Staying away from crowds — maintaining what’s known as “social distancing” — is the right move during this coronavirus outbreak. But it also could mean that people disconnect from their support systems.
Straying from our social routines can take its toll on our mental health, said David Cates, a psychologist and the director of behavioral health with Nebraska Medicine.
“Social distancing means you’re supposed to avoid crowds. You may feel cut off from others,” said Cates, who also is the behavioral health consultant to the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit and National Quarantine Unit on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus.
Feeling cut off is likely to cause fear and anxiety, Cates said. Some people may be prone to snap at others or isolate themselves. Others might experience physical symptoms such as stomachaches or loss of appetite.
Stress can be particularly tough on those with preexisting mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, or on the elderly population.
“Knowing what those signs are is critical,” Cates said. “When you have early indicators, that’s when you know you need to reach out for help.”
Cates offers these tips to cope with stress and worry during social isolation:
- Don’t beat yourself up if you feel more stress or are more worried than usual. Feeling that is expected and normal.
- Get the facts and understand the risks. Get facts from reliable sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and local health departments.
- Limit media consumption. Give yourself a limit or “news diet.”
- Connect digitally with the people who support you. Talking, venting and laughing together is an important way to relieve stress.
- Stick to a daily routine to keep a sense of normalcy in your life. Include time for work, exercise, hobbies or learning. If kids are out of school, give them a structured routine, too.
- Spend time outside.
- Keep a gratitude journal to avoid focusing on the negative. Write down three things you’re thankful for each day.
- If you have trouble paying bills or problems from a lack of employment, reach out for help. “It’s not a time to suffer in silence,” Cates said. “Make phone calls and find out what’s available.”
- Eat well. Get enough sleep. Get exercise.
- Keep a schedule. If you typically visit your grandmother each week but can’t because of restrictions on nursing home access, schedule a phone call on the same day instead. If you have a regular lunch date, connect digitally even though you’re eating in different places.
- Practice deep breathing, mindfulness meditation or other stress-management techniques. Consider the app PTSD Coach to practice some relaxation techniques.
Anxiety is to be expected in a situation like this, said Karen Williams, a mental health therapist with CHI Health. Especially, she said, with a constant influx of information and few answers.
Like Cates, she advises that people back off from social media and news reports. Instead, take care of family, watch a movie or practice prayer and meditation.
“We need to learn to manage the anxiety instead of letting the anxiety manage us,” Williams said.