Mental Health & COVID-19: How to Care for Yourself and Others

If COVID-19 has you stressed or worried, you are far from alone. Gallup reports three in four Americans worry that themselves or a family member will be exposed to coronavirus. And with constant media coverage around the toll the virus is having on daily life, it’s hard not to fall into that statistic.

Now more than ever, mental health is important. How we care for ourselves mentally during a crisis can make or break a positive outcome.

To help others care for themselves mentally, TPQC Licensed Mental Health Counselor Jessica Slover answered five questions about mental health and COVID-19 based on her experiences as a clinician.

1. Self-isolating is difficult for anyone. Is there increased risk for folks living with a mental illness in having to self-isolate?

According to Slover, people living with a mental illness may have a tough time in self-isolation, especially if they’ve come to rely on social support.

“Isolation increases everybody’s risk for more problematic health outcomes,” Slover said. “Social support may have been a part of their plan for recovery. Self-isolation might actually increase their anxiety because they are afraid of relapsing or falling into past behaviors.”

A person living with a mental illness might already have a perception of loneliness, or that no one understands what they are going through. Self-isolation can take that perception and make it feel very real.

Slover added that as some providers cancel in-person appointments deemed not essential, this leaves patients neglected or, in a worst-case scenario, without access to necessary medications.

“Canceling these appointments can increase their anxiety because they don’t have their normal support system,” she said. “Which then causes increased stress, which in turn can exacerbate other health problems. It can create a vicious cycle.”

This cycle could lead to what’s called a trauma response, Slover notes. She describes it as the body going into a fight or flight mode, potentially manifesting in a number of different ways.

“Increased anxiety, excessive sleeping, heightened fear and arousal, irritability, crying spells, or feeling vulnerable. People have this all of sudden and ask why am I feeling this way? It’s because their body is responding to this real or perceived stress that they are under.”

2. Many people living with HIV have a traumatic history when it comes to their experiences during an epidemic. How can we as a society be supportive for those individuals?

For many people living with HIV, the fear and uncertainty that accompanies a virus like COVID-19 is something with which they’re all too familiar. Slover emphasizes the importance of acknowledging that unique perspective without necessarily having to understand it.

“The number one thing to remember if you know somebody living with HIV: don’t judge or minimize their behavior during this time,” she said. “The fear and unknown that comes with COVID-19 can cause them to feel like they are reliving that trauma all over again.”

What can you do?

“Try offering practical support,” Slover said. “Try to reach out and listen to what they tell you they need. Don’t force them to talk about anything they don’t want to talk about. But also let them know you are a safe person for them to open up to if they do want to share their experience or what they are feeling right now.

3. LGBTQ+ youth who previously relied on socialization and an accepting environment during school may now be at home with their parents/guardians with the inability to be their authentic selves. What recommendations do you have for those youth during such a challenging time?

According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ youth are at an increased risk for anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicide. Social distancing as a result of COVID-19 can lead to a significant decrease in the positive social interactions LGBTQ+ youth need in order to thrive.

“LGBTQ+ youth can and are encouraged to reach out to those that they trust and feel supported by. Unfortunately, sometimes that isn’t family,” Slover said. “It is key to identify the people they trust and feel supported by and try having regular check-ins with them.”

Slover also recommends connecting with online resources. Local LGBTQ+ organizations are hosting virtual events to help the community stay connected despite social distancing.

For those isolating with people who are not affirming or accepting towards LGBTQ+ identities, Slover recommends distancing yourself from any negativity when possible.

“If possible—and I know this isn’t possible for everyone—but try to remove yourself from the situation,” she said. “If there is a conversation going on that you don’t feel comfortable with, try to leave. If you can go outside or get on the Internet, put your headphones in and listen to music—just somehow remove yourself from that toxic situation and try to connect with those you identify as safe and supportive.”

Lastly, Slover says to keep the positive self-affirmations going.

“Keep that positive internal dialogue going because that is something you can control. You can’t control what people around you will say; but you can control what you say to yourself.”

4. It’s critical that we follow social distancing recommendations while still caring for ourselves mentally. What are some tips you recommend to maintaining mental health?

  • Make a routine. Because right now we are experiencing a situation where we feel helpless and overwhelmed by the unknown, this all can increase anxiety. If you make a routine, even if it’s just waking up each morning at a certain time or always brushing your teeth at a certain time—it can give you a sense of control.

  • If you’re working from home, be sure you’re not accessible 24/7. It’s important to set those boundaries with your employer. If you end the day at 5 p.m. normally, do the same thing when you’re at home. It’s okay to set those boundaries and turn off anything that has to do with work and transition into your home time.

  • Allow yourself to feel. With this situation we are going to have so many different emotions, and we often want to push them all away to avoid discomfort. When we suppress our feelings, often times we can feel like they are worse. Try to acknowledge how you feel and what you need during this time. Have compassion for yourself; don’t judge or compare yourself to what others are doing. Everyone has their own situation and struggles and it is important to remember that our feelings and reactions are based on how we perceive the world and our place in it. We all react to trauma in different ways, no one way being right or wrong. Our responses are normal reactions to abnormal events.
  • Assess your time spent looking at social media. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in all of the news going on right now. Just to constantly be hearing about it, reading about it—it’s everywhere you look. It is important to ask yourself if being on social media is helping or causing more anxiety. It is okay to not talk about COVID-19. It doesn’t have to consume everything about your day.

  • Find distractions. Puzzles, watching Netflix, exercising, coloring, cooking, music, or even volunteering can be very therapeutic if you have the ability and it is safe.

  • Exercising is very good for your mental health because it helps to repair the nervous system. Exercise burns off the overload of adrenaline and cortisol that we have during stress, and it releases endorphins to increase calming effects and boost our mood.

  • Create a safe place within your home. If you’re able, find a place you can go to that allows you to escape. Even if it’s just for 15 minutes at a time, it helps.

  • Use grounding techniques to bring yourself to the present moment. Often our brain is going everywhere, stuck in the past or future, which can increase depression and anxiety. Grounding helps to bring us back to the present moment.

    One way is to engage our five senses because our senses tell our brains where we’re at. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 method:

    Identify 5 things you see—be as descriptive as possible
    • 4 things you can physically feel or touch
    • 3 things you can hear
    • 2 things you can smell
    • 1 thing you can taste
  • Mindful breathing. When we breathe properly (using our diaphragm and not our chest), we can regulate our nervous system, which helps cope with stress and manage trauma responses.

    Try putting one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Breathe in through your nose for 4 counts, focusing on your stomach filling with air and rising instead of your chest. Hold for 4 counts. Breathe out through your mouth for 4 counts, similar to blowing out candles. Repeat as needed. 
  • Remember: you are resilient. You have survived 100% of the days you have lived.

5. What are the mental health services offered by The Project?

The Project provides free individual, couples, family and group counseling sessions to anyone living with HIV, LGBTQ+ individuals, and those who are victims of a crime like domestic abuse or sexual assault.

We are currently providing over-the-phone or virtual counseling sessions. To schedule, call 309-762-5433 and press zero.

For additional information pertaining to managing mental health during COVID-19, check out the Illinois and Iowa Department of Human Services websites.

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