By KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — The coronavirus pandemic that has seen much of America under stay-at-home orders for the past two months has all the makings of a perfect storm for mental health issues.
There is the isolation from staying at home, the grief over the more than 50,000 lives lost in the crisis, the anxiety of what the future holds, the fear of the unknown, and the financial and economic stress caused by the thousands of businesses temporarily closed and the millions of people without jobs.
In the U.S., 45% of adults say the pandemic is having a negative effect on their mental health, a rate that increases for women, Hispanic adults and black adults, according to a tracking poll released last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“COVID-19 really hits on so many different pieces that could impact someone’s mental health,” said Pooja Lakshmin, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health. “One thing that we know is so important for mental health is community and being around other people that we feel close to, and because of COVID-19, that’s also been taken away from us.”
Lakshmin, also a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University School of Medicine, has created an online community through her Instagram account, where she now shares tips on dealing with coronavirus-specific mental health issues and resources for help.
“Now more than ever, the public is looking for reassurance and guidance around how to take care of their mental health,” she said, noting that social media is not a substitute for medical treatment or psychotherapy. “I really think it’s important for mental health providers and physicians to meet people where they are.”
Here are nine tips from Lakshmin to help strengthen your mental health as the coronavirus pandemic continues:
1. Set a time limit for news
“There’s a way where you can find yourself just scrolling through, mindlessly taking in information, but it’s not making you feel better — it’s just making you feel more anxious and you’re not going to be able to do anything with that information,” Lakshmin said.
“I myself am setting limits for checking the news for 10 minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening, but I make sure not to check it right before I go to bed,” she said.
“Make sure that you’re getting your information from reputable sources, like the CDC and reputable news organizations,” she added.
2. Make small decisions daily
“One way to deal with uncertainty is to find places in your life where you do have some agency and some control and make small decisions that are concrete — something even as small as, ‘I’m going to tidy up my bedroom,’ or ‘I’m going to pick out a recipe and make it from start to finish,"” Lakshmin offered.
“Completing these small tasks and making these small decisions gives us a sense of competency and mastery that we’re missing right now in our lives more generally,” she said. “That adds up and helps us feel better about larger decisions.”
3. Give yourself transition times during the day
“Inside the structure we used to have, we also used to have these transition times, the commute home, for example, and those times gave us dedicated spaces to transition between roles in our life. Now we’re just home all the time in the same space,” said Lakshmin.
“We need to build in specific, concrete periods of time in our day or specific places to give to structure our day,” she said. “That would include things like waking up at the same time every morning, going to bed at the same time every night, eating lunch every day, having dinner at the same time every day.”
“It doesn’t need to be a strict schedule but it should be: ‘Here’s my desk and this is where I take my Zoom calls for the day, and here’s this other chair where in my downtime I read my book,"” she added. “Make it so you have different physical spaces for the different roles you’re in during the day.”
4. Designate a daily worry time
“I’ll give myself 20 minutes a day where I’m allowed to think about whatever I want and worry about whatever I want, during that time period,” said Lakshmin.
“Then, if any worries or anxieties come up at other points of the day, I’m not allowed to dwell on them,” she said. “I can write them down in a notebook or on my iPhone and then I save them for the next day’s worry time.”
“It puts limits on my ability to ruminate but it also is nice because sometimes I’ll look at my list from the day before and I’m not even as worried about it anymore,” she added. “It gives me perspective around feeling very intense in the moment and then seeing that it will pass.”
5. Write or talk out your feelings
“If you notice yourself getting overwhelmed or having intense feelings, that’s a time where journaling can be really helpful, to get out some of those feelings and put them on paper and see them outside of you, or talk to a trusted friend or a therapist who is not going to be judgmental, where you feel like you can reflect,” Lakshmin recommended.
6. Connect to your senses
“Do activities that connect you with your senses, whether that’s exercise or it could be meditation or even cooking,” said Lakshmin. “Anything that has you connect with your body is going to help you get out of your mind and reduce anxiety.”
7. Reach out to friends one-to-one
“Now that it’s month two of social distancing, there’s definitely some Zoom fatigue that is going on because a lot of people are spending all day on Zoom for work,” Lakshmin observed. “One way to handle that is instead of doing group calls, do individual calls with people so that you’re getting more intimate interaction and connection.”
“Or it could also be doing activities,” she said. “I know people have been signing up for Zoom cooking classes, so you’re doing an activity and not staring at a screen, but you have other people that you’re doing it with.”
“It’s still important to not isolate ourselves and to make a point through virtual means to stay connected with our friends and family and loved ones,” she said.
8. Let yourself be sad about things like a missed family vacation
“Obviously, if you’re someone who has lost a family member or loved one, you’re going to be grieving, but there’s also what I call ‘little g grief’ that folks are going through,” Lakshmin said.
“Maybe it was the family vacation that you had planned or maybe you were getting married this year and you had to cancel your wedding,” she said. “One thing I’m seeing is folks kind of dismissing that grief because it’s not as bad, let’s say, as losing somebody to COVID-19, but those ‘little g grief’ events are still really important to process.”
9. Know when to seek help
“Depression and anxiety can show up in many different forms, but some of the signs can include difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, changes in appetite, a sense of hopelessness or meaninglessness, or even thoughts that you don’t want to live anymore,” said Lakshmin.
“If you experience any of these types of symptoms for two weeks or longer, you should talk with your health care provider and get an evaluation,” she concluded.
If you are in crisis or know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. You can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada) and The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386.
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