By Vanesa Brashier, firstname.lastname@example.org
Southeast Texans are accustomed to the stresses of hurricanes, floods and storms, but health experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has created a more long-lasting stress that could lead to anxiety and depression in some people.
“With hurricanes, we can usually move on with our lives within two weeks. With COVID-19, we have watched this virus as it has moved around the world, and it has made people more symptomatic for anxiety, stress and depression than any of the storms we’ve been through,” said Catherine Prestigiovanni, senior director of strategic development for Tri-County Behavioral Healthcare, which serves Liberty, Montgomery and Walker counties. “People are asking themselves, ‘Will it be me who gets it? Will it be my family, my friends or coworkers? When can we stop worrying about it?’ All of this has been way different than other situations.”
The stress over the next two weeks will likely ramp up as more COVID-19 cases are expected to be confirmed in the United States.
“We haven’t even gotten to the top of the roller coaster yet. We are just waiting to get to the top so we can start going down again,” she said.
It is natural to feel overwhelmed and worried in response to the bleak headlines and round-the-clock television broadcasts reporting on COVID-19. Prestigiovanni says it is a lot to take on, particularly for those also dealing with the loss of employment, children being home-schooled and health concerns.
“What we are encouraging people to do is get outside as much as possible,” she said.
Being at home doesn’t have to be inside the house. The sun and physical activity are natural ways of dealing with stress, anxiety and depression. Prestigiovanni said it is also good to stick to your normal routine, such as waking and going to bed at your normal times.
“Get up and have breakfast and take a shower. If you still go back to bed, at least you’ve accomplished something for the day. For some people, it can be therapeutic to make a list of things to do. If they can check off one or two of those things, that gives them a sense of accomplishment,” she said. “If you are homeschooling your children, keep them on a routine, too. Talk to your kids on their level about what is going on. It may alleviate some of their stress by hearing what you are doing in your home to keep the virus away.”
A quiet child who appears okay may still need an opportunity to discuss how they feel about the isolation, she said.
“Parents forget how intelligent kids are. Some kids are fine with this and won’t feel stressed at all. Others may want to talk to you but don’t know how. We have to do what we can to give them a chance to discuss it,” Prestigiovanni said.
Dr. Brandon Smith with Firm Foundations Clinic in Liberty says that mental health may be improved simply by steering away from news and getting things accomplished.
“Spend 10-15 minutes a day updating yourself on COVID-19, whether it’s an address from the President, or a review by the Centers for Disease Control. Look for credible stuff,” he said. “What people tend to do is get on social media, see something that leads them to another link, which leads them somewhere else, and then this snowball effect happens. Before you know it, they have spent two hours and have gotten themselves worked up about it. I would limit that to 15 minutes tops. I am not saying to not look for information but limit it and only rely on credible news sources.”
Human beings want to be constructive and creative, and sitting for hours is an enemy, he said.
“A lot of times we might want to rest, but an active mind is a healthy mind. A lot of depressed patients are not working. Believe it or not, it helps us to work. Now is the time to clean out that shop at your house or clean that closet that you haven’t gone through in a while. Actively do something. That helps distract and move you away from those negative things,” Smith said.
Instead of using technology and social media to fuel the depression, use it to stay connected, he recommends.
“We can keep in touch with our family and friends through phone calls, FaceTime or even Zoom technology where you video chat. This might be a great time to learn that technology that you still haven’t learned,” he said. “People need to see each other. It’s just how we are designed. Even though we don’t have the touch with our loved ones and friends right now, it’s still good to see people.”
Churches are using technology to keep their congregants connected, which also promotes a positive mindset and a sense of community.
“Even though they are not able to corporately worship in the physical sense, we can still worship in our homes. That’s what Jesus did when He came. He went around to homes and they had services there,” he said.
Smith also advises that people keep up with their medications and get refills as recommended.
“Take them as prescribed and reach out to your doctor and pharmacist to make sure you keep those going. Even with the current restrictions, telemedicine is allowing doctors to reach out to their patients in a non-traditional way,” he said. “Sometimes just being able to ask your doctor ‘What should I be afraid of? What shouldn’t I be afraid of’ will help. Sometimes just being able to look someone in the eye, someone you trust, can help you set aside some of those fears and anxieties and give you some realistic expectations.”
It is important to remember that the “stay home, stay safe” order will only last a short time and jobs will return as the economy recovers.
“We need to think about this coronavirus as a grass fire. It will spread and eventually burn itself out,” Smith said. “I believe it will enter the population of normal viruses that we deal with. Our immune systems over time will adapt to it. The pathologists are saying that it’s probably going to grow weaker over time as it mutates, but we have to first endure this virulent strain.”
People who are dealing with an unmanageable amount of anxiety, stress and depression have a number of options available. They can contact their own doctor for an appointment and consultation, reach out to a licensed mental health counselor or contact Tri County MHMR, which has offices in Cleveland, Liberty and Conroe.
“If someone is feeling like they are having a mental health crisis and is suicidal, call 911 immediately. They can be taken to a psychiatric emergency center for an assessment. If you are not feeling like you want to hurt yourself but are still having a mental health crisis, we are still taking appointments. We will get you help,” Prestigiovanni said.
Tri-County Behavioral Healthcare has a 24-hour crisis line that can be reached by calling 1-800-659-6994.
The Centers for Disease Control has some helpful suggestions for coping with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic that can be found by clicking https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html.