Coping with Coronavirus: Mental Health Q&A

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Source: Shutterstock

After two months of living with the anxiety and confines of the Covid-19 pandemic, I finally broke down last week. Melancholy, which had been steadily creeping over me, enveloped my psyche as the death toll continued to rise (particularly in the places closest to me my heart, New York and Stockholm), unemployment soared, and it became clear that social distancing restrictions would be in place for the foreseeable future. I’m usually pretty good at boosting myself up, but the coronavirus is so insidious, its implications so far-reaching, I turned to one of my oldest and best friends, experienced clinical psychologist and wardrobe strategist Ania Schwartzman, Psy.D., for additional support. Ania is a licensed clinical and school psychologist working for nearly two decades with children and adults. A graduate of Brandeis University, Ania obtained her Master’s Degree and Doctorate in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York. I had many questions about my feelings and fears and hope Ania’s advice can help others grappling with similar emotions.

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Ania on the set of NBC NY Live with journalist Raina Seitel in March 2019.

I’m a news junkie but feel overwhelmed by the data and saddened by stories of human tragedy. How can we balance our need to stay informed without succumbing to the anxiety of information overload?

Living in these uncertain times leaves most of us feeling anxious and worried. Research shows that feeling uncertain about the future is worse for our mental health than knowing what to expect. My advice for avoiding feeling overburdened or overwhelmed by the news is to commit to sticking with only one reliable news source. This helps to minimize the amount you are exposed to in a day. Additionally, avoid checking the news first thing after you wake up or right before you go to bed.

I’m scared that I or my loved ones will get sick. How can I manage that fear?

Instead of focusing on the “what ifs,” focus on the “what is.” In other words, focus on the present, the here and now. For example, right now I am feeling healthy and strong and right now I am doing the best that I can to protect myself.

I worry that when going out in public, people may be sick. I may be sick and spreading and not even know it! How do I deal with this new phobia?

Being afraid that others are sick is a rational fear. You can manage the fear by taking control of the steps you take when out in public. You can follow [CDC] guidelines such as wear a mask and gloves, keep at a safe distance (6ft is the recommended distance), limit your time outdoors, and wash your hands often.

What if the social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine lead to depression? How can one prevent this?

If an individual develops symptoms of depression, seek out a clinical therapist. Talk therapy and medication help to alleviate the symptoms of depression. To avoid feeling lonely and isolated, make efforts to connect with others. It can be done virtually through Zoom or Facetime or outside with appropriate distance. Ask a friend to meet for a virtual coffee, meal, or happy hour.

It feels like no matter what we do, the coronavirus is one step ahead. We still don’t have a treatment, vaccine, or the capacity to reopen society fully.  What can we do to feel more in control of our environment and protect our loved ones near and far?

One of the hardest parts about this pandemic time is the feeling of not having control over our lives. The best way to manage your feelings is to focus on what you can control. You can control whether you wear a mask when outside, keep the appropriate social distance from others, store whatever essentials you need at home, limit the amount of time you spend on social media and the news, and how you manage your day. We cannot control how our loved ones from afar live their lives, but we can offer support by keeping in touch with them daily.

How can we tackle job loss and insecurity? What can we do to prepare for a better tomorrow?

Anyone going through job insecurity now is understandably worried and anxious. Best practice during this kind of uncertainty is to make a plan of action and follow through with it. Call/email colleagues and friends and let them know you are looking for work. Revise your resume and send them out. Attend virtual networking events/job fairs. Research what supports are available from your local government and seek out those supports. For some, this is a good time to consider a career pivot. It could be something within their field or something brand new. One silver lining in all this could be that more people start the venture of their dreams.

How should we talk to our children about this crisis? From preschoolers to college students?

There are so many resources available online now to help parents talk to their kids about Covid-19. Most will agree that children should be given information that is developmentally appropriate for their age and maturity level. The conversation you have with your high school son will not be the same as you have with your grade school daughter. Let them lead the discussion. Be honest. Stick with the facts. Validate their feelings. Remind them what your family is doing to keep them safe. Offer ideas for how they can be helpful (ex. Send thank you cards to nurses/doctors). Check-in with them periodically to find out if they have any thoughts or questions. If they don’t, drop it and let them know that you are available when they do.

There’s so much uncertainty about the future. We’ve had to write-off many personal and professional plans. How do we cope with the turbulence and after-effects?

We are suffering a community trauma. That said, we all manage our feelings differently. There will be those that come out of this feeling more powerful having survived and maybe even thrived. And there will be those that have suffered tremendous loss and grief who will need significant time to recuperate. In times of uncertainty, it helps to look for the silver linings. What good has come out of this time already? For me, it’s been being able to wake up later than I usually do, having more time with my children, testing out new recipes. I believe that the long-lasting effects will differ depending on how one has coped during this time.

What are some helpful anxiety-coping strategies?

The best strategies to manage feelings of anger and anxiety include meditation (there are tons of apps and online options); exercise (includes walking, running, dancing, yoga); seek out virtual connections with friends/colleagues (social connection improves mood); journal your thoughts and feelings (research shows that naming feelings increases well-being); laugh (watch comedies, read humorous books); practice positive mindset (I don’t know what will happen but I know I will be okay); look at pleasant or memorable photographs (helps to feel relaxed); practice self-care (take a bath, give yourself a manicure, try a face mask, take a nap). Helping others is also good for our minds and bodies and gives us a sense of purpose. Being connected to a larger community reduces feelings of isolation (which can lead to depression) and helps decrease blood pressure which is good for our overall health. Looking out for neighbors, assisting with errands and shopping, donating to a cause or charity you care about, delivering food, making masks, and sharing information are all ways to help. But stay safe and be sure to follow guidelines when supporting others. 

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Ania recommends this calming exercise: Find a quiet spot to sit. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Keep breathing. Stay like this for a few minutes. When your mind wanders, come back to your breath. Repeat after me: may I be healthy, may I be safe and protected, may I live life with ease, may I be happy. Repeat 5 times. When you are ready, open your eyes. Photo Source: Shutterstock

I practice gratitude and am a firm believer of keeping things in perspective but lately, I’ve found myself missing things like trips, restaurants, dancing, and dressing up. How can I manage these frivolous thoughts?

What you describe as “frivolous” are really the joys of living a good life. I do not believe in feeling guilty for missing the things we miss. I do believe that it is important to consider with whom and how you share these feelings. Be mindful of your audience and what they could be experiencing. If someone is dealing with loss, they may not appreciate hearing that you miss dancing or getting your daily Frappuccino. That said, everyone going through this unprecedented time appreciates distractions. I have been busy with helping others organize their closets and plan outfits. They tell me it helps them feel calm and hopeful about the future.

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A few years ago, Ania Schwartzman, Psy.D, decided to combine her clinical therapy practice with her love for fashion, and The Fashionologist was born. The photo above was taken a while back, but in keeping with the coronavirus social distancing rules, Ania has been seeing clients virtually.

Sometimes I feel like my book writing is futile in the shadow of the pandemic. What should I and other creatives do?

Continue to write your book! This pandemic is truly terrible, but it will end someday. When that day comes, you will know you used your time well.

Thank you so much, Ania, for your valuable insight. For more about Ania’s work, please visit her website, The Fashionologist.

Readers, how are you coping with coronavirus anxiety?

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