May is mental health month. It’s a good time to note how the COVID-19 public health crisis could be affecting your sanity, according to Marylou Sudders, the Massachusetts secretary of health and human services.
Those impacts can take many forms, Sudders said, whether loneliness, situational depression, anxiety from the fear of contagion, grief due to loss, or worries of economic security.
“I want to remind all of us that it’s reasonable to feel anxiety and stress right now,” she said during a press conference Thursday.
A nationwide Gallup poll, conducted from March 21 to April 5, found that 60 percent of American adults are plagued with daily stress and anxiety. The percentage of people who consider themselves to be “thriving” has plummeted to Great Recession levels, Gallup reported.
Kathleen Marchi, executive director and president of Samaritans Inc., which runs the largest statewide 24/7 crisis hotline, said this public health crisis has prompted the longest sustained surge in calls they’ve ever seen.
“I do believe that the demand for our services will remain at a higher level for a long period of time,” Marchi told Boston.com. “There is an increased risk for people and so a higher demand for our helpline.”
As time goes on, Marchi said the helpline will serve as an important resource for many who are experiencing financial and emotional tolls.
“We are appreciative, I guess, that people are finding us, that they’re calling us,” she said, “because they need someone to talk to. So even though the demand is up, we’re glad that people are reaching out.”
Anyone can call or text the organization’s hotline at 877-870-4673.
To better understand a few ways to navigate the emotional toll spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, Boston.com spoke with Cambridge-based therapist Ethan Seidman, and Daphne Holt, director of the Resilience and Prevention Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Here are six general tips they offered for weathering this challenging time.
1. Practice mindfulness.
It’s important to pay attention to your mental health now because of the potential lasting impacts the virus could have, Seidman said.
“This is gonna be a marathon,” he said. “It’s not like it’s gonna be over in a couple of weeks. So, if we’re all going to get through this we have to take good care of ourselves, and taking good care of ourselves requires being mindful about what’s going on, and noticing, and adjusting as you notice.”
Seidman used gardening as an analogy.
“Right now, we’re cut off from some of our sun and soil and water — we’re cut off from a lot of the things that give people energy in their life and give people connection and give people sustenance,” he said. “We’re all starting to wilt a little bit. We’re not flourishing under these conditions because we don’t have what we need.”
To practice mindfulness, he said to take note of how much news you’re consuming, be aware of what you’re eating, and how much you’re sleeping. It’s also good to accept that things are different right now, and that’s OK.
2. Adjust expectations.
While it’s great to start on new creative projects, find ways to help others, or learn a new skill, Seidman said it’s also acceptable to just focus on getting through.
“The expectation that you’re happy during a pandemic is probably not great. I think we have to accept this is gonna suck,” he said. “And we’re probably not gonna be feeling great during it, and that’s OK. You shouldn’t expect yourself to feel great. If there are moments of beauty, if there are moments of joy, of laughter, moments of grace — terrific. Notice them, install them, really sit with them. But there’s also going to be a lot of moments of feeling down or feeling overwhelmed or feeling sad or feeling grief or feeling anger or whatever you feel. And that’s OK, too.”
He said it’s especially easy for parents to hold high standards while working full-time and helping their kids keep up with schoolwork, but those expectations aren’t realistic. Cut yourself some slack.
“The most important thing is that your kids come out of this feeling not traumatized, that your kids come out of this with a sense of safety and security and connection,” Seidman said. “So I think having realistic expectations about academics with kids is important, and give those expectations for yourself as parents, especially if you’re working full-time.”
One way to help kids feel less stressed is to dedicate a chunk of undivided time to them every day, he said.
3. Set your intentions.
Setting intentions means feeling better down the line, Seidman said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, it was easy to stress eat chocolate and ice cream, but he said people have to think “OK, in six weeks or eight weeks, what’s that going to feel like? What’s that going to be like for me?”
While stress-eating is one example, he said this could look different for everyone: “It could be food, it could be alcohol, it could be pornography, it could be video games, it could be whatever people are doing to soothe themselves during this situation.”
But the key thing to keep in mind is how that activity affects your mood. He said it’s important to ask yourself “if this is what I do for the next two months, is that going to feel good? If not, how do I want to spend the next two months?”
4. Help out where you can.
Even though tensions are running high, keep in mind that everyone is struggling.
“Taking the attitude that the efforts that everyone is making, however small, are helping,” Holt said. “The simple act of washing your hands, saying kind words to people who are having difficulties, reaching out to people who live alone — all these small acts of kindness or generosity, are helping people manage this crisis.”
“If possible, helping out with small businesses that are struggling or reaching out to people who are isolated,” she said. “All of these things can make us feel like we’re contributing.”
5. Build resilience.
One way to promote resilience in your life is taking time to reflect.
Holt said if everybody could identify and reflect on what has helped them manage and maintain a sense of efficacy or control during challenging times in the past and make time for those activities — whether it’s being in nature, talking with loved ones, or exercising — then they may be able to better maintain their well-being during this crisis.
“There’s really no catch-all advice that necessarily everyone is going to benefit from,” Holt said.
She added that it’s important to acknowledge that being stressed, anxious, or sad during right now is normal and those feelings do not need to be “fixed or changed.”
Some aspects of resilience, she noted, come from “just experiencing your feelings without trying to get rid of them.”
6. Focus on the moment.
“It can be as simple as just focusing on what you’re seeing right around you, smelling, hearing, what you’re feeling in your body, it can just mean paying attention to what’s on the walls in the room that you’re in,” Holt said. “It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or any kind of formal practice.”
And if you catch yourself being self-critical of how you’re handling day-to-day demands, she said try to imagine what a friend would say to you about the difficult situation you’re in. Give yourself that same compassion.
“One of the biggest challenges of this situation is this general sense of uncertainty and this sort of collective feeling of a loss of safety,” she said. “I think that these are things that are really difficult for the brain to manage: the uncertainty of the situation and the fear that we have about what’s going to happen.”
She said our minds prefer to settle on the worst-case scenario rather than not knowing what’s next.
“I think we have to sort of have compassion for ourselves,” Holt said, as “we are searching for that knowledge.”
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