NORTHAMPTON — As schools and businesses close, and public health officials encourage social distancing due to the COVID-19 virus, it’s not only those who typically struggle with anxiety who find the pandemic taking a toll on their mental health.
“We’re finding that everybody’s talking about it — staff and clients,” said Ann Augustine, a licensed independent clinical social worker and director of outpatient services at ServiceNet. “And we’re of course finding that people are more anxious than usual. It’s pretty much the topic on everyone’s mind.”
While a certain degree of anxiety and concern is needed “to activate us to take action,” she said, “it becomes a problem when we get so anxious that we shut down and we panic.”
To avoid becoming overwhelmed by the stress of the situation, Augustine said that there are a number of strategies that people can use, whether they typically struggle with anxiety or not.
Find balanceOne such strategy is to find “balance between staying informed versus overwhelming oneself with information,” Augustine said.
With everyone talking about COVID-19, Augustine said that it is useful for people to step be “mindful of how much exposure we’re getting to that,” whether it’s through means such as social media, watching TV or just talking with friends. Especially as people socially isolate themselves, Augustine advised against dedicating too many social interactions to conversations surrounding the novel coronavirus.
“It’s important to remember life beyond this current situation,” said Augustine, who advises “making sure that the conversation is not only about the virus, and remembering what matters to us and other aspects of our lives.”
Stay connected to loved ones, communityMaintaining friendships and other relationships can be challenging when we’re trying to avoid exposure, “but it’s really important to remain connected with supportive people,” Augustine said.
With public health officials recommending measures such as social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, this recommendation can require some flexibility: While people may be limited in face-to-face interactions with friends and loved ones, keeping in contact via phone conversations, video calls or text-based platforms can help to compensate.
“To claim this idea that social distancing means social isolation isn’t healthy,” Augustine said.
Use healthy coping mechanismsIn times of stress and anxiety, it can be easy to fall back on coping mechanisms that can be ineffective or counterproductive. But it’s important to use skills that have had a soothing effect in the past, such as holding a pet, going for a walk or listening to music, Augustine said, and to participate in activities that feel meaningful and fulfilling.
Augustine acknowledged that some of these coping skills may be limited by the outbreak — especially those with a social element. A yoga class may suddenly be indefinitely postponed, for example. But creative solutions can mimic certain aspects of this example, Augustine said, such as following a video instruction course or engaging in a more solitary form of exercise. And ultimately, people should remember that these concessions are temporary.
“These are measures that we’re taking right now as the situation is evolving,” Augustine said. “So this week I may not get to my yoga class, and I can instead go for a walk or do some stretching at home … but I remind myself that I will come back to my yoga class.”
Focus on facts and solutionsWhile “it’s natural for the mind to think about worst-case scenarios and think about what’s going to happen next,” Augustine said, “spending hours in panic” can be harmful when taking steps to prepare and plan for the future.
Instead of dwelling on the worst that could happen, Augustine advised focusing on the facts available and proactive steps that people can take to keep themselves and others safe and healthy.
Used in combination, all of these strategies can contribute to a society that is mentally and physically healthier, she said.
“It’s not just that calming ourselves is good for our health,” Augustine said. “It’s also vital to helping us respond thoughtfully and effectively.”