As we move through another week of staying at home because of COVID-19, Kentuckians are wondering how to cope with at least several more weeks homebound.
The good news is that our social-distancing efforts appear to be working — Kentucky seems to be successfully “flattening the curve,” with the hopeful result that fewer of us will flood hospitals and overflow their capacities. However, our mental health is under added stress, both from the uncertainty of the virus and the substantial changes in our daily lives.
We know from psychological science that specific features of stressful events increase anxiety, and unfortunately, this pandemic hits the trifecta: uncertainty and unpredictability about the future, lack of control, and high perceived risk are all factors that heighten anxiety. Most of us have some things we do to help cope in the short term, but it is very difficult not knowing how long we will have to do them. Additionally, some of our usual healthy coping strategies (like going to the gym or going out to eat) are unavailable. Combine this with increasing financial worries for many of us, and this situation is a recipe for significant anxiety and depression.
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Psychological science also tells us that we can expect this increased distress to have certain characteristics — including exhaustion, lack of motivation, trouble sleeping, irritability, poor concentration and deteriorating work performance. If you are experiencing these symptoms, you aren’t going crazy. A lot of people are feeling like this.
These are natural reactions to an unusual situation, and it’s normal to have some amount of anxiety during a big stressor. It’s simply your body’s way of preparing to take action against a threat. Dr. Elizabeth Cash, associate professor of psychology and director of research for the University of Louisville’s Department of Otolaryngology and Communicative Disorders, explains that “when we are feeling anxious or stressed, the body releases two hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline activates the ‘fight-or-flight’ response to allow our body to escape immediate threat. When cortisol is released, it signals the body to mobilize energy so it can keep moving.”
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For short-term stressors, like a minor car accident or upcoming medical procedure, there are many ways to cope since they will soon be over. In our pandemic situation, however, we don’t know how long it will last and therefore you will need to be intentional about developing longer-term coping strategies. Cash explains that our bodies have natural rhythms of alertness and arousal that get disrupted with long-term stressors. “Situations that continually or repeatedly activate our stress response systems can trigger more cortisol releases, which contribute to difficulties concentrating, relaxing and sleeping,” she says.
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We can learn to rebalance our minds and bodies during a long-term stressor such as this pandemic, but we need to be intentional. Kentucky Psychological Association members recommend the following strategies to help you cope during the COVID-19 emergency. We recognize that not all individuals have the resources to do all of these, so we recommend you do what you can and help others if you are able.
- Make a daily schedule and stick to it. Routine and structure are helpful in maintaining good mental health. This is particularly helpful if you have a large family or lots of adults living together. Make sure you build in breaks for everyone and if you get off track, take it easy on yourself and try again the next day.
- Keep healthy sleep habits. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Don’t work in your bed — if you do activities in your bed other than sleep and sex, your body will associate your bed with wakefulness and you may have trouble sleeping.
- Get outside at least once a day. Sunshine and reminders of the rest of the world help us with perspective. Remember to stay at least 6 feet away from other people, but smile and wave to your neighbors — a little connection can go a long way!
- Exercise at least several times a week. Walking, running, or biking outside are options, as well as yoga, strength training or dancing indoors. There are many free online exercise videos.
- Reach out for connection and social support. Set up phone calls or video calls with friends and family. Have dinner with friends over video. Take virtual walks with friends or do video book clubs and game nights. See if your church is doing a video Bible study. We need communities and relationships to have meaning in our lives.
- Limit social media and news. It’s important to be informed, but paying too much attention can have negative mental health consequences. Studies have shown that we overestimate risk when we spend too much time consuming media.
- Give yourself compassion and grace. This is a very hard time, and expecting yourself to perform at your usual capacity is unreasonable. Worry and uncertainty take up space in our brains even when we don’t realize it, which might make you feel more tired or less able to focus. Don’t expect too much from yourself, and be kind to yourself and others!
- Engage in pro-social behaviors: Research has shown that doing kind things for other people lifts our mood. This is a great time to donate money, make masks for hospital workers or write cards for loved ones you can’t see in person.
- Keep perspective: What you are doing is working! You’re helping to keep your communities safe and healthy, so great job!
- Talk to your children in age-appropriate language. Ask them how they’re feeling and what they’re worried about. Don’t avoid the subject — unnamed anxiety is worse than named anxiety. Let them know that most people who get this illness will recover and that they are doing exactly what they need to do by staying home.
- Signs of distress in children: Dr. Felicia Smith, psychologist and co-owner of Strong Minds, says that “signs of increased stress in children may include changes in mood, behavior, sleep and eating patterns. If parents notice any of these changes, reach out to a psychologist in your area.”
Please seek help if you find yourself unable to cope or if you experience any of the following symptoms: urge to harm yourself or others, suicidal thoughts, inability to get out of bed or to do necessary tasks, overreliance on drugs or alcohol.
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Most psychologists and other mental health professionals are doing telehealth treatment so you can get help virtually. The Kentucky Psychological Association keeps a list of providers on their website at www.kpa.org, or you can contact your insurance company to get a list of providers.
Thanks to each and every one of you who is social distancing and changing your lifestyle to keep our communities safe and healthy. You are doing a great job!
Brighid Kleinman is a licensed psychologist, and Jennifer Price is Kentucky Psychological Foundation president.