youth Talkline: 1-800-246-PRIDE (1-800-246-7743)
  • Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: 1-800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) text DBSA to 741-741

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