We are now weeks into the talk of social distancing and concern over COVID-19. Many have taken to physically isolating themselves or significantly limiting their contact with others as an effort to keep themselves healthy or “flatten the curve.” For whatever reason you may find yourself in a situation to have less social contact than last month, you should be mindful of your mental health.
By design, we are social creatures. We love to engage with others, talk with, eat with even just be in close proximity to other people. Inherently, that is not bad. Society, as a whole, survives and strives on our interactions with others. It helps create new ideas, grows our experiences knowledge, and helps to feel, as if, we are not alone in the world. The recent promptings from our medical advisors disrupt this normal activity.
As a psychologist, my first concern is a person’s mental health. When I think about a life disruption, I am taken immediately to the impact of distress. Two emotions often paired with distress, to varying degrees, are depression and anxiety. Is not unusual to experience feelings of anxiety about the situation and also depression about the results of the situation. In nominal amounts, these emotions are appropriate. You don’t walk into a lion’s cage nonchalantly, even if you are a professional trainer. Due to the recent situation, many people are experiencing these feelings, are being overwhelmed by them, and experiencing additional distress with few coping mechanisms to mitigate their impact.
Focusing on elevated anxiety, it can result in the release of cortisol in the body, the chemical activating the fight/flight response. This is not normally the state we want our body in. If left unchecked, this release can, in the short-term, result in interference with learning, memory, lowers your immune function, and can result in headaches. There are multiple techniques a person can use to combat this anxiety. I list several below:
- Deep/Slowed Breathing – Deep breathing is a mindfulness technique that results in a physiological response, changes the way the body responds. With the deep/slowed breathing, our body (reduced breath rate) is activating our body to calm. Deep breathing exerts control over our body and increases oxygen in the blood. This technique is a favorite of many of my clients as it can be done without anyone else’s knowledge. All you need to do is deliberately slow your breath rate with the goal of being slower each time. It is something that can be used anywhere.
- Physical Activity – Let the groans begin. While I am a proponent of vigorous physical activity, such as running, kickboxing, or biking, that level is not necessary to receive stress-reducing benefits. Anxiety increases cortisol in the body, physical activity expends it naturally, as it was intended. Whatever activity you engage in, walking around your block (with appropriate distance to others,) playing catch with your child, moving items up and downstairs, cleaning house, or any other activities not normally included in your everyday life are beneficial. Watching television all day is not helpful.
- Socially Connecting with Others – While I fully support the CDC and WHO recommendations, we can still socially connect with others. We have multiple forms of social media to use, video conferencing, social interaction via video games and the tried and true telephone remain viable means of connecting with others. Checking in and seeing how their day is, venting to another about yours, or just commiserating with another about the state of the world are all positive social connections. We are social creatures, do not deny or suppress it.
- Step Out of Yourself – What do I mean by that?. “Get lost” in yourself and step aside from the cares of your world, if only for a few moments for a realign. When was the last time you listened to music? Not have music in the background as noise, but listen to it for enjoyment? Do an internet search and find out what was popular when you were fifteen, twenty, or beyond. As rough as our past was, there were always bring spots. Music has an inherent way of activating pleasure zone and offer “cueing” on old memories. Also never overlook the healing power of laughter. Having difficulty finding laughing? Open up your high school yearbook.
In conclusion, please know you are not alone. This is a trying time for everyone. If you are self-isolating and have to go to work every day because you are a healthcare provider or retail services provider, your physical and mental health are equally important. Utilize these techniques and never hesitate to reach out for additional assistance. Telehealth is a growing opportunity during this time and, if needed, please reach out. Help is available, you need only ask.