How to Manage Your Anxiety Level & Other Mental Health Impacts From the COVID-19 Pandemic

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It has been over 5 months since we received an email from our daughter’s school indicating that education was moving from in person to virtual.  “School will be moving remotely for two weeks,” it read.  “We will reassess at that time to determine next steps,” the email continued.  At that time, communities across the country were trying to process such significant changes that were happening.  As our private practice transitioned quickly to telehealth, few realized that this can potentially be the format for mental health services for the foreseeable future.  Shortly after the pandemic began, I received a good amount of messages from clients indicating that they would like to “wait and see what happens.”  “I’ll reach back out in a week or two since I would like to continue to see you in person as opposed to online,” they said.  Little did everyone know the pandemic would linger on for several months and longer.  Now, our practice is seeing a few hundred clients per week via telehealth as so many are in need of mental health services during these challenging times.  Individuals, couples, and families are really liking the new format as it is flexible and convenient.  In addition, many insurance policies are covering telehealth sessions at 100% making mental health services much more accessible than they have been in the past.

Although the pandemic has been around for several months, people are continuing to grieve pretty hard as their feelings of loss persist.  People are going through a loss of a loved one, a loss of normalcy, a loss of life experiences like a prom, freshman year of college, weddings and birthday parties, and more.  This weighs heavily on people making day to day life more challenging to manage.  Smaller obstacles or disagreements can trigger stronger emotions of anxiety, depression, frustration or anger.  This can lead to bigger arguments and conflicts which can be damaging to relationships and families.  Additionally, individuals and families are emotionally exhausted.  Parents of young children have been going months without a break.  They have been responsible for child care, education, and entertainment all while having to work a full-time job.

Another layer that has been a large cause of anxiety for individuals and families is that big and quick decisions are needed to be made.  Should you send your child to school or daycare in September?  What changes do you need to make to the policies and procedures of your business?  How are you going to make ends meet and continue to pay for rent or your mortgage?  These are all real situations that individuals and families are being faced with today.  In addition, due to circumstances and laws constantly and quickly changing, it is making it extremely challenging to plan accordingly.  People are put in a position where they have to spend an extraordinary amount of time planning only to have to adjust their plans a few weeks later due to circumstantial changes.  For instance, school districts spent months preparing to transition back to school in September.  Many of these plans were recently shared with parents and students.  It seems that a hybrid approach combined with in-person and virtual learning is the common plan for districts.  However, due to many unknown factors, it is difficult to determine if these plans will remain once school begins in a few weeks.  Should the virus spread throughout schools, they will be forced to shut down again and go 100% virtual.  This will impact school professionals as well as working parents and students.  Little to no options are ideal making it nearly impossible to plan for.  To summarize, all of the unknown factors and having to plan to make big decisions have been crippling to many peoples’ mental health.

Impacts on Social Dynamics

For many, it is difficult to cope with change, whether it be a change of job, home, or relationship.  The pandemic has not only caused these types of changes, but also much more substantial changes specifically in societal/social norms and how people interact with one another.  This is primarily due to the fact that people are responding to the pandemic very differently from one another.  Some believe it is a hoax and choose to not wear a mask or practice social distancing while others still do not feel comfortable leaving their house.  There are also some people who find themselves somewhere in the middle.  These people leave their house, wear a mask, practice social distancing, and have become well adjusted to new social norms.  Nonetheless, many people now have a new layer of anxiety that impacts how they interact with those around them.  There is an added stress level for how people socialize.  They now have to gauge others’ comfort level with socialization and need to communicate theirs.  For example, if your friend invites you and your children over for dinner, you may not feel comfortable unless you bring your own food and if masks are worn by all.  However, when you get to your friend’s house, you find that their family isn’t wearing masks or practicing social distancing.  If your children come to the BBQ wearing masks, what do you do if your friends’ children aren’t wearing masks or being socially distant?  This can impact your stress and comfort level and potentially even your relationship with that family.  You may then choose to not stay or spend time together in the future due to these differences.

How to Cope With These Impacts

It is difficult to wrap your head around the changes around you.  As I indicated, everyone is experiencing loss during these times.  You may still be in a state of shock.  As you begin to acknowledge these changes, it can be helpful to focus on what is directly in front of you.  Rather than focusing your mind on “having things go back to normal,” try to focus on adjusting and creating a “new normal.”  This may include more outdoor activities, zoom meetings, wearing of face masks and hand sanitizer, and quarantining/COVID tests before family vacations.  Whatever the case is, create a new framework for you and your family and you will find a way to make it work.  The more times you get out and experience life within these new changes, the more comfortable you will become.

As you continue to take steps towards adjusting to your new normal, you may find it necessary to communicate with others since their new normal may be different than yours.  When making plans with others, don’t be afraid to ask questions first and share your comfort level with others.  If you are invited to a BBQ, for example, you may want to first find out how food is being shared.  You may also communicate that you are going to bring your own food if that is what you feel most comfortable doing.  Some people feel safer wearing a mask no matter what the circumstance is while others are okay not wearing a mask if they are outside and are being distant from one another.  It can be helpful to always have a mask with you as you gauge others’ comfort level.  If you are outside and they are wearing a mask, you can ask if they would feel more comfortable if you were wearing one too or you can just put it on at that point.  Otherwise, interactions and relationships can be impacted as some people have a difficult time speaking up about their emotions if they are feeling uncomfortable.

These are challenging times for everyone.  Times are constantly changing and there continues to be so many unknown factors.  As long as you are taking care of yourself and your family while also focusing on the greater good and doing your part, you are doing what you can.  Again, try to focus on now and what you can do moving forward and your feelings of anxiety will be as manageable as they can be.  If you find yourself out of control of your emotions and your decision making and relationships are being impacted, do not hesitate to reach out to us.  Many have been doing that as therapy can help ground people.  We are always here to listen.

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