FEATURE: Staying Mentally Healthy During a Pandemic

By Darryl Webster, MSW, LICSW

As a clinical social worker and former doomsday thinker in my youth, I grew up thinking all sorts of negative and catastrophic thoughts that stressed me out.

I thought I was going to die from all kinds of maladies. These thoughts and my inability to cope caused me to suffer from anxiety disorders and depression in my twenties. I have been on both sides – stressed and supporting those who experience stress.

These are challenging times for us all, particularly, it is stressful for the 40 million Americans diagnosed with anxiety disorders in the United States and hundreds of millions worldwide with depression.

We are psychologically vulnerable to the grim news of mounting death tolls around the world, in our cities, and towns. Years ago, I would have been trembling in my skin with each “Breaking News Report,” thinking the world was coming to end, but not anymore.

I’m taking all the precautions I can to protect myself from Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19). I’m staying at home and only going out for essential items. When I’m out, I keep my social distance. I even wear a mask. I wash my hands and keep them away from my face, which is a challenge for me because I am a compulsive face toucher.

My heart breaks for the people dying from the disease and others being laid off. Hundreds of thousands of families are being affected by these tragic losses.

I’ve been in dire straits myself –  my wife was laid off twice, as a result, we faced foreclosure. My grandparents who raised me died two months apart, unexpectedly. There were many bleak days. I was determined not to give up but persevere. I kept a positive attitude and believed things would get better and they did. I did odd jobs to make ends meet. I thought positively and programmed my subconscious mind with affirmations and images that lifted me out of a dark place.

I’ve learned to view life’s adversities (albeit the Coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented) from a different lens. I learned a long time ago, most of what we fear and worry about never comes to pass. I’m not minimizing the risk of illness or death from Coronavirus.

I believe, weathering life’s storms are about not what happens to you but rather, how you respond to it. You can control how you think. When my mind tried to take me to a negative place, I reframed my thoughts and perceived events in a more positive context. Google Aaron Beck or David Burns research on cognitive distortions to learn more.

This Too Shall Pass

We’ve been through this before. In the days, weeks, and months following 9/11, people were stressed out, very similar to now. Some feared World War III was imminent.

Grocery stores were bare, duct tape was scarce and plastics sold out as frantic people prepared for the next attack. The stock market went down, the economy suffered, and flying nationally and internationally came to a screeching halt. Our country and world came together like never before.

We rebuilt the Pentagon and built the One World Trade Center, where the iconic World Trade Center Complex once stood. Brave first responders saved lives and sacrificed theirs doing it. The Coronavirus pandemic has its heroes too—our nurses, doctors, social workers and others on the front lines.

We Are All in This Together

This COVID-19 virus is yet another test for us as individuals and a country, in fact, the global community.

“We are all in this together” is a mantra that I’m hearing everywhere these days. I like it because no one is immune to COVID-19 or the unprecedented levels of stress we all are feeling right now.

I’ve been touched by the stories of people showing empathy and compassion in our darkest times. For example, people in Italy coming out on the balconies to sing, family members visiting elderly loved ones at nursing homes to celebrate birthdays outside of windows, and many businesses and people preparing meals and donating thousands of masks for our health care workers.

Controlling the things, you can during this pandemic certainly can make you feel less stressed. Change your hopeless thoughts to more optimistic ones. What is it that you can do to make a difference right now?

We will conquer the COVID-19 virus. There are some brilliant scientists and researchers around the world working feverishly to find a vaccine for it. It’s been done before and they’ll do it again. In the meantime, the biggest challenge for you is to stay rational and calm.

The Brain Science Behind Our Fear

Our brains have a negativity bias that’s wired into our nervous systems. Its purpose is to alert us to dangerous and threatening stuff that could hurt us. The brain’s evolutionary purpose is to ensure our survival to keep us safe.

The Coronavirus certainly qualifies as a life-threatening event. Our minds have been hijacked. We are hypervigilant, constantly worrying, and emotional. Our emotional brain (limbic system) is on high alert and that’s what causes all the emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical symptoms that we are experiencing right now.

I say be positive, don’t let the Coronavirus Pandemic drive you crazy. I learned how to change my negative thinking and use cognitive reappraisal (a psychological strategy) to stay rational and not let my primitive brain, the amygdala which is a part of the limbic system (emotional brain), keep me awash in the stress hormone cortisol.

Don’t catastrophize. I n other words, don’t think about the worst-case scenario. Here are 11 strategies to stay calm and distract your mind during the Coronavirus pandemic.

11 Strategies to Manage Stress, Overcome Anxiety, and Depression

1. Focus on your breath: Sit or lay down in a comfortable position in a quiet place.  Practice taking slow deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling. There are many ways to properly practice deep breathing. Did you know with every slow deep breath you are activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is known as the Rest and Digest part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)? It decreases your heart rate and dilates your blood vessels. This simple exercise of mindfulness will instantly calm your body and offset the stress response which has a detrimental effect on our bodies, especially, if it’s sustained for a long period of time. Deep breathing is a great way to oxygenate the blood and control anxiety and minimize panic attacks.

2. Lean on your faith: Regardless of your religion, prayer is powerful. Don’t lose faith because you are facing a crisis. This pandemic is a test of faith. It is easy to be a believer when everything is going well. The Coronavirus is our test – let’s see who truly believes. Read your Bible, Quran, or Torah. Fellowship online, check-in with friends and family and spread or receive some encouraging words of faith. God knows we need it right now.

3. Find one news source and stick to it:  Give your nerves a break from all the 24/7 Coronavirus news. Find a reliable source for information and stick with that one but limit your watching. Replace your time spent on social media by listening and watching YouTube videos on meditation and mindfulness or watch funny movies or listen to soothing music or anything that will help you relax.

4. Use Social media to connect. Use social media to stay connected with friends and family. We are sensory being. We process information by our five senses: sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste. Although we can’t touch our friends or family members not living with us right now (until we know they are Coronavirus free), it’s imperative we maintain contact in other ways, through social media or by phone. Seeing our loved one’s faces and hearing their voices can produce the “feel good” hormone, dopamine, in the brain which is a natural pain reliever. Since we can’t touch our loved ones, we must be more expressive with our language when we communicate with them. Heartfelt words and expressions of acknowledging the other person can evoke a feeling of intimacy parallel with that visceral feeling we get when we touch someone.

5 Go outside: Go for a walk in nature or get some exercise outdoors. As far as I know, all lockdown orders permit it as long as it’s not done in groups and social distancing is followed. I love walking by myself but mostly with my Yorkie-Shih Tzu mix, Sport, on trails near my house. Walking gets the blood circulating and relaxes the mind. Listening to the different sounds in nature, such as birds, insects, water running in creeks, and watching the many types of birds flying by or insects crawling on nearby plants. It’s very very relaxing. My mind is momentarily consumed by nature’s natural way of centering the mind and body. When I return home, I take my blood pressure and it’s always much lower than before I walked.

6. Read a book:  While you have so much downtime, get lost in a good story or learn something new. Learning is a great way to get your mind off things. Reading a book can trigger your imagination and calm your nerves.

7. It’s okay to play: Play games or make some TikTok videos with your family members while you’re quarantined at home. I love watching the TikTok videos and I’m sure the people who make them have just as much fun doing them. I saw NBA players Kevin Durant and Trae Young playing NBA 2K on ESPN, competing with others online. My 17-year-old daughter turned me on to Bananagrams. My family has found that having game nights brings us together to have fun with each other, in a loving way.

8. Feel Gratitude and Show It: Gratitude is a form of positive energy release that helps frees the mind and spirit, enabling us to be more creative and open-minded to problem solve during a crisis. I take out my gratitude journal and write in it everyday things I am grateful for. I saw a news story about female truckers putting their lives on the line to deliver food and other essential items to stores around the country. And one woman, in particular, was very positive. She said, “I’m happy to have a job.”Even in the worst of times, we can find something to be grateful for.

9: Be of service to others: Research shows that helping others offers an emotional connection through the spirit of kindness that increases oxytocin, another “feel good” hormone. New mothers and fathers feel this with their new baby, and it is also produced when we have novel experiences of human contact, especially moments of shared empathy and compassion.

10: Being alone shouldn’t make you feel lonely. If you live by yourself and millions of people do, don’t feel shame to reach out to others. Depending on your living situation and access to social media, dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic alone can be a scary experience. Having conversations with friends or family by phone can help decrease blood pressure and ease stress. If you don’t have any friends or family, there is teletherapy available. Talk to a therapist and form a therapeutic alliance, it can boost your mood. If you’re a member of a religious or civic organization reach out to them.

11: Explore while being “still.” Explore other ideas to reinvent yourself during this pandemic. Necessity is the mother of invention. Think creatively about what you can create, innovate, or design during this time to fill a niche. Many new inventions were created during World War II such as the radar, aerosol cans, microwave ovens, and the ballpoint pen, even the slinky to name a few.

Remember, we experienced similar situations and have overcome them all. Continue to think positively and know that your positive thoughts help make positive meaning out of any chaos.

If you are feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or if you are in a domestic abuse situation, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-779-7233.

Darryl Webster, MSW, began his career as a child protective services worker in Washington, D.C. and has been a school social worker in the area for 25 years. He specializes in working with children with severe and profound disabilities. Webster was named 2007 National Father of the Year by the National Father’s Day Commission; 2018 Social Worker of the Year from the NASW Maryland Chapter; a National Hero by USA Today, and a 1988 Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian Magazine. He is the author of “I Think I’m Going Crazy: Proven Strategies for Managing Stress, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression.”

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