We are amid an unprecedented health crisis in America. The US has not experienced a health pandemic on this scale since 2009’s H1N1 health crisis. The uncertainty around access to testing, concerns for loved ones as well as the calls for preventative measures such as social distancing can contribute to significant anxiety and worry. The following discussion highlights the psychological challenges associated with managing the stress of a health crisis as well as strategies to cope (and help others to cope) with navigating the day to day tasks of staying healthy or addressing illness, maintaining employment, and caring for/supporting loved ones.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), anxiety is the most common mental health issues experienced by individuals in the US (2017). The experience of anxiety can take many forms but typically includes symptoms such as significant worry, restlessness, and irritability as well as physical symptoms such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, and upset stomach. With the current health pandemic, many individuals may be experiencing significant symptoms of anxiety that have contributed to chronic fear, helplessness, and feeling overwhelmed. These symptoms may be impacting daily functioning and effectively coping with the very real stress associated with the health crisis. Strategies to cope with significant anxiety include the following: (1) mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing, (2) using apps to manage anxiety such as Headspace, Rootd, or Calm, (3) exercising, (4) reducing alcohol and caffeine intake, (5) limiting exposure to news coverage, and (6) seeing a therapist via telepsychology.
During this challenging time, we may see our friends and family struggling with their own anxiety and fears about the health crisis. We will reach out to help but may be unsure of how to support our loved ones as they try to cope. There are many barriers that can stand in our way such as not knowing what to say, saying unhelpful things (e.g., we all go through tough times, just snap out of it), or not knowing what resources to connect your loved one too. However, there are many helpful strategies that you can use to provide support to your loved one. Show your support to your loved one by listening to them and asking what you can do to help (rather than assuming you know what they need). Also, speak candidly about your concerns and be prepared to connect your loved one to resources such as therapy or social support organizations (nami.org, apa.org, or your state psychological association).
Lastly, in addition to supporting our loved ones who are experiencing significant stress and anxiety, many of us may be tasked with taking care of a loved one who has contracted COVID-19. The stress of supporting a friend or taking care of an ill loved one can lead to care-giver burnout. According to the American Association for Retired Persons, care-giver burnout can occur for a number of reasons including: conflicting demands, feeling out of control, and unrealistic expectations (2019). You can reduce the risk of care-giver burn out by finding opportunities to give yourself small breaks, spending time with friends (remember social distance doesn’t mean social isolation), and seeking out support groups.
These next few weeks will be challenging both physically and mentally. You may experience bouts of anxiety and sadness due to feeling overwhelmed or isolated. These feelings are normal. Remember you can develop coping strategies to manage your experience and to support others during this difficult time. Ask for help, use your resources, and utilize spaces of support and affirmation. We will get through this together.