At a time when health professionals are advising “social distancing,” and “quarantining,” to prevent the spread of a new coronavirus, it may come as a surprise to learn that we should be connecting with one another. Just creatively.
More than ever, we need to reach out to each other and build a sense of community, said Doug Wright, clinical director at Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center.
“If we’re anxious, we need to give ourselves something to focus on,” Wright said. “This is a time to focus on others. Focus on making someone else’s life easier.”
The return is that such acts of kindness make us feel better.
“The littlest thing can make a huge difference,” Wright said.
Today’s technology makes reaching out easy, Wright added. Video chatting, for example, lends a very personal touch.
Or, go retro. Send a card or a hand-written letter through the mail. Make a phone call.
Offer to babysit for a friend who is required to work or whose spouse is quarantined, just to give them a break. Offer to go grocery shopping for an elderly neighbor.
You don’t have to get up-close and personal to make a difference; perhaps you can leave groceries or supplies on the porch.
Children can be made to feel better if asked to color pictures for residents at a local nursing care center.
THE STEPS you take to reduce stress and anxiety also could actually improve your physical health, too. Studies have shown that stress can reduce the performance of the immune system, and people are more likely to get sick.
“When we’re stressed, we tend to catastrophize and think of the worst case scenario,” Wright said. “People have to just take it one step at a time. What’s my next step, rather than trying to project what life may be like a week, a month or a year from now.”
Wright discussed several tips for coping with the anxiety caused by the coronavirus pandemic:
— Reality testing.
Gather information and make a realistic assessment of the risk. Research COVID-19 using trusted sources and pay attention to reports from local, state and federal governments. Visit kdhe.gov or cdc.gov for the latest updates.
The risk to the general public is low and most of those who do get sick will experience mild symptoms, according to the CDC. Those most at risk are the elderly and those with underlying health conditions or low immune systems.
“Helping people understand the facts may reduce some of the stress and anxiety,” Wright said.
— Respect others’ viewpoints.
OK, but what about your friend who believes everyone is overreacting?
Respect that everyone can have different opinions, and try to find common ground. Confrontation leads to frustration, not understanding.
“Join them where they are at, then link to something else. ‘Yes, this is a huge reaction, but for the elderly or the immune-compromised this may be an appropriate reaction so I view it as doing my part to help them,’” Wright suggested.
— Tune in. Tune out.
The constantly changing news reports make it easy to freak out.
While it’s important to be educated and informed, it’s also easy to become overwhelmed.
“You actually increase your anxiety because it’s sort of sensory overload. The more we think about something, the more our anxiety is going to build,” Wright said. “Yes, check in every day. But don’t feed it constantly.”
— Sleep on it.
Anxiety can keep you up at night. It’s difficult to stop your mind from racing and thinking through all of the possible scenarios.
Switch your train of thought by visualizing something that is calming or soothing. Stick to a routine. Avoid blue light (televisions and cell phones or computers). Avoid watching or even reading in bed so your brain recognizes your bed as a sleeping trigger.
“When you aren’t sleeping well, that also hinders your ability to fight off viruses and illnesses,” Wright said.
— Develop a routine.
Try to stick to a routine as much as possible, especially for children.
The disruption in normal routines caused by work and school cancellations is no excuse. Set up new routines.
“When kids have a kind of a plan for their day, it helps reduce stress and anxiety, and it keeps them busy. When kids are busy, it’s less stressful for the parent,” Wright said.
— “This too shall pass.”
Some compare the current crisis to the terror attacks on Sept. 11. Or a war. Or fears of polio in the 1950s.
Tragedies happen. And though these events forever shape the future, the world keeps turning. People adapt.
“After 9/11, we were terrified. People were locking doors and stocking up on supplies, and they were very afraid much like they are now. It took time and things did change in terms of security, but for the most part our lives did go back to normal,” Wright said.
“People have felt this way before, and it’s not the end of the world. Life goes on.”
— Access resources.
SEKMHC remains open. Administrators are working with state and federal officials to try to approve things like televideo conferencing so patients can access service without an in-person visit.
Some clients have canceled appointments out of fears of exposure. Some have sought extra services because of anxiety and stress levels.
To contact the mental health center, call 620-365-5717.
OTHER concerns include:
Once the health threat starts to fade, financial worries will create a second wave of anxiety, Wright warns.
That will be difficult to manage, he admits, but is hopeful the government will provide some type of programs or assistance to help people cope.
Projections about the death rate from COVID-19 vary, but it already has killed thousands across the world. Someone who loses a friend or family member to the illness may face the grieving process without an extended support network or normal resources to help process their grief.
“It’s going to be difficult to get back into our normal routines if there’s been a lot of change,” Wright said.
— Special events.
Prohibitions on mass gatherings have put an end — perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently — to some special events. For the foreseeable future, there will be no holiday celebrations, church services, weddings, big birthday parties, proms, graduations and more.
“It’s a bit like a grieving process because we’ve lost out on something. You go through that process and realize time will help and talking to others will help. And you know that this will be a story you tell your children and grandchildren,” Wright said. There are ways to sort of recapture some of those moments, like having graduation in the summer or just a small family celebration.
“Those things still matter. They seem trivial in the broad scheme of things, but that doesn’t mean they matter less.”
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