All of us are acutely aware of the many challenges associated with the spread of COVID-19. Unanswered questions abound: Will I get the virus and could I die from it? When will a vaccine be ready to implement? What will the future look like for our jobs and families? When can we all get back to normal?
Or should we say, new normal … We know our lives have been unalterably changed by the pandemic, and not just with additions to our lexicon like “social distancing,” “quarantine” and “shelter in place.” Will we ever feel comfortable going out in public again? Will we ever be able to take our health for granted?
In anticipation of these questions and concerns back in February, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and other health organizations foresaw a perfect storm of mental health challenges — unfortunately, they were prophetic. Those with pre-existing mental health conditions (clinical depression, panic disorders etc.) have experienced new or worsening conditions.
On Aug. 14, the CDC published a report showing a distinct upswing in “mental health concerns, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation” from a year ago. To help with this, many are turning to telehealth therapy.
We here in Clallam County are not immune from these concerns. As little as a month ago we may have reassured ourselves we weren’t exactly the epicenter of the epidemic, but the recent spike in numbers (more than 200 with a death among them) has been a wake-up call. We are and have been vulnerable to all the extended challenges of COVID-19.
Whether we have had the virus, known someone who has had the virus, or have a fear of contacting the virus or dealing with the isolation of the pandemic, we experience stress (the strain of circumstances) and anxiety (the expectation of strain). This weighs on us physically and psychologically.
In my practice as a psychotherapist, the litany of recent concerns include trouble with concentration, a hard time eating and sleeping, feelings of claustrophobia, and experiences with irritability. Suggestibility (“I sneezed today! I must have COVID!”) is also prevalent.
Let’s start by saying, you aren’t going crazy! These are physiological reactions to an overabundance of stress and anxiety. Be mindful about how your body is reacting to these stresses and give yourself permission to unwind and relax.
Over a period of time, your body will eventually work its way back to a homeostasis. If you find your system stays out of whack for longer than you’d like, don’t hesitate to call your healthcare provider or mental health professional.
As to coping strategies, a balanced view can be helpful. Keep abreast of pandemic updates, but don’t become obsessed looking at social media or news stories. Have plans and routines to keep you and your family focused, but have flexibility when the situation warrants.
We know exercising, connecting with others, and being outdoors helps but be sure to be cautious.
And of course keep a lid on the “bad” coping strategies of overeating and other substance abuses.
Know what works best for you: Are you an introvert? Make sure to get away for some extra “me” time. An extrovert? Be creative about safe socializing opportunities. Obsessing about COVID? Pull out your journal and gain some perspective. And as you juggle your priorities (family health and welfare, job etc.), keep in mind that YOU are one of your priorities and practice some solid self care.
What also can help is reminding yourself you are the author of the narrative about this uniquely challenging COVID time. Are you focusing on your fears of getting the disease, the unsettledness in your family and job, and the uncertainty of the future? Or can you focus on your personal growth, the time you have to”get stuff done” and the resilience you are gaining?
Re-framing your thoughts
In a time where we feel so out of control, we know we still have sway over our own thoughts and perspectives.
And speaking of perspective, let’s also keep in mind the following:
We are not newbies with COVID-19
We have over 5 months of dealing with the pandemic under our belt, which gives us experience. Yes the spike has been a setback (a type of re-traumatizing) but we have learned plans and strategies that have worked for us.
We are in this together
We may feel isolated, but so is a good portion of the planet, not to mention Sequim. It helps to know we are not alone.
This too shall pass
We know our world has changed dramatically, but we also know at some blessed point a vaccine will be put in place and COVID-19 will have runs its course. The light at the end of the tunnel may be hazy, but it’s there.
We would be kidding ourselves if we didn’t admit this has been one surreal time for all of us. Let’s try to face our fears, do what we can, and come together to weather the present storm.
Rick Grant is a psychotherapist and writer who lives in Sequim.