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  • Kim Keys, LCPC

Tips for Protecting Mental Health During a Pandemic

There is significant mental health concern with respect to this pandemic that we MUST begin to address. Studies show that 1 in 5 individuals (if not 1 in 2, according to some studies) will develop significant mental health issues as a result of the restrictions caused by this pandemic.  The BEST ways to protect your mental health? Limit exposure to social media/news, develop vulnerability (be honest about your feelings), continue to socially connect (virtually or from a safe distance), limit emotional reactivity, and find meaning through activities like service to others. 

Dramatically limit exposure to social media.

Exposure is the #1 key factor to Post Traumatic Stress symptoms and the data shows that exposure to social media has a direct correlation to anxiety symptoms. That means the more social media, the more anxiety and depression! We recommend no more than 1 hour of social media every 2-3 days.

Find a new form of freedom.

According to a recent study from Italy regarding COVID-19: “The most common negative aspects of staying at home are lack of freedom, boredom, lack of fresh air, loneliness, loss of job, lack of social activities.”  Some ideas to combat a loss of freedom:

Work on finding ways to create space for yourself at home.

Interpersonal relationships are under pressure. Forced prolonged exposure to loved ones dramatically changes the dynamic of those relationships. It can often create anger, outbursts, intolerance and compassion/empathy fatigue.   

Avoid comparing! 

It is just as ‘normal’ to cope with radical change in life circumstances by purging your garage as it is to cry, watch movies, and eat. Allow for both and know that both are ways of doing your best to cope. While we’re at it, avoid the comparison-trap of dimensioning pain. You’ve heard it: “Well at least I don’t have kids at home” or “at least I’m young and not quite as vulnerable.” Though arguably, a coping skill that allows us to put our own pain or fear in perspective, this pattern of creating a hierarchy of suffering only serves to separate us and create a barrier to sharing each other’s suffering (a key factor in connection).  

Practice self-regulation.

Compulsive behaviors (i.e. emotional eating, binging social media or alcohol, etc.) are common in stressful situations. Self-regulation is key to navigating a crisis in a healthy way. Determine your ‘triggers’ by asking yourself, “Am I hungry or triggered?” Then seek alternatives to compulsive behavior that support overall health.  

Avoid conspiracies and “us vs. them” thinking. 

During times of distress, the human tendency to seek something to blame can set in. If we can find someone to blame, a cause, or a reason, it provides a sense of control, a defense against fear, albeit an entirely delusional one. This kind of reasoning breeds racism, violence and ‘separateness’, and exacerbates mental health symptoms. Focus on truthful and logical reasoning by ask yourself hard questions: “Who would benefit from CREATING a global pandemic that impacts all levels and cultures of society?”  “Lean in” - togetherness (not separatism) is the single most protective factor against post-traumatic stress symptoms.  

Be aware of the dangers of over-reactivity and under-reactivity. 

There is a concept of "balance" or “wise mind” as the DBT-ers would call it, that serves to limit anxiety, change mindset, and help individuals navigate uncertainty. Avoid the temptation to exaggerate the pandemic by calling it a “death sentence” and avoid patterns of denial or narcissism such as minimizing it by saying, “It’s just the flu.” Adopting a balanced, logical view of risk and resilience is essential to navigating a difficult time in a healthy way. To this end, avoid “emotion-contagion”; a dynamic that occurs in human psychology. It is a type of snow-ball effect when one is over-exposed to highly emotionally charged individuals and become so themselves, illogically.  

Avoid “zero-sum-game” and embrace altruism.

Your gain (i.e., your 20 packages of toilet paper) is not equivalent to another’s loss, nor will it save you from a loss. Our success in navigating this crisis together, as a community, depends on us serving each other.  

Thank a health care worker.

Above all - at greatest risk are those on the front lines of this disaster: our healthcare workers. Not only are they exposed to the faces of this illness, they are asked to make impossible decisions and are doing so while being overworked, understaffed, under supported and under-rested. Like returning war-time soldiers; debriefing is imperative and community support is vital!  Don’t let them feel like they’re alone. DO let them know you’re behind them and thank them for their service.  

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