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September 21, 2021

Guest Column | Pandemic’s Toll on Mental Health

When will the pandemic end? That’s a complicated question, and difficult to answer. There will be no “light switch” moment where our lives suddenly return to what we call “normal.” In many ways, this pandemic has been like a long, destructive storm, perhaps a hurricane. It’s brought uncertainty and fear, sheltering and resupplying, economic consequences and loss of life.

Yet, much like stepping out of a basement to finally see the sun, we are all left to pick up the pieces. Many of us still face fear and uncertainty, financial challenges and, perhaps most crippling, anxiety about our reentry into an undetermined world.

So, while we continue to make huge advances in stopping the virus through medical science, the toll will be felt for many years to come. Pandemics do not have a clear beginning and an end, sometimes leading to increased uncertainty and distress.

But there are several things we can do as individuals, families and communities to protect ourselves from the anxiety, grief and anguish that linger after any disaster.

Throughout Mee Memorial Healthcare System, we have spent many months focusing on the prevention and treatment of the Covid-19 infection, while preparing and discussing issues related to physical health consequences. However, while the life-threatening negative physical health consequences affect a select few, everyone will face the negative mental health consequences surrounding the pandemic.

Common reactions to disasters

Survivors often notice changes in their thinking, feelings and behavior during and after a disaster, many that lead to physical signs and symptoms. These changes may include nightmares, confusion, difficulty making decisions and concentrating, poor recall and an inability to listen to others.

Changes in feelings may include increased or overwhelming fear, anxiety, depression, irritability and anger, hopelessness or guilt. Survivors may also experience a sense of disconnection, or not caring about things, as well as inability to feel joy or sadness.

When it comes to our behavior, we may experience insomnia or difficulty within our personal relationships. We may begin eating too much or too little, crying more often, having angry outbursts or spending more time alone.

While we draw a line between physical and mental health, we can certainly experience physical signs and symptoms as a direct result of our emotional state. These include headaches, stomachaches or diarrhea; loss of appetite; sweating or having chills; tremors (shaking) or muscle twitches; higher or lower energy than usual; or being unable to relax.

Is it important to speak with your doctor about these changes, and address them promptly.

Not just an adult issue

Children and teenagers also experience reactions during and after pandemics and other disasters. In fact, because they have had fewer years to develop social, communication and coping skills, they may be at particular risk after disasters.

Children 5 years old and younger may have persistent fear and worry, become clingy, cry or whimper and have problems sleeping. Children ages 6 to 11 may withdraw from others and activities, have sudden outbursts, have difficulty concentrating, feel sad or anxious or blame themselves for aspects of the pandemic. And adolescents may engage in more risk-taking behavior, including misuse of drugs or alcohol.

If you are a parent or other caregiver, you can take steps to help your child or teenager cope with disaster reactions. Modeling effective coping skills that include a flexible routine with plenty of support and communication will benefit the whole family.

Tips to cope with pandemic stress

Following are some coping skills to better deal with the distress that is common among disaster survivors.

  • Make use of your connections: Build close relationships with others, especially with those who accept and understand your feelings, and take time to enjoy the close relationships you have. Socializing with others can reduce stress and create a sense of support and connection.
  • Find a purpose: Now that the pandemic is easing, there should be more time to reflect on what is important to you in life, and to make sure you’re prioritizing that time. Take part in activities you find enjoyable and meaningful.
  • Develop a flexible routine: Create a daily schedule to accomplish required tasks, and create a flexible routine around them. This allows you to accommodate unexpected events or urgent needs that arise while also maintaining a degree of consistency.
  • Monitor your news intake: Be wary not to bury yourself in the news. Doing so has been shown to increase stress levels and anxiety. Set a daily time limit for reading, watching and even listening to news.
  • Take care of your body: Eat healthful meals and snacks, drink plenty of water and get enough rest. Avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol. Set aside time for regular exercise or other physical activity, as research shows this reduces stress and anxiety while also boosting physical health.
  • Get outside: Even short walks outdoors can prove beneficial. Head up to the Pinnacles or any other beautiful space that warms your heart. The fresh air will decrease stress while providing a boost to both your physical and mental health.
  • Engage in practices to relax: Try to meditate, or listen to music as a way to calm yourself. If you’re experiencing acute stress, you may want to try simple abdominal breathing (described below).

Abdominal breathing

  1. Lie on your back on a flat surface or in bed, with your knees bent.
  2. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly, just under your rib cage.
  3. Inhale slowly through your nose toward your lower belly. Your hand on your belly should rise, and your hand on your chest should stay still.
  4. Tighten your abdominal muscles, and let them fall inward as you exhale through pursed lips. Your hand on your belly should move down, back to its original position.
  5. Continue this process for 5 to 10 minutes.

Such mindful breathing is not merely commonsense advice. It reflects what meditation, yoga, and other stress-reducing therapies teach: that focusing on the timing and pace of our breath can have positive effects on our body and mind.

Breathing maintains life, and it also serves as a powerful metaphor. Take a breath. Exhale. Repeat. Move forward. Keep going. Breath after breath. And remember:

  • If you are struggling to cope, there are many ways to get help. Call your healthcare provider if stress gets in the way of your daily activities for several days in a row.
  • During times of extreme stress, people may have thoughts of suicide. Suicide is preventable and help is available.

If you are in crisis, get immediate help:

  • Call 911
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for English, 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish, or Lifeline Crisis Chat.
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522
  • National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4AChild (1-800-422-4453) or text 1-800-422-4453
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or Online Chat
  • Veteran’s Crisis Line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Crisis Chat or text: 8388255
  • Disaster Distress Helpline: CALL or TEXT 1-800-985-5990 (press 2 for Spanish).
  • The Eldercare Locator: 1-800-677-1116 – TTY Instructions
Rena Salamacha
CEO, Mee Memorial Healthcare System
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