Anxiety in the time of COVID-19

COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, has disrupted much of normal life, including mental health.

Under orders to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic, or COVID-19, Long Beach residents have been hunkering down alone or with their immediate families, cut off from work associates and schoolmates since March 19.

Besides boredom, some residents are experiencing the effects of social isolation in deeper ways, such as anxiety and depression.

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“We are all feeling uncertain about what could happen in the coming weeks as we hope to slow the spread of this pandemic,” Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, stated in a March message. “Feelings of anxiety and uncertainty are completely normal during times like this.”

Exposure to seemingly endless media reports of ever-increasing rates of infection and death only adds to feeling overwhelmed and uncertain, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

“It’s hard to sift through the messages and information coming at us,” NAMI states in its resource guide. “Worse, the ‘unknown unknown’– not knowing what you don’t even know– can cause even greater anxiety.”

Jolissa Hebard, director of outreach at NAMI Long Beach told the Signal Tribune in an email that more residents have been contacting her office for help in the last month.

“Many more people are searching for support and mental illness doesn’t stop for pandemics,” Hebard said. “We are still getting requests for housing, clinical and medical services, as well as info on COVID-19.”

Hebard added that NAMI Long Beach and other providers and nonprofits are offering online support groups to help.

“We have resources on our website and even a new chatbot feature we are beta-testing to answer questions quickly and get needed info to the public ASAP,” she said.

Nearly one in five people in California already suffer from an anxiety disorder, according to NAMI California. While statistics on how the current lockdown is contributing to the number of anxiety and depression cases are not yet available, Hebard says there has been an increase.

“Capsized travel plans, indefinite isolation, panic over scarce resources and information overload could be a recipe for unchecked anxiety and feelings of isolation,” California psychologist Aarti Gupta of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America states.

Simply isolating can lead to fear and worry, altered eating patterns, difficulty sleeping, increased smoking and alcohol or drug consumption, and the worsening of existing chronic health problems and mental conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Those at risk for mental illness may also face additional fears about socially isolating and having health, community and transportation services cut off, according to the CDC. Their distress may increase further if they live in lower-income households or experience language barriers.
To help address the problem, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced on April 3 that it is providing emergency grants of up to $2 million per state for crisis intervention services, mental and substance-use disorder treatment, and other support for children and adults impacted by the pandemic.

“People throughout the nation will struggle with increases in depression, anxiety, trauma, and grief,” the organization said.

In the meantime, NAMI suggests simple measures residents can do daily, such as making your bed, getting dressed, connecting with loved ones via phone and video, and moving, such as through walking, dance or yoga.
Walking in the neighborhood is still allowed under Long Beach’s “safer at home” policy.

Health officials also suggest reducing stress by limiting exposure to constantly changing media information.

“Take breaks from watching, reading or listening to news stories, including social media,” the CDC states. “Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.”

The LA County Department of Mental Health (LACDMH) concurs, noting that media coverage can make the situation seem worse.

“When you hear, read or watch news about an outbreak of an infectious disease, you may feel anxious and show signs of stress— even when the outbreak affects people far from where you live and you are at low or no risk of getting sick,” LACDMH says.

Parents can watch for signs of stress in their children, including excessive crying, reverting to outgrown behaviors such as bedwetting, unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, difficulty concentrating and acting out, the CDC suggests.

Parents can also talk to their children about COVID-19 in ways they can understand while limiting families to news coverage.

“Children may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they do not understand,” the CDC says. “Reassure your child or teen that they are safe. Let them know it is okay if they feel upset. Share with them how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn how to cope from you.”

Being a role model in other ways, such as through keeping up regular routines and healthy eating and sleeping behaviors, also helps children, the CDC says.

Hebard concurs that kids need reassurance that they are safe and kept to their routines.

“Understand this is strange for them, too,” she said. “They may have questions or fears. Listen to them non-judgmentally, respect their concerns as valid and reassure them that this, too, shall pass. Life will get back to normal.”

Adults can take care of their elderly parents by connecting with them remotely, helping manage their medications and medical supplies, and helping them stock up on non-perishable food items such as canned foods and pasta, the CDC suggests.

Hebard added that this is also the time to value the experience of the elderly who have faced situations much worse or heard about them from their parents.

“Learn from them how to sew or cook,” Hebard suggested. “Many older folks are technologically challenged; however, this is a great time to help them learn a new skill. A call over Zoom, Facebook Live or even just Facetime on your phone are great ways to feel connected.”

However, the CDC also stresses that adults should take care of their emotional health as well.

“Caring for a loved one can take an emotional toll, especially during an outbreak like COVID-19,” the CDC says.

NAMI encourages relaxing activities such as reading or listening to audiobooks; journaling or writing; creating art, such as drawing or building something; playing games and doing puzzles; taking a free online course or learning a new skill; or gardening, cooking and rearranging the home environment.

“If working from home, we encourage you to create a structured, dedicated work environment and build in self-care as well as daily benchmarks of achievement,” NAMI suggests.

NAMI also suggests regularly phoning friends and family and sharing virtual activities, such as crafting or eating dinner.

LACMH adds to that list connecting with community or faith groups, many of which now offer online services.

Dr. William Parham, a psychology professor at Loyola Marymount University, notes that forced isolation can also be an opportunity for growth.

“Hidden in the challenges in this still-unfolding journey are opportunities to discover more about ourselves and how we manage our emotional health and wellbeing,” Parham says.

He notes that normal responses to COVID-19 can include a range of emotions– not only anxiety, panic, fear and uncertainty but confusion, feeling blindsided, hypervigilance, depression, sadness, mourning and an increased sense of vulnerability.

“Acknowledge all feelings that surface!” Parham says. “[Just] because you may not be able to fully understand or explain your feelings at any given moment during this pandemic, doesn’t mean that they are any less valid.”

He suggests expressing feelings but also knowing they may be tied to past situations and unresolved traumas. Speaking to a mental-health professional may help.

“While we have little to no control over what is happening,” Parham says, “we have 100% control over how we respond to the challenges with which we are now confronted.”

For more information and help, visit NAMI Long Beach at www.namilongbeach.org or call the LACDMH hotline at (800) 854-7771.

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