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Coping With Mental Health Issues During the Coronavirus Crisis

Experts provide advice for some of the most common disorders


Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

Roxanne Hawn, 52, of Golden, Colo., jokes that she came out of the womb anxious, so she’s had a lot of time to deal with anxiety. “I always said that being anxious makes me exceptional in an emergency, because I’m used to functioning while feeling like this when others aren’t,” says Hawn.

But since the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis began, Hawn realizes that only applies to acute situations, not so much the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the long-lasting pandemic, I’ve adjusted some things, like giving up coffee in the morning, because I’d wake up anxious and the coffee made it worse,” she says.

There’s a good chance even if you’ve never experienced serious mental health issues, such as significant anxiety or depression, or something like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), you could now be having some symptoms.

If you already have any of these mental health issues, this coronavirus crisis may not only trigger your symptoms but make it more difficult to keep them at bay, says Haley Neidich, a licensed clinic social worker and mental health professional in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“Anyone who has a history of depression, anxiety or OCD is going to be experiencing symptoms right now.”

“Anyone who has a history of depression, anxiety or OCD is going to be experiencing symptoms right now,” says Neidich. “The symptoms could be severe or they could be just a general sense of concern that symptoms will onset.”

She says having some anxiety right now is normal. It’s when the anxiety keeps you from sleeping, functioning, working or taking care of day to day activities, that it becomes a problem.

Here’s what you might be feeling if you have any of these common issues, and some tips that could help you get through these weeks of physical distancing, working from home and worrying about the health or financial ramifications of the pandemic:

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Anxiety

Symptoms include a decreased ability to sleep, constant worrying about the future, obsessing about the news and talking about and trying to plan the future, even through the unknowns.

“We know that stress impacts our body’s ability to fight infection and to manage our overall health,” says Neidich. So, it’s important to take steps that feel helpful and improve your symptoms.

Hawn says three things that usually help mitigate her anxiety are long walks with her dogs outside, reading and knitting. “As weather allows, I try to do all three every day,” she notes.

Tips for getting through the COVID-19 crisis when you have anxiety:

  • Stick to a daily routine. You’re looking to create a sense of normalcy to ground yourself.
  • Be proactive about sleep hygiene. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at relatively the same time every day to keep your internal clock functioning normally.
  • Try meditating. Introspection and mindfulness can be helpful for soothing yourself. There are many meditation apps — such as Calm and Headspace — that can guide you on how to do this.
  • Practice gratitude. Getting to stay home? Spending more time with kids? Tackling projects around the house? These are things to feel grateful for, and gratitude can help plant you in the present rather than thinking ahead.
  • Schedule worry time. Annie M. Varvaryan, a licensed clinical psychologist in San Jose, Calif., recommends picking a time of day, say, 4 p.m., to sit down and worry about all the things going on. Set a timer for 20 minutes. That’s the only time you let yourself worry. “It forces us to reduce worry behavior throughout the day,” says Varvaryan.
  • Help someone else. If you can deliver a bag of groceries to a neighbor’s door or mow someone’s lawn, help out. “Feeling like you’re helping someone gives you something else to think about other than anxiety and worry,” Hawn says.

Depression

Symptoms of depression include feeling deep sadness, crying frequently, moodiness, not being able to sleep, not being able to find enjoyment in the things you used to and feeling alone or even suicidal.

One protective factor for people with depression is having something to look forward to, explains Neidich. Maybe before the coronavirus crisis, there was a birthday party to attend, a big project at work or other events you were looking forward to enjoying. Now, those things may be postponed.

Tips for getting through Covid-19 when you suffer from depression:

  • Make specific goals. Focusing on goals gives you a semblance of something to look forward to doing. You might read 30 pages of a book, write in a journal each day or organize the garage. You could reach out to two people for phone or video calls daily. If you could use some people to talk to, you might want to try Well Connected, a free service that gathers small groups of older adults on the phone for weekly talks, based on common interests.
  • Find a healthy distraction. “There is a difference between healthy and unhealthy distractions,” says Varvaryan. Examples of healthy distractions: watch a movie, text a friend, clean a closet, go for a walk. Unhealthy distractions: binge watching TV from bed all day, binge eating junk food or scrolling endlessly through social media when it makes you feel worse.
  • Try teletherapy. Even through the coronavirus crisis, many mental health practitioners are still seeing their clients via teleconferencing or telehealth technology. If you have a therapist, ask if you can talk to them via your computer, tablet or smartphone.
  • Maintain the status quo. Neidich says now’s the time to practice all the coping tools you’ve learned when it comes to your treatment, such as exercise, plenty of sleep, eating well and connecting with others through technology.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Symptoms of OCD include feeling a lack of control, intrusive thoughts that you try to control with rituals and thoughts and rituals around germs, contamination or cleanliness.

Tips for getting through Covid-19 when you have OCD:

  • Push back against rituals or try to delay them. Neidich has her patients ask, “If I have a harmful behavior or activity, what can I do to delay doing that?” Then, come up with a list of other things you can try, such as playing with your pet, doing a puzzle or working in the garden to prevent or delay rituals.
  • Tackle projects you enjoy. Cook, bake or take up a creative hobby or art project. Things that give you structure and keep your hands busy help you feel less like performing rituals.
  •  Amp up self-compassion. Changes like social distancing and working from home can trigger symptoms. So, be compassionate with yourself. You don’t have to be perfect.
  • Laugh. Hawn watches stand-up comedy specials on Netflix to end the days with a giggle.

By Jennifer Nelson
Jennifer Nelson is a Florida-based writer who also writes for MSNBC, FOXnews and AARP.

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