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Health + Wellness Wellness

How to Cope with the Mental Load of COVID-19

June 3, 2020

COVID-19 is triggering stress and worry in nearly half of Americans. But local experts say there are healthy ways to cope

By Nicole Frehsee Mazur

One day in early April, Melissa, a 36-year-old mother of two from Birmingham, logged onto Zoom to speak to someone she hadn’t contacted in nearly a decade: her psychiatrist. 

At that time, the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing in Michigan, with the number of cases rising every day, schools and businesses closed and residents under orders from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to shelter in place. It was all too much for Melissa, who’d battled anxiety most of her life but hadn’t relied on medication since before she had children several years ago. (She asked to be identified by a pseudonym for privacy reasons.) “In the past, I’ve been able to manage my anxiety on my own,” she says, adding that fear of the unknown — something there’s no shortage of these days — is her biggest trigger. “But I don’t think I could survive this [crisis] without some sort of assistance.”

Melissa is far from the only person whose anxiety has snowballed as a result of COVID-19. In fact, nearly half of all American adults (45%) say that worry and stress related to the virus are negatively impacting their mental health, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

In Metro Detroit, therapists say they’re seeing increased demand for mental-health support. “This is the busiest I’ve been in my career,” says Betz King, a licensed psychologist based in Farmington Hills. She estimates that her patient load has jumped 50% in recent months, driven by everything from fear of contracting the virus to financial worries to mourning the loss of milestones like weddings and graduations. (She’s mostly seeing clients she’s worked with in the past who have recently returned.) “This is taking a toll on everyone, bringing symptoms of not only sadness or anxiety, but also irritability, lack of motivation and fatigue,” she says. 

Betz King

“There’s so many layers,” she adds. “I think the big thing is about being mortal. For many people this is the first time they’ve felt their mortality in such an intimate and threatening way. That’s enough to put us all in therapy.”

Erika Bocknek, an associate professor of educational psychology at Wayne State University, says that outlook isn’t necessarily problematic — “feeling down, stressed and anxious is appropriate in the current context” — but red flags arise when those emotions don’t lift. “People need to identify when these feelings become either too overwhelming for the coping strategies at hand, or they start to feel stuck in those feelings,” she says. 

But how are we to cope when our normal strategies — visiting friends, hitting the gym, even escaping to the office — are out of reach? Maintaining a routine is key, for one. That can mean anything from getting up and going to bed at the same time, eating regular meals and getting dressed every day. “The brain finds comfort in routine, and so much of our routine is gone now,” says King. 

For parents in particular, family rituals like eating meals together are “extremely powerful,” says Bocknek. “It’s fascinating that something as straightforward as family dinner has the impact that it does on children’s mental health across ages,” she says. “It’s a silver bullet.”

Other mood-boosters include getting regular sunlight and exercise, limiting exposure to the news and social media (checking in twice a day is reasonable) and making Zoom dates with loved ones. “It’s hard, after a day on screens, to get back on the computer, but make it happen,” says King. She also recommends lending a hand to others by sewing masks, donating money or food to people in need or even volunteering for an online support group. “Helping others has long been shown to improve happiness, so any kind of altruism is a great idea.”

Erika Bocknek

And be kind to yourself, too. “If we’re having a hard time and we beat ourselves up for not doing more, or doing better, we are at war with ourselves,” says King. “A house divided can’t stand.”

Bocknek asks her clients to do “temperature readings” in the morning and at night, and assess their moods on a sale of 1 to 5 (1 means you can’t face another day; 5 signifies enthusiasm and optimism). “We’re looking for some fluctuation in numbers over the course of a week,” she says.

Translation: Feeling bummed out is “normal” — but you also want to be able to experience joy. If your stress is unmanageable, it’s time to seek help. Michigan offers multiple free resources, from a “warmline” that connects people struggling with mental health issues to certified peer-support specialists to a crisis text line that reaches live, trained counselors. Booking a teletherapy session is also an option: A 2018 study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that online therapy is as effective as live visits, and King says some patients have been more willing to open up because they feel more comfortable on their own “turf.”

For Melissa, reconnecting with her psychiatrist has helped. She started a new anti-anxiety medication that helps keep her nerves in check, but she’s also identified ways to feel better. “I’m making myself do things differently,” she says, like getting dressed instead of wearing pajamas and avoiding social media. She recently overcame a huge fear — leaving the house — and went to a nearby bicycle shop. “I walked there with my mask, gloves and Lysol wipes,” she says. “Then I picked up my bike and rode home.

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