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It has been more than two weeks since Gov. Jared Polis announced the first COVID-19 case in Colorado, and nearly two months since Washington state reported its first case.
If time since then has felt like an anxious blur – stop, take a breath.
Then take a moment to hear from three Durango mental health professionals about what we’re experiencing and how to cope.
La Plata County has reported no positive cases of COVID-19, but health officials advise residents act as though it is present in the county. Since Colorado’s first case, governments, schools and entire industries have shut down. People are practicing social distancing and self-quarantining. COVID-19 is inescapable in media and conversation.
While people focus on their physical wellness, it’s also important they take note of their mental health.
“I think we’re all a little bit in a state of shock right now. We’re just grasping the reality,” said Sandra Eisemann, a therapist at Mountain Mental Health Clinic in Durango.
What we’re feelingMany people could be experiencing anxiety, social isolation, depression and grief.
“When our lives are turned upside down, we feel disjointed and disconnected,” Eisemann said. “It’s a normal reaction to feel quite upset or anxious, particularly when we’re socially isolated.”
Among adults, Eisemann said she heard concerns about finances, isolation or being in the same environment continuously with spouses and children.
Increased uncertainty and loss of control can increase feelings of anxiety. Anxiety can appear as lethargy or insomnia, lack of appetite or overeating, a low mood or an inability to think clearly, she said.
“Basically, the entire country right now has increased anxiety levels, and kids are being impacted by that,” said Hillary Wolfe, owner and therapist at La Plata Family Counseling.
People can feel what others are feeling, even when nothing is said, because we have a mirror-neuron system. The system helps sense body language and feel one another’s energy, she said.
Children might feel adults’ anxiety or have a harder time adjusting to disrupted routines. Those feelings might appear as more tantrums or emotional extremes, Wolfe said.
Adults should give children age-appropriate information about COVID-19 to decrease their unease about the unknown while not creating more anxiety or fear.
“It’s so easy, in this time, to get into the worst-case scenario,” Wolfe said.
In the mental health community, this is called “catastrophizing.” If that starts to happen, she suggested finding positive activities to break away from worst-case scenarios.
Loss and grief“If we look at how we usually live our lives, we’ve lost quite a bit right now,” Eisemann said.
People might feel the loss of social connectedness, the ability to take part in hobbies or the freedom to have control over activities. Children might feel the loss of not being able to spend time with friends.
As a grandparent, Eisemann thought of other seniors, who more often experience severe cases of COVID-19, who might feel loss because they can’t connect with their grandchildren.
Brian Burke, a psychology professor at Fort Lewis College, said he has even experienced some of the five stages of grief described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
“It’s OK not to be OK,” Burke said.
The therapists said rates of depression could rise as the response to COVID-19 continues. Social isolation, fear and anxiety also could exacerbate existing conditions, such as depression, suicidal thoughts, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Eisemann urged people to stay in touch with doctors and maintain regular medication routines.
“The key message is this: Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation,” Burke said.
Social stigmaBurke studies terror management theory, or the reaction to death and mortality. After Sept. 11, Americans reacted with increased acts of kindness and increased racism toward Islamic communities.
“Even just going to the grocery store and seeing people with masks, there’s definitely more tension,” Burke said.
Fear and anxiety can lead to social stigma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because the virus began in Wuhan, China, people of Asian descent may be experiencing stigma, the CDC said. Others, like recent travelers, emergency responders or health care professionals, could be subjected to social avoidance, violence or other signs of stigma.
“This virus could have happened anywhere,” Burke said. “We’re all in this together.”
Coping with COVID-19The three mental health professionals offered guidance about how to reduce some of the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eat healthy foods.Exercise and spend time outdoors.Stay present and do things you enjoy. “Maybe now’s the time to use that scented candle,” Burke said.Focus on what you can control.Spend quality time with friends and family. Burke recommended painting to an old Bob Ross video or playing games.Limit news media or social media consumption. Choose one or two information sources to stay informed.Use technology, like video chat platforms, to stay in touch with others remotely.When feeling anxious, take calming breaths. Placing a stuffed animal on a child’s stomach can help him or her focus breathing while watching it rise and fall, Wolfe said.If you feel paralyzed by anxiety, identify a small, easy next step.Make an effort to find humor and positivity.[email protected]