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With the coronavirus outbreak filling us with anxiety, surrounding us everywhere, and preventing us from using social events as a distraction, that can do a number on mental health.
And indeed, Ali Sokolow, a licensed mental health counselor who practices in Bellevue, has seen an uptick in clients in the three weeks since the Puget Sound outbreak was discovered.
But that does not mean we need to resign ourselves to weeks of an emotional roller coaster. Sokolow has some advice for all of us when the coronavirus worries and blues start.
She said she is seeing two kinds of depression being exacerbated by coronavirus — regrets over the past and dread for the future.
“One is living in the past — ‘I wish I would have saved more money for something like this, I should have done this differently,’” she said. “I think if we’re living too much in the past, it’s causing depression, and if we’re living too much in the future, it’s also causing depression.”
Even though “the information we’re getting is a lot, and it’s very doom and gloom,” Sokolow challenges people to think about the positives of the situation.
“We should think about how we are handling this well — we are trying to nip this quickly, the top doctors are on it. All we can do is do one day at a time,” she said. “And we’re so lucky to have the technology to stay in communication with each other.”
When it comes to anxiety, Sokolow said, try not to worry about what is weeks or months down the line. This is perhaps difficult for an immuno-compromised individual worried for their health over the next few months, or a small business owner wondering if they will be able to stay in business.
But Sokolow reminds people that they cannot predict what will come with coronavirus, and will have little control over it.
Instead, she said, take each day one at a time and focus on what is in your control that day.
“It’s really about, ‘OK, what information do I have today, and what can I do with that information today, and what am I going to accomplish today?’” she said.
When bad news about coronavirus is everywhere a person turns, it can be easy for that to escalate into a spiral of anxiety. The most important thing to do in these instances is to find tricks to ground yourself and bring yourself back to the present moment.
“If you start to feel like you’re going down that rabbit hole and you become sort of paralyzed with fear, I want you to have something that you can say to yourself to bring you back to the present, like, ‘OK, I’m jumping down the road five days, I’m going to stay present today,’” she said. “Practice deep breathing, do five minutes of yoga just to clear your head, meditate if you want to — continue to exercise.”
Exercise especially is great medicine for your mental health — especially if it is done outdoors. While everyone is encouraged not to go out in public or gather in large groups, people are still allowed to go out in nature and take a stroll, a run, or a bike-ride individually.
“We are having gorgeous weather. Let’s remember that this is the best time to live here. We wait for this all winter long,” Sokolow said. “Please, please, please get outside. One of the things that really does calm anxiety is being close to nature.”
When you are stuck indoors for hours or days on end, it does not have to feel like house arrest. Sokolow said that working with your hands is also good for your mental health; she recommends taking up a new craft that will keep your hands busy.
“If you’ve always wanted to start a hobby, this is a good time,” she said.
For extroverts with anxiety, getting together with friends and going to social events can be great distractions from anything troubling them. While it may not be possible to go out for public social events right now, it does not mean that this type of activity has to stop.
Sokolow suggested planning virtual happy hours with friends over the phone or video chat programs. When you do, challenge yourselves not to talk about the virus at all; talk about all the things you would normally discuss.
Staying home also doesn’t have to stop you from reaching out to a counselor — many therapists offer tele-health to get counseling over the phone or video chat programs.
While you should keep in touch with friends and family all you want with messaging apps, try to limit time spent on social media feeds.
“I know people are using social media to stay in touch, but I think it really heightens all of our fears and all of our anxieties, and it is the worst of the worst,” Sokolow said. “And it is a constant reminder that everybody is just inside.”
It may be disrupting everyone’s lives across the world — but that does not mean you have to entirely stop living your life.
“Remember that there is going to be life after coronavirus,” she said. “We need to continue to do the things that we were normally doing, too. Everything can’t be put on pause.”
For more information about mental illness amidst the coronavirus pandemic, visit the National Institute of Mental Health. If you or a loved one is in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.