Woman with eyes closed keeping calm

Keeping Calm During The COVID-19 Pandemic

ThedaCare Clinician Offers Tips for Maintaining Positive Mental Health

First it was social distancing and “headline stress disorder” – anxiety resulting from a constant cycle of negative news. Now, add to it, self-isolation. In these changing times, it is important keeps tabs on our mental health, as well as loved ones.

“Mental health issues have been a growing concern over the past decade,” said Catherine Langdon, licensed professional counselor at ThedaCare Behavioral Health in Menasha. “Now, we expect there will be an even greater number of people seeking treatment for anxiety, depression, trauma or adjustment disorders coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

New research notes more than 60 percent of Americans are lonely, and an increasing number of them report feeling left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship and meaning in relationships. Social distancing and self-isolation further intensify that state of mind. In a crisis, experts say some people will become paralyzed by fear or be overactive and highly vigilant because they become anxious, depressed or grieve.

“More than contracting COVID-19, people fear the unknown,” explained Langdon, “They wonder how this crisis is going to impact their lives – for how long and in what ways? They fear losing their sense of normalcy and structure, and that can have a lasting impact on mental health as well as physical health.”

Langdon suggested taking control of fearful and anxious thoughts during a crisis. “It is the best way to conquer these negative thoughts long-term.” Experts believe many people underestimate their ability to cope. The ThedaCare Behavioral Health team shares ways to remain calm in this crisis and beyond.

  1. Take a deep breath. At least three deep ones. Better yet, take a five-minute “breathing break”. Your physical body – including your brain – relaxes with every inhale and exhale. There is a physiological component to stress. Our muscles tighten and our mind races. Deep breaths oxygenate our body, creating not only calmness but also energy to give us the motivation we need to move forward in a right-minded way.
  2. Think positive. Reframe negative thoughts to be more positive. It is important to acknowledge how we are feeling while challenging any irrational or unhelpful thought patterns. Recall happy times from the past, especially when you overcame a challenge. Be grateful for what you have in the present, the basics: shelter, food, good health, or a phone call you received from a friend. And then visualize the good life you will have in the future, beyond the crisis. Framing life in a positive light will likely involve tuning out the bombardment of news reports.
  3. Focus on mindfulness meditation. It is the practice of simply “being”. Step away from any distractions and sit still. Breathe deeply and become aware of your present thoughts. Studies have shown it helps ease depression, chronic pain, and anxiety.
  4. Stay structured. Control what you can: your wake/sleep schedule, shower time, eating plan and exercise routine. Because anxiety comes from a fear of the unknown, it’s important for people to focus on what they can control.
  5. Realize self-care. Take care of yourself. Studies have shown that healthy eating, exercise, deep sleep and social interactions — even if it’s just a phone call or video chat — diminish stress. If social media makes you feel anxious or annoyed, avoid social media.
  6. Connect creatively. Despite the social distancing and self-isolation measures we need to take, stay connected through video chats (think FaceTime and Skype) and phone calls. Even the most introverted person needs some socialization. Connect virtually with family and friends – in small groups or one-on-one.
  7. Express yourself. In crisis, emotions such as dissatisfaction, anger and frustration surface. Don’t repress, express. Talk through your feelings with a trusted friend or mental health professional. Even consider a meditation and wellness app or teletherapy platform to cope with the anxiety of isolation. Also, consider joining one of the online communities associated with the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) that can be found at nami.org. Turn a negative thought into a positive one by speaking what makes you satisfied, happy and accomplished.
  8. Give back. Reap the mental health benefits of giving. There are many ways to “donate” your time and talent, from writing letters to the elderly in nursing homes to leaving lunch at the door of a neighbor with cancer. Giving takes the focus off you and redirects it to others. It brings a sense of purpose, which could lead to reducing stress and the risk of depression.

A crisis of this kind does not have to leave you in crippling darkness and despair. If you’re having a hard time calming your mind, contact the ThedaCare Behavioral Health Call Center at (920) 720-2300 to get scheduled with a mental health provider. For after-hours help, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline – (800) 985-5990 – is a 24/7 crisis counseling and support line option for people experiencing emotional distress.

“Connecting with people who understand your situation and provide a safe place to heal – virtual or not – can make all the difference,” Langdon said. “Let’s lean on each other during this time, and we can get through this together.”