Managing Mental Health During COVID-19
Whether it's coping with the effects of an infection or other pandemic-related hardships, COVID-19 presents challenges that can affect your mental health.
Know that feeling anxious, frustrated, lonely, overwhelmed or sad — especially during a traumatic event like the COVID pandemic — is completely normal.
Whatever negative emotions you are experiencing, you don't have to deal with them alone. Crisis hotlines are open to you 24/7. University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) offers mental and behavioral health services that include treatment for addiction disorders and emergency care for severe crises.
Managing Mental Illness
Anyone can be affected by mental illness. People who have pre-existing mental health or behavioral conditions are particularly vulnerable "in a disaster or in a response to trauma, and their symptoms can increase or become unmanageable," says Constance Noll, DNP, CRNP, a board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner at UM Upper Chesapeake Health.
Examples of pre-existing conditions are:
- Anxiety disorders (panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, health anxiety, etc.)
- Depression, bipolar disorder and other mood disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Eating disorders
- Personality disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Psychotic disorders (including schizophrenia)
An American Red Cross Mental Health responder, Noll has counseled survivors of the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, the 9-11 attacks in Pennsylvania and New York, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and other traumatic events.
She says that while mental health symptoms might increase during a crisis, "so do the opportunities for increased coping and personal growth."
"There are ways to take steps to protect yourself and manage your symptoms," adds Noll, who is also chair of the Recovery Council of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association.
What Have You Learned From Past Experiences?
In coping with your current emotions, it may help to think about what has helped you cope with emotional distress in the past and can possibly help you now. Think about your best days: What did you do on those days? Who did you spend them with? Also, reflect on your not-so-good days: What are things that did not help you cope and you want to avoid now?
Get the Facts
Accurate information is one of the best antidotes for anxiety. When you are informed, you know the right things to do for your physical and mental health, and you can quell emotions stirred by unfounded myths and rumors.
It is extremely important to take care of yourself. In general, make healthy choices:
- Eat nutritious foods
- Drink plenty of water
- Exercise (if you prefer not to go outdoors or to the gym, exercise at home)
- Get enough sleep
- Take a mindfulness approach (meditation, for example) to reducing stress
Keep up with your routine health screenings and continue taking precautionary measures to protect against coronavirus. COVID-19 vaccines are our best defense against the virus, so make sure you get your initial doses and a booster. If you have a pre-existing mental health condition for which you take medications, keep taking your medications as prescribed. Make sure you maintain a full supply of your medications and plan ahead for refills. If you have a mental health provider and are in treatment, remain in treatment and be sure to let your provider know how you are doing.
Do not hesitate to seek help when you feel you need emotional support. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends calling your healthcare provider if emotional distress 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. Help is available. The CDC offers helpful information on the risk factors related to suicide, the warning signs and how to respond if you notice the signs.
Connect With Others
If while out for a walk you see a neighbor, give a friendly smile and wave. If you are continuing to practice social distancing, and especially if you are not up to date on COVID-19 vaccines, perhaps try to have a conversation from at least six feet away. If you don't know what to say, a simple "How are you doing?" will suffice. You can discuss what each of you is doing to cope with pandemic stress and anxiety.
When in-person gatherings are not possible, use technology—phone, texting, email, real-time video calls through Skype and FaceTime or social media—to stay in touch with family and friends who can provide positivity and support and help you feel less isolated. Keep in touch with your community or faith-based organizations. If you are comfortable doing so, participate in online forums and social media groups. Just be mindful of the amount of time you spend in front of a screen.
Take Breaks From the News
While staying abreast of the news is important, sometimes you need a mental break from it, especially when you starts to affect your mood.
Find time to take breaks from watching, reading or listening to the news. During those breaks, engage in activities that bring you joy, like listening to music, watching a good film, exercising or gardening. Many people have started new activities such as more outdoor eating and regular Zoom meetings as a way of adapting to social distancing and "new normals." Is it time to restart that hobby you used to love? What are some things you didn't have time for before? Can you do them now?
Start (or Get Back on) the Road to Sobriety
Your journey to sobriety can start (or restart) via UMMS psychiatry services or a crisis hotline. Trained providers and response specialists can offer immediate support and refer you for the proper medical treatment.
Know the Risks of Excessive Substance Use
Too much alcohol, regardless if you have substance use disorder or another pre-existing condition, can interfere with your judgment, worsen sleep quality, and increase anxiety and depression. Alcohol can also weaken the body's ability to fight infections and increase the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia, conditions associated with COVID-19. Too much caffeine also can increase your anxiety as well as disrupt sleep.
Increased use of prescription medications and illegal drugs is common during a pandemic. Know that different drugs can have different adverse effects (consumption of too many opioids, for example, can stop a person's breathing).
Avoid excessive alcohol and substance use and try other coping mechanisms like exercising, yoga or talking to a friend.
You Are Resilient
Never forget: You are resilient. With all that has occurred, you are here and still able to live a meaningful, enjoyable life. Treatment and support are available to you. There are ways you can control your response to any crisis and manage your health.
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