The coronavirus pandemic is taking a massive toll on our mental health.
More than 40% of American adults are experiencing depression, anxiety, and substance abuse issues associated with the COVID-19 outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control said in a new report.
Throw in wildfires, election season, financial distress, school, and the isolation created by shelter-in-place orders, and it is little wonder that Bay Area behavioral crisis agencies have reported a considerable uptick in distress calls.
With that in mind, The Chronicle reached out to mental health experts to help come up with a list of day-to-day strategies that can help manage uncertainty and emotions.
Don’t try to cope. Try to adapt.
“I think people are running on empty on coping efforts,” says Holly Anton, an integrative therapist with Sutter’s Institute for Health & Healing. “It’s time for a different strategy.”
Rather than grieving for the way of life you lost with the pandemic, she recommends trying to find a way to create a meaningful life in the here and now.
Where do you want to put your energy? What deserves your focus? How can you make the most out of today? You can choose how you relate to the circumstances.
Anton says it’s best to avoid temporary coping strategies, too, such as alcohol or substance use and overworking to stay busy.
“Long term, it’s going to get in the way of adapting,” she says.
Keep things in perspective.
“Thinking of difficult situations that you’ve lived through and come out of is helpful,” says David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry and director of the Stanford Center on Stress and Health.
Chances are, this is not the first time in your life you have felt overwhelmed and hopeless. Think back to other instances when a situation felt apocalyptic and remind yourself that you managed to get on the other side of it. It’s not easy to do when you’re in the midst of a catastrophe.
“The worst outcome seems like the only thing when you’re depressed,” says Spiegel.
Humans have weathered plagues, wars, political upheaval, and more. While none of us has been in this particular situation before, keep things in perspective on the scale of human life.
“If you’ve been through any major trauma or loss, one of the most shocking things is how life does keep going,” says Anton. “Five years from now, this is going to be a part of our past. We will have solved problems or found out we didn’t need to. We will have made adjustments or adapted. We will get unstuck from this paralysis we’re feeling right now.”
Focus on the things you can control.
Part of the reason people feel tapped out is that our minds feel overwhelmed by a wide range of larger societal issues the pandemic has revealed, ranging from racial and economic disparity to poor leadership and climate change. But these things are not immovable.
“You can roll over and pull your pillow over your head, or you can do something,” Spiegel says. “If people are serious about not feeling helpless, try and find those situations you can do something about and do it.”
Even a small action can improve your position.
The pandemic has caused deep, heated divisions over a variety of issues – from the use of face coverings to the ability to get a haircut – but it’s important to remember that at the end of the day we’re largely working toward the same goals.
“Social unease is a big part of this anxiety,” says Anton. “We are social animals. There have always been different individuals in the herd. That is not new. What is new is the heightened sense of the differences. But we don’t have to agree in order to help each other. We don’t have to share views in order to cooperate and problem-solve on pragmatic things like childcare, schools, and social issues.”
A little self-care goes a long way.
“Eat well, sleep well, get plenty of exercise,” says Spiegel. “Don’t let your health, diet, or exercise pattern go to hell. Define those things.”
The human mind has a self-defeating habit of freezing up when things feel out of our control. But you need to fight the impulse of doing nothing at a time when you should be doing something.
“Foundation level, you must take care of the body,” says Anton. “If eating has gotten irregular or erratic, commit to structuring it. Don’t skip meals. Make sure you’re getting a proper balance of fresh fruit, vegetables, protein sources, water. That’s a fundamental thing. Nutrition, aerobic exercise and sleep form a good foundation.”
If you need help
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 800-273-8255 to reach a counselor at a locally operated crisis center 24 hours a day for free.
Crisis Text Line: Text “Connect” to 741741 to reach a crisis counselor any time for free.
Once you take care of the basics, focus on your general sense of well-being. The world at large may be going through a difficult period but it’s okay to permit yourself to be happy.
“Focus on things that give you joy and meaning in your life,” Spiegel says. “Be in touch with people who matter to you. Do some things that genuinely give you pleasure. Allow yourself to use your stored good memories and fantasies to make yourself happy.”
“Try limiting your exposure to the media,” says Spiegel. “There isn’t more than two hours of news worth taking in every day. After a while, it’s not new anymore. Consciously limit how much of it you do take in.”
News can trigger your body’s 911 response, causing your heart to race and mind to go into panic mode. That’s not good for setting the tone of your day – especially with round-the-clock updates coming in via social media – and even worse for sleep. Turn off the TV, shut down your computer, and stow your smartphone away. (You can hang onto your newspaper, but stick with the entertainment section.)
“Get away from new input a good two hours before bedtime,” says Anton. “The advice used to be 30 minutes, but I would say probably people need more than that now. There’s over-the-top stimulation now.”
Try this one little trick.
1. Open your eyes.
2. Feel your feet on the floor.
3. Notice your next in-breath.
4. Follow it through to the out-breath, so you can see where the beginning of the next in-breath.
“Just hang out in this practice for 5-10 breaths,” says Anton. “That helps a lot.”
She recommends repeating the exercise several times a day, even if only for a moment or two each time, whenever you start to get lost in your head.
“It lowers the arousal level by catching and interrupting that obsessive thought cycle,” says Anton.
There are terrible and traumatic things happening in our world. Nationwide, an estimated 10% of Americans — significantly higher than usual — seriously considered death by suicide in June, according to the CDC.
It’s okay to seek support if it all seems too much. Spiegel also suggests offering support to others whenever possible.
Getting professional help can be easier than you think. There are telemedicine options available now, as well as other therapy programs you can try at home.
Spiegel also developed a free hypnotherapy program you can use via Alexa. Reveri Health, which was developed at Stanford, offers mini sessions guided by your voice commands, providing exercises to help with a variety of issues, including stress, insomnia and loneliness.
Aidin Vaziri is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org