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Mental Health in Troubling Times

Staying stable when things are uncertain.

News of the COVID-19 pandemic is unavoidable: Over 100,000 cases of the virus have been diagnosed worldwide, among 100 countries.

As we receive our news on a 24-hour cycle and can access information from virtually anywhere, we’re processing constantly, taking in changing and evolving information from various sources—our friends and neighbors, news reports, reliable sources, and less reliable sources.

What began as a question—what does this virus have to do with me?—has become a personal issue for everyone, as we work to follow precautions that will help manage the spread of illness, changing our habits and daily lifestyles.

Uncertainty and unpredictability have continued as parents await news of school closures, workers determine if they can report to offices or stay home, and vulnerable individuals determine if they are able to leave their homes.

For anyone who generally struggles with uncertainty, this moment likely feels intolerable. As Dr. George Hu, chief of mental health at Shanghai United Family Hospital, said in a PRI piece earlier this week, “people’s emotional regulation is a finite resource. So, you use it up in one place, and you have less of it available for someplace else.”

In Wuhan, ground zero of this pandemic, anxiety is everywhere.

“We’re seeing three types of anxiety: severe anxiety about the virus and fear of death, general anxiety and depression, and health care workers worried about contracting the virus. And then there was a doctor who called whose colleague had been infected. He was very sad and afraid, but he felt he had to stay strong,” said Merry Zhao, a therapist in Jiangsu Province.

For those of us in the United States, where social distancing and #canceleverything has become our new way of life, anxiety also shows up in different ways. Some people are always experiencing anxiety, and this time of so much uncertainty and change in routine is highly challenging. Some people are fearful of the impact of the virus and associated illness on themselves and their loved ones. Certainly, medical personnel who are at the center of managing this health crisis are worried. And, there are so many unknowns: Will I be inside with my family for weeks? Will I be inside alone for weeks? Can I go to the grocery store? Get takeout? Go to a park? A playground? For a run? All of these questions and the associated what-ifs are constantly with us.

Mental health organizations have created online resources to offer guidance. I share a few here:

  • Care For Your Coronavirus Anxiety: Resources for anxiety and your mental health in a global climate of uncertainty developed by Shine and Mental Health America, featuring meditations, ideas for reducing isolation, and information for managing financial fears.
  • A compendium of articles and links that is updated daily by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA): Ideas for how to talk to kids, resources related to PTSD, and popular media pieces.
  • A useful webpage of advice from McLean Hospital, which suggests that “the best way to take care of yourself and your loved ones is by getting back to the basics of self-care,” a reminder echoed throughout the mental health community.

What can you do to get back to the basics of self-care? It is easy to remain glued to our screens, waiting for news updates, and forget to sleep, eat, shower, or move at our regular times. Keeping some routine, as so many other things remain out of control, can truly help.

Finally, the silver lining of crisis may be that it offers an opportunity to connect with each other. Reach out to friends with a message or a phone call. Offer to pick up food for a neighbor if you are going to the grocery store. Be kind—many workers are not able to stay home and are providing services from which we will benefit. Thank them. If you know someone who is very isolated and will likely not have a lot of interaction, try to connect with them in whatever way you can. Let us be there for each other. The best of our humanity can be brought out at this time.

Copyright 2020 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved