May 15, 2020
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How to manage your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

Pexels | BDN
Pexels | BDN
The coronavirus has introduced an array of stressors into daily life: social isolation, record unemployment, sudden homeschooling responsibilities and, perhaps most of all, a deadly, invisible disease hovering over everything we do.

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If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112.

The coronavirus has introduced an array of stressors into daily life: social isolation, record unemployment, sudden homeschooling responsibilities and, perhaps most of all, a deadly, invisible disease hovering over everything we do.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, you are not alone.

“These days, the feeling of uncertainty is weighing on us all,” said Katharine Appleyard at Appleyard Counseling in Bangor. ”People are understandably feeling anxious, worried and concerned about the coronavirus. Additionally, the stress experienced as a result of unemployment, loss of social supports, and extended stay at home is challenging our mental wellbeing.”

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Tending to and maintaining your mental health the best you can is as important as exercising and eating right, especially right now. Caring for your mental health not only helps you get through your days, but also to show up to support your family and friends. Here are a few tips for managing your stress and anxiety during the coronavirus.

Recognize your anxiety

Anxiety results as a response to threats, so it is understandable that many people — even those who may not have clinical anxiety disorders — are experiencing feelings of persistent worry and fear right now.

“Anxiety is normal right now, but when it starts interrupting your ability to manage daily life or sleep, you need to learn new strategies to take care of yourself,” Appleyard said.

First, recognize what you are feeling instead of trying to suppress it. Managing the feelings starts with recognizing that they exist.

“It’s ok to cry,” Appleyard said. “Healthy functioning is the ability to recognize signs of stress and the ability to behave in ways that help us feel better.”

To start on your road to healthy functioning, Appleyard recommended reducing media exposure related to coronavirus and staying active. Certain activities like gardening, exercising and even making art have been shown to reduce stress levels.

Meet your basic needs

“Self-care” is a phrase that is thrown around a lot these days for taking the time to relax and reflect in order to maintain your mental health. Despite what Instagram might lead you to believe, though, self-care isn’t all face masks and bubble baths. Sometimes, it is as simple as making sure you drink water and practice basic personal hygiene.

“It is important to recognize that self-care begins with ensuring that your basic needs are met: eating well, getting enough sleep and spending time outside to the extent that it’s safe and possible,” Appleyard said.

In trying or stressful circumstances, making a point to accomplish these tasks, even if it means keeping a physical checklist with items like “brush teeth” and “go for a walk,” will help soothe your mind and give you a feeling of command over the things that you can control.

Breathe smartly

Pexels | BDN
Pexels | BDN
Being told to breathe may seem like a cliched response to handling stress, but it is one based in science.

Being told to breathe may seem like a cliched response to handling stress, but it is one based in science.

“To reduce your stress levels, [breathing] is one of the most important things you can do is to calm your nervous system,” Appleyard said.

Holly Bean, director of recreation and leisure studies at the University of Southern Maine, explained that as a society, Americans tend to be “shallow breathers,” which can lead to a hyperventilating-like feeling that accelerates panic. Focusing on abdominal breathing helps reset your biological and mental response to stress.

“These ancient processes are nothing new: taking a deep breath in through the nose, filling the abdomen like a balloon [instead of the] chest, holding it and exhaling through your mouth fully,” Bean explained. “It’s very important that you take the time to do the deep diaphragmatic breathing.”

Appleyard said that she walks her patients through an exercise that she recommends practicing throughout the day and before bed. First, sit in a comfortable position. Relax your eyes close and rest your hands on your legs.

Then, slowly take a deep breath in, pushing your lower abdomen out with air and bringing oxygen to the bottom of your lungs. Notice your belly expanding. On your exhale, release your breath slowly, for a few counts longer than your inhale.

“[Take] six to ten mindful breaths, allowing your body to relax and your mind to become calm,” Appleyard said. “And finally, when you’re ready, come back to the room and notice how you feel.”

Practice gratitude

Yes, it sounds hokey, but science shows that practicing gratitude actually does help our mental health, especially in trying times.

“It’s when our mind goes off in the future that anxiety tends to come in,” Bean said. “Being grateful for what we do have is basically just being here and now in the present.”

Even when things are bad, Bean said you can always find something to be grateful for. Consider writing them down in a journal or on a notepad where you can easily see them throughout the day. Putting in the effort to do so will help reframe the experience of your everyday.

“It can be as simple as ‘I woke up today’ or ‘my dog loves me,’” Bean said. “Just finding these simple things in life to focus on [is enough].”

Replace alcohol with healthy activities

If you are drinking more during the lockdown, odds are, you are not alone.

“That’s one of the go-tos,” Bean said. “It’s an unhealthy coping mechanism and how do you replace those unhealthy coping mechanisms?”

Bean said to think about what you can do to replace drinking when the urge arises. She said she has seen many healthy strategies, like running, deep breathing and participating in an online meditation.

If you are really struggling with substance use during the lockdown, Bean said to reach out to a professional or seek out online support groups so you feel less alone in the process.

“There’s a lot of group work on the internet as well,” she said. “It’s really about finding someone or a group that you’re comfortable with.”

Reach out if you need help

Though there are things you can do on your own to deal with anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic, Appleyard said that it is also important to open yourself up to reaching out for support, whether it is from friends and family or a mental health professional.

“It’s that barrier of being able to motivate oneself to get what’s needed,” Bean said. “How you get past that is so individualistic.”

Many therapists are meeting with patients via Zoom for therapy sessions, and there are many mental health options online through platforms like BetterHelp and Talkspace if you do not have health insurance.

At-risk individuals, such as people who already suffer from pre-existing medical conditions or have existing mental health issues like depression and anxiety; victims of violence in the household, people who depend on social services that may have been interrupted; and those in the LGBTQ+ community who are in non-affirming environments, should reach out for professional help.

Appleyard recommended the following resources:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness: Text NAMI to 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message.
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: call 800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: call 800-656-HOPE (4673), or chat by visiting https://hotline.rainn.org/online

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