With so many self-isolation measures underway, it’s easy to feel alone.
Although people across the country are putting their health first by staying inside, the COVID-19 crisis can dangerously affect not only our physical health but our mental health as well. From worrying about the spread of the virus and the health of our families to stressing about money and jobs and our future, this period can be especially traumatic.
“Part of what makes this such a powerful stressor is the fact that there is an invisible threat,” says St. Louis University psychology professor Terri L. Weaver, whose research focuses on the impact of traumatic life events. “It’s not something that we can see, in conjunction with there being a tremendous amount of uncertainty both within two of the most fundamental aspects of our lives: Our health and our financial status.”
Although feelings of stress during this time are universal, those with preexisting mental health conditions might experience a severe exacerbation of symptoms. Weaver notes that the crisis can be especially activating for people suffering from conditions such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, leading to harmful coping mechanisms.
“The areas of anxiety and some of the maladaptive ways that people cope with anxiety, which can include things like things like substance abuse and interpersonal conflict, those are going to be some of the immediate kinds of things that I think we might see,” Weaver says.
Still, there are ways to manage these symptoms and create a healthy environment for yourself.
According to Paige Lynch, a licensed professional counselor who owns Lynch Counseling in St. Louis, the isolating nature of self-quarantine can also increase symptoms of depression and loneliness. To address this, Lynch recommends taking advantage of technology to create a feeling of unity.
“It is going to impact our sense of connection and belonging with others, which is what all humans crave,” Lynch said. “So we have to ensure that we spend time with our friends, like face-to-face time. So if we get on Zoom or Skype or FaceTime and just see people, it’s a totally, totally different impact than just texting or calling on the phone.”
In addition to finding comfort in relationships with others, Lynch suggests maintaining a comforting relationship with the space around you.
“What kind of music are you listening to? Make sure it’s stuff that makes you feel what you want to feel,” she says. “(Have) a cozy space, wear your comfy clothes, make a nice cup of tea. Just make sure that you have a soothing space, and that can help you feel a little more grounded and relaxed with anxiety as well.”
Take charge of your life
While creating an environment of relaxation and comfort can help you stay positive during difficult times, maintaining a sense of control over aspects of your life can also alleviate feelings of uncertainty.
“There are three primary predictors of well-being. Those are competence, autonomy and relatedness,” says Washington University professor Tim Bono, who conducts research on positive psychology. “One of the things that we can do when we’re thinking about, ‘How can we preserve our mental health during these times?’ is to identify opportunities to engage in behaviors that give us a sense of autonomy, that allow us to take control of those aspects of our lives that we still are in control over.”
In order to inspire that feeling of power, Bono suggests increasing the amount of structure in your life, especially for people who are used to adhering to a schedule. By creating a routine that determines when to go to bed and wake up, how to get ready in the morning and goals for each day, you can gain control over yourself and make things feel just a bit more normal.
Bono also suggests regular exercise as a way to reduce stress, as “the foundation of our psychological health has to do with our physical health.” Although spending time outside is ideal, for those in areas where leaving their home poses risks, many indoor activities such as yoga and fitness videos can be a great way to stay active.
Kate Ewing, founder of Brick City Yoga in Benton Park West, has first-hand experience with the psychological benefits of yoga. After the death of her father, Ewing practiced yoga as a tool to manage anxiety.
“One benefit of yoga is it really helps you focus on yourself, so you do gain a lot of self-awareness and a lot of self acceptance, whether you are practicing yoga in a studio, practicing yoga at your home or just practicing breath work,” Ewing said.
If yoga isn’t for you, many activities that allow self-reflection, such as meditation or journaling, can help increase mindfulness and improve overall mood.
Ask for help
Even with all these healthy coping mechanisms, the COVID-19 pandemic can be incredibly distressing. Remember that being physically isolated does not mean you have to take on this challenge alone. If you or a loved one is in need of support, the 24-hour Behavioral Health Response hotline, which can be reached at 314-469-6644, can help you talk through the situation, make recommendations and provide connections to other resources in Eastern Missouri. Local organizations, such as the National Alliance on Mental Health- St. Louis (namistl.org), also offer virtual support groups.
“Just be so kind to yourself during this time,” Lynch says. “You’re doing the best that you can. And that’s all you have to do.”