Managing mental health while staying ‘safe-at-home’

By Daniela Appel

As the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies  and  communities worldwide are mandated to stay home to help “flatten the curve,” individuals have reacted to an event so unknown and unprecedented in our lifetime. As people have sequestered in their homes, they are faced with a new set of challenges that often trigger new or exacerbate existing mental health issues.

Local mental health professionals suggest moderating media consumption from credible sources and the implementation of coping strategies amid these trying times. 

Dallas psychiatrist Alan Koenigsberg, M.D., has noticed that physical and mental health conditions are worsened by the stress associated with the sudden and dramatic changes to day-to-day life. “In general, people are upset about disruption and lack of socialization,” Dr. Koenigsberg said. “For most, it’s been the radical change in needing to stay home [and cancel events such as celebrations for] Passover and b’nai mitzvahs — things people have been planning. A lot of people are angry, frustrated and disappointed.”

Girls to Women President and Co-founder Dr. Susan Sugerman, a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine, believes the COVID-19 pandemic presents collective challenges. “I see this event as challenging our typical experiences with loss and grief,” Dr. Sugerman said. “We are losing our sense of normalcy in slow motion and without a clear sense of what is coming in the future. Just when we expect to pass to a new stage of acceptance there is new and often confusing news to try and put our heads around. The ongoing anxiety of uncertainty can be overwhelming — especially when we don’t know what we don’t know.”

It is important to adjust expectations for what this trying time will look like and what feelings will arise, Dr. Sugerman suggests. “I think we have to remind ourselves that we cannot always control our thoughts and feelings. We are human and we deserve to have them. We will have to try to avoid being anxious about being anxious. It is a learning process for our entire society, and we will need to be patient with ourselves and with each other,” she said. 

The constant stream of news and media can be difficult to modulate, and according to Dr. Koenigsberg, it can be hard to know who to believe. “Everyone has opinions,” he said. “Things are changing day to day, and as physicians, we know science changes. Information develops.” 

It is important to choose credible sources and be able to moderate time spent reading and watching the news. 

“As in all things, moderation works best. We can balance our media consumption by offsetting national news with local news and by incorporating information from our more personal community (e.g., community-based newsletters or emails from our synagogues or other institutions). But sometimes we need a break altogether to reset, and that’s OK too. Consider the concept of Shabbat, not just from work, but also from the assault of news information that can keep us spinning in anxious circles,” Dr Sugerman suggests.

Despite the challenges COVID-19 presents to overall mental health, both in those with preexisting mental health issues and in those who do not typically struggle, professionals suggest taking control of what one can through the implementation of coping skills. 

Routine is an important proponent of good mental health. “[Create] a time to wake up, study, [work], shower, eat, etc. Just [get dressed and] put on clothing,” says Dr. Koenigsberg.

Think about your strengths and how you’ve successfully managed difficult times in the past.

“This is a good time to take inventory of our own coping strategies. We know them intuitively,” says Dr. Sugerman. “But this is a time for naming them, writing them down. Sometimes… we need to distract ourselves from our difficult feelings until we find a better time and place to process them. Sometimes we need a good cry right then and there.” 

Rabbi Brian Zimmerman, who serves Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth, suggests developing rituals, religious or otherwise. “[Create] rituals to make days feel different. Saying Modeh Ani, the Shema at night, walk the dog at the same time every day, put on a good shirt, clean for Passover,” he proposes. 

He adds that during Passover this year, it will be important to “remember that Jews around the world are experiencing this too and are doing the same thing.” “[It] will be interesting to see how Passover brings our community together,” Zimmerman said. 

When trying to support someone struggling with anxiety or depression, just being there is one of the best things one can do suggests Dr. Sugerman. “A phone call or a text to check in can be the difference between life and death sometimes. People stuck in a hard place often don’t want a list of suggestions for how you think they could cope better. But often simply listening, being a sounding board, will help someone get from one day to the next. 

Helping another is also good for oneself. “Help others. Helping each other, gives us a sense of purpose,” Dr. Koenigsberg says.

Dr. Sugerman reminds everyone to take good care of themselves as well. “In the same ways we try to help others, we have to get comfortable asking for help ourselves. If you need help yourself, please ask for it. It is a sign of strength, never a sign of weakness. Moreover, you become a model for self-protective coping behaviors when you let others around you see you ask for help. This is a lifelong gift you can give to others, especially your children. This will make it easier for them to ask for help when they need it in the future. And make it easier for them to offer help to others.”

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