It’s difficult to get an accurate read on the nations psychological state right now. It depends on the day, on what’s read or seen in the news. On one hand, we are all experiencing a powerful movement of national solidarity. Millions are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with grace and generosity. People everywhere are taking precautions to protect the weak, exhibiting acts of kindness among strangers, checking in on friends, spending time together as families, and volunteering to deliver food and medical supplies. Companies are donating resources and expertise. Governments around the world are implementing economic measures to assist the economically vulnerable. We see people celebrate and encourage one another from balconies, through windows and on rooftops. The actions of so many during this pandemic illustrate the awe-inspiring resiliency of the human spirit.
On the other hand, we also see and feel the all-consuming anxiety, panic and fear that so many are experiencing. Some people are alone, their only connection to the outside world being the daily consumption of media coverage. Others are trapped in homes with violence, abuse or addiction. Families are faced with financial pressures as the result of lost jobs or reduced workloads. Every aspect of life has changed somehow. As mental health professionals, we witness the rapid unveiling of the status quo reap catastrophic consequences on the mental health of countless people. The pandemic spreads a feeling of fear, which registers in the neurons around the heart, lungs, and viscera. This reaction, while there to protect us, alters the nervous system and changes the way we see and perceive threat.
During this unprecedented time of uncertainty and fear, it is likely that mental health symptoms will be exacerbated. Those suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance abuse, and other chronic forms of mental illness are some of the most vulnerable right now. The lack of consistent support and a disrupted routine has led to increased loneliness, isolation and the potential for self-destructive behavior.
Anxiety sufferers are prone to catastrophizing. This can result in behaviors like panic-buying or compulsively checking the news, scrolling for something definitive that just won’t come. Human beings like certainty. We are hard-wired to want to know what is happening and to notice things that feel threatening to us. Our ability to assert control and plan our own lives is a pivotal element of human nature. Losing it can be a staggering loss.
Most of us know the emotional components of depression; sadness, irritability, emptiness and exhaustion. Given certain conditions these experiences take over the body and transform it; disrupting sleep, appetite and motivation. Depression sufferers may have a growing sense of hopelessness or become paralyzed by their fear, leading them to neglect themselves and their health. Loneliness and fear can also be triggers for suicidal thoughts.
It’s completely natural for this disruption and uncertainty to lead to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression. The most effective way to combat these symptoms is through relationships and connection; experiences of deep atonement with others that allow you to feel safe. It’s important to remember that being truly connected doesn’t require us to be physically together. Check in on one another. Creating these healing experiences takes intention. Acknowledge your emotions. Talk about what you are experiencing. Share your fears. Process what you are thinking and feeling. Ask for help and when you’re able, help others. Helping others cope with their stress is one way we are able to make our communities stronger.
Perhaps your worry is compounding- you are not only thinking about what is currently happening, but also projecting into the future. If you find yourself worrying about something that hasn’t happened, gently bring yourself back into the present moment. Notice the sights, sounds, tastes, and other sensory experiences in your immediate moment then name them. Engaging in mindfulness activities is one way to help stay grounded when things feel beyond your control.
Remember that everyone responds differently to crisis and that we’re all doing the best we can. Practice deep breathing and ground yourself in that breathing. Have a daily routine of self-care. Get outside in nature. Limit your family’s exposure to news coverage, including social media. Think about the things you have done in the past that have helped you to feel a sense of calm and stability.
If you find yourself pushed beyond your ability to cope, reach out to your primary care provider or contact a mental health professional. Above all, aim to be gentle with yourselves and those around you. We will get through this together.
Rebecca Bowers, MA, LMFT
Youth and Family Therapist
Lakes Center for Youth and Families