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Published on January 05, 2021

Tips for reducing stress during the pandemic

Stress COVID

Are you feeling stressed, anxious or depressed? If so, you are not alone. Everything about living through a pandemic is stressful and the numbers concerning mental health have been reflecting that for months.

A poll released in March by the American Psychiatric Association indicated that 48 percent of Americans were anxious about the possibility of getting COVID and 62 percent were anxious about a loved one catching it. Thirty-six percent said that the coronavirus was having a negative effect on their mental health and 68 percent worried it would tank the economy.

And that was in March, when the realities of living with a pandemic were just beginning. In a report published at the end of June, the CDC reported that incidence of anxiety disorder and depressive disorders had increased significantly from April until June, compared to the same time period in 2019. By the end of June, 40 percent of U.S. adults in the poll reported struggling with mental health or substance use. Even more alarming, the number of people who had considered suicide was high, especially in some groups.

The populations most at risk:

  • Respondents aged 18 – 24, 25.5 percent
  • Minority racial/ethnic group (Hispanic), 18.6 percent
  • Non-Hispanic blacks, 15.1 percent
  • Unpaid caregivers for adults, 30.7 percent
  • Essential workers, 21.7 percent

Even though those figures alarm primary care physician Kimberely Mead-Walters, MD, co-founder and director of Sharing Kindness, a suicide prevention non-profit group, and her colleague Kathleen Shine-O’Brien, LMHC, who is the mental health clinician on the advisory board at Sharing Kindness, they don’t surprise them.

“Any time there has been a crisis like this there has always been an emergence of increased mental health and substance abuse issues,” Shine-O’Brien said. “So, in that way it’s not a surprise and we know that the effect of the shut-down and social isolation coupled with all of the ripple effects of those things, increases people’s anxiety.”

She points out that anxiety in and of itself is actually a helpful thing because it helps mobilize us and motivate us to do things like wear a mask to stay safe. Usually anxiety will rise, crest, and then relax and start to abate. Part of what makes the pandemic so stressful is that there is so much uncertainty.

“Normally when we have had any kind of trauma or tragedy in this country, whether it is a 9/11 or a Hurricane Katrina or tornados, there’s a build-up,” she said. “There’s a start, there’s the momentum, there’s a stop and then there is the way that we figure out how we band together as a community or a nation to clean up and heal.”

The other factor involved is that none of the other traumas and tragedies we’ve endured as a country in recent years have been so politically divisive. Combine that with the need to be physically and socially isolated, and the loss of jobs for so many people, and it’s a perfect storm for anxiety.

“People don’t know where they belong or how they fit in,” Shine-O’Brien said. “Your identity gets stripped from you and you have no control over it. And it’s not only your identity but it’s the things that give you purpose and drive in your life. All of a sudden, they are gone – literally gone. It’s devastating and there are significant ripple effects. It’s really hard and we’ve never had to practice it before so it’s kind of like we are all in a play but nobody got the script.”

Coping Strategies

The first thing to keep in mind is that this will end at some point. In the meantime, there are plenty of things people can do to help themselves and family members, beginning with the need to have honest conversations about what and how we are feeling. There are also healthy strategies for getting through this time of uncertainty.

The Suicide Prevention Resource Center lists the following strategies for coping with the psychological effects of the pandemic:

  • Establish a routine for daily life.
  • Seek regular moments of pleasure, meaning and mastery.
  • Maintain social connection and a sense of belonging.
  • Incorporate relaxation techniques into your life.
  • Engage the mind with puzzles, hobbies or crafts.
  • Engage the body with regular physical exercise.
  • Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and grains.
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule.
  • Limit exposure to the news.

If conversations with loved ones and the recommended coping strategies are not enough, people should seek professional mental health counseling.

“Sometimes all people need is someone who is not a family member to actively listen and validate their concerns and help them come up with a realistic and reasonable plan so that they can feel like they have some control and feel like they are moving forward,” Shine-O’Brien said. “A lot of times it’s just a couple of visits or a once-a-month check-in when there is not a long-standing or persistent mental health issue.”

Dr. Mead-Walters has seen a significant uptick in anxiety in the patients at her practice, Nauset Family Practice in Orleans.

“In primary care, more than half the folks I see every day, it’s a brain health issue,” she said. “Even if it starts as diabetes or hypertension, it ends up including anxiety, which can show up in all kinds of ways. I have not seen a patient since March who is not impacted to a great degree emotionally by what we are living through.”

Dr. Mead-Walters, whose 16-year-old son, Jeremy, died by suicide in 2016, wants anyone who is contemplating the same to reach out and find help. Sharing Kindness has spent months revamping their website.

They have a lot of resources available including:

  • Suicide prevention articles.
  • Phone number and links to suicide prevention hotlines.
  • Grief support resources – not just for those who’ve lost someone to death, but also other. losses such as a job, school and other “ambiguous losses” that are losses just the same
  • A Memory Wall where those who’ve lost someone can post a photo and tell that person’s story.
  • Information about the annual Suicide Awareness Walk.
  • A list of mental health resources specifically pertaining to COVID-19.
  • Opportunities to volunteer.

“I think the most important things parents and friends can do is take a minute and check in,” Dr. Mead-Walters said. “Our tagline at Sharing Kindness is ‘Start the conversation.’ Sometimes these conversations can be awkward or difficult, but we want people to be asking the hard questions. It’s well known that you can’t make someone suicidal if you ask it, but you can miss it if you don’t.”

For people who are worried about a loved one, but aren’t comfortable using the word suicide, they can ask the following questions:

  • How are you doing?
  • Are you thinking of hurting yourself?
  • Do you feel like you don’t want to be here anymore?

One of the most important things people can do right now to help both themselves and others is to stay connected. Check in on friends you haven’t heard from in a while. Call your elderly neighbors to ask if you can pick anything up for them at the grocery store. If someone from your church is a shut-in, stop by for a socially distant visit from the front yard.

“It’s that old-fashioned notion of taking care of each other that I think we’ve forgotten about over the years,” Shine-O’Brien said. “Everybody needs connections with other so it’s about being creative now. It’s about dwelling on the possibilities and not what we don’t have.”

It’s about Sharing Kindness…