Take Steps to Protect Your Mental Health in Stressful Times

By Annette Ermshar, Special to The Outlook

Annette Ermshar

The coronavirus has triggered surprising behavioral responses, including panic buying and convincing yourself that a throat tickle might mean a fatal illness. But equally concerning is the increase in mental health symptoms.
Self-isolation, loss of freedom, uncertainty and fear about what is ahead, and a change in routine and schedule are all contributing to increased stress, anxiety and feelings of helplessness.
Uncertainties can instill a deep sense of fear. They include such questions as:
What protective steps can I take?
How extreme should we be in our response?
Are increased hand-washing and avoiding crowds sufficient, or should we self-quarantine?
Should we move forward with our planned vacation?
Should I close down my office or business?
Should I cancel my spring wedding?
It is this uncertainty that drives anxiety, because people fear the unknown. When we don’t know what steps to take or we have a substantial shift in our routine, we feel vulnerable because we all like to plan ahead. Yet we are faced with significant and unpredictable disruptions to our routine and way of life. Uncertainty exceeds the medical issues at hand, and these disruptions have broader implications.
For example, many families are faced with the reality that the major milestones they have been preparing for are subject to significant change and disappointment and that financial well-being is at stake. (Will my small business survive? Will I be laid off?)
We are all feeling thrown off our routine and wondering how to adjust to new realities. Many of us like to be in control and like the structure that facilitates productivity and success, yet are now finding it difficult to get started in a new routine. These uncertainties contribute to feeling out of control and feeling as if there is nothing we can do to protect the things we hold most dear.
There are active steps we can all take to manage our mental health. Remind yourself that “This too shall pass” and that these feelings of fear and confusion will fade. Try to engage in activities that you enjoy and that maintain your “normal life,” and maintain positive thinking and a sense of hope.
It is also important to remember that everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. Give others the space to manage stress in their own way. One of the best ways to manage anxiety is to engage in a “cognitive shift” and choose to see things from a different vantage point. Choose to embrace this increased time at home; choose to embrace a decrease in the hustle and bustle of life (social activities, dining out, travel).
Instead, choose to use this time to reboot, to explore new hobbies, interests or ideas. Take an online course, organize your closet or garage, or restructure the way you think about your business. Try something you have always wanted to try but have not had time for, or just choose to spend extra time with your immediate family by playing games, talking together or cooking together. This cognitive shift will alleviate anxiety and facilitate greater control over your immediate environment and your mental outlook.
Children are also vulnerable to increased anxiety and stress. Children react, in part, to what they see from the adults around them. When parents and caregivers deal with the COVID-19 calmly and confidently, they can provide the best support for their children. Remember that things are happening at a fast pace that may require that you change your mind and recalibrate family rules. You may need to say, “I know I told you X, but now that I have more information it is Y, and I’m sorry that we keep changing the rules on you.”
Help your child to understand that although things are moving quickly, you will keep them safe. Not all children respond to stress in the same way, so look for common stress reaction in children, including excessive irritation and acting-out behaviors, excessive worry, headaches and stomach aches, difficulty with attention and concentration, fear of going to bed, increased separation anxiety, and the return of behaviors they have outgrown (e.g., bed wetting).
There are many things you can do to support your child during these stressful times. Take time to answer their questions with simple, age-appropriate facts in a way that your child can understand. Limit their exposure to media coverage, as children may misinterpret things they hear and become unduly scared about things they do not understand. Reassure your child that they are safe.
Children will observe adults’ behaviors and emotions for cues on how to manage their own emotions, so be a role model for them and help them manage stress in a healthy way. It is also very important to help your child feel a sense of structure and routine. Help them return to their regular activity as best as you can. Maintain familiar routines in daily life as much as possible, especially if children are sent home from school, while also implementing new activities to create a new structure.
We are resilient people and we are a strong and close community. We will get through this.

Annette Ermshar, CEO of Dr. Ermshar & Associates, is a clinical neuropsychologist and holds a doctorate. Her Pasadena-based private practice focuses on psychological assessment and treatment, neuropsychology and forensic psychology, and she has served as an expert consultant for television and media.

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