Cases of loneliness, anxiety and depression are likely on the rise.
For many, the uncertainty of what is to come and the lack of control during the coronavirus pandemic has led to increased anxiety levels.
Dr. Errin Weisman, a local physician and life coach, says part of the uncertainty and anxiety comes from the fact that “there is no precedence for this."
“Social media, the news, and even me as a physician can’t tell you how this will turn out,” she said.
But these feelings of anxiety are to be expected, says Mark Hill, a licensed clinical social worker with decades of experience in mental health.
“Right now it’s normal that people are feeling a little off-course — their world has been upset, so that’s how they should be feeling,” he said. “This is new ground for all of us. If you’re old enough to remember it, the only thing comparable to this in our lifetime is 9/11.
“When that hit, the rules changed for everybody,” said Hill.
Though elevated levels of fear and anxiety are considered an appropriate response, managing these emotions can be particularly problematic for those with underlying mental health issues.
Mental health experts agree that it’s important not to let fear turn into panic; instead, they encourage people to hit pause for a moment.
Weisman says to start with a simple moment of centering.
“Take a breath and ask, in this moment, how am I doing? Not tomorrow and not two weeks from now. Right now, in this moment,” she said. “Where you are right now, that is what you can control.”
Organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization provide a list of tips for coping with stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 outbreak, advocating people to empower themselves with what they can control:
• Physically distancing from others, but still keeping in contact through other means
• Practicing good hand-washing habits
• Do things that relax you: hot baths, yoga, music, reading, etc.
• Recognize your feelings and name them. When you can identify the feeling, you can find healthy steps to address it
• Go outside, weather permitting
• Find a balance between following a daily routine and incorporating variety
• Limit exposure to news and social media; checking news primarily as a way to take practical steps for safety
• Use only reputable news sources for information and updates to avoid misinformation and conspiracy theories that increase panic
• Seek help from family, friends or professionals when needed. Individuals who cannot leave their home can access therapists through online and mobile services such as Talk Space (www.talkspace.com)
Though fears, and the anxiety associated with it, are heightened, another concern is an increase in the depression caused by isolation and loneliness.
Individuals who were already living somewhat isolated lives, such as the elderly or low income individuals without access to the internet or smart phones, are at even greater risk for depression in the coming weeks.
“Our older demographic is our biggest worry for this,” Weisman said. “In part because they don’t ask for help sometimes. They may not say they need groceries because they’re worried about being a burden.”
Hill says, even if you can’t physically visit an elderly friend or relative, “it doesn’t mean you can’t have contact.”
“We need to make more effort to call people,” he said. “You can read to them over the phone, or share photos through text messages if they have that technology.”
He adds that, beyond the relief it can bring to the elder on the other end of the line, there’s another benefit.
“If you’re helping somebody else ward off depression or fear, that reduces your own anxiety.”
Both Hill and Weisman say it’s important to remember the pandemic will be mentally and emotionally difficult for children and adolescents as well as they begin to feel more isolated.
“Kids will pick up on the affect of their parents, so give them an explanation of the virus in a language they can understand,” Hill said. “Try to display a certain level of calm.”
Weisman says a great way to approach the conversation of distancing with children is to explain to them why these measures are being taken.
“We’re protecting our friends,” is a good way to explain it, she says; adding that it’s important to make sure children and teens know how to reach out for help if they’re feeling lonely or afraid.
Other tips for helping kids manage isolation and anxiety include:
• Keeping their days relatively structured
• Having honest, age appropriate conversations with them
• Limiting their exposure to news and social media
• Encouraging them to call friends and relatives
• Get creative: help them make art projects, conduct in-home science experiments, create scavenger hunts, play board and card games
Though the world will be dealing with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, mental health authorities say it’s important to focus on today. What brings you hope, joy or comfort right now?
For Weisman it’s the changing weather and having time to spend with her family.
“We are starting to see signs of spring,” she says. “Life goes on.”