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HEALTH MATTERS 4/10: Handling the Emotional Challenges of COVID-19

By Jessica Levy, L.C.S.W.

With the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continuing to spread around the world, it is threatening not only people’s physical health, but their emotional health as well.

As with many uncertain and stressful situations, feelings of anxiety, depression, anger and even boredom can become overwhelming.

There are, however, ways to cope with these emotional challenges, and the first thing to remember is you are not alone.

The situation is new for everyone and nearly every single person who is going through it is feeling some sort of stress. Keeping this in mind can help reduce the sense of helplessness that often accompanies these types of situations.

Practice Self-Compassion

In managing the stress associated with COVID-19, one of the most important things you can do is have compassion for yourself.

Accept the way you’re feeling and be kind to yourself in how you manage those feelings.

If you find yourself becoming anxious or stressed, don’t immediately try to shut off those feelings. Instead, try to sit with them for a minute and practice self-compassion.

Try saying to yourself: “Of course I’m stressed, I’ve never lived like this before.”

Allow yourself to recognize that you will have these moments, and that change—especially under the current circumstances – can be difficult.

Additionally, stay in the present. Take every day as it comes, recognizing that this is not a permanent situation and that while you cannot control certain things, you can control your state of mind.

Stick to a Routine

As much as possible, stick to your normal routine, even if you are working from home and the kids are learning at home.

Get out of bed, shower and dress as if you were heading out the door, make school and “work” lunches if you usually brown-bagged it; schedule in the usual lunch breaks for yourself and your children.

If you normally go to a coffee shop in the morning, make coffee at home and use the time to catch up on reading or other tasks.

Also, focus on your environment. If you are working from home, create a workspace that you can go to just as you would go to your regular office. The act of going to your home office space at the same time each work day can also help you feel like you’re still in your normal routine.

If you normally go to the gym or a fitness class during the day, continue exercising at that time of day. Get outside for a walk or run (remember to practice social distancing), or use a fitness app or online resource to participate in an exercise class.

The key is to stick to your routine as much as possible. Doing so can bring you comfort.

Take a Break from the News

Constantly assaulting your senses with news can easily trigger compulsive behavior that feeds anxiety and depression.

Limit your exposure to a reasonable time and avoid early morning and late night viewing, which can set a negative tone for your day or disrupt your sleep.

Maintain the same media restrictions that you have in the workplace. If you normally aren’t able to watch television, listen to the radio or check social media during the work day, don’t start now.

If you want to feel connected to what’s going on, designate a time of day to check in and get updates.

Practice Self-Care

Self-care is any activity you do deliberately to take care of your mental, emotional and physical health. Good self-care is key to improved mood and reduced anxiety.

For example, if you’re feeling isolated at home, reach out. Now is a great time to reconnect with family and friends, whether through text, email, video chat, or even a letter or a card.

If you went out to dinner with friends every Friday night, turn the weekly gathering into a video chat dinner. A sense of connection is important in difficult times.

Hobbies are also great stress relievers. Whether you’re an avid reader, love knitting, gardening, building things or cooking, do the things that you enjoy to pass the time and keep your stress level in-check.

As part of practicing self-care, also be sure to eat healthy, get enough sleep and take time to reflect on the things in your life for which you are grateful.

Identify and Address Stress

If you’ve done your best to keep a routine, distanced yourself from the 24-hour news cycle, practiced self-compassion and care, and you’re still feeling overwhelmed, it may be time to seek professional help.

Signs that you may be having difficulty managing stress include:

• Increased lethargy
• Drastic change in appetite (increased or decreased)
• Lack of interest in activities
• Increased emotional distancing
• Hyperactivity that inhibits the ability to focus
• Irrational anger

If you do want to speak to a professional, there are a variety of sources available. Check with your employer to see if it offers an Employee Assistance Program or other behavioral health benefits. Your primary care physician may also be able to refer you to a mental health professional who can provide support.

New Jersey Mental Health Cares, the state’s behavioral health information and referral service, now offers help to individuals dealing with anxiety and worry related to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. New Jerseyans can call 1-866-202-HELP (4357) for free, confidential support.

As the effects of COVID-19 are felt throughout Central Jersey, Penn Medicine Princeton Health remains committed to providing high-quality, comprehensive care to the community 24/7. To learn more, please visit www.princetonhcs.org.

Jessica Levy is the Director of Outpatient Services for Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health in Eatontown.

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