COVID-19 is a national health crisis—this includes both physical and mental health. In fact, professionals have reported the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health to be far reaching and varied. As a practicing therapist, Elizabeth Earnshaw talked with us about the mental health challenges people are facing during the pandemic. 

Q: How are we experiencing stress during this time?

The virus and its subsequent lockdowns have created unprecedented stress on the lives of many throughout the world. The largest stressors can be broken down into a number of categories including occupational, social, relational and health. 

Occupational StressSome are feeling occupational stress because their hours at work have gotten longer or their job has gotten riskier. Whereas others are feeling occupational stress because they have experienced pay cuts, lost their job or do not know when they will be able to reopen their business or work under the same circumstances again.

Social StressWhen it comes to social stress some are experiencing extreme loneliness and others are experiencing too much togetherness. On both ends of the spectrum, their rituals for connection or aloneness have changed. Those living with children or roommates might wonder "Will I ever get my space again?" and for those living alone, the uncertainty of when you can see your friends, or date, or visit your grandchildren might cause extreme sadness or frustration.

Family StressDuring this time, supporting and caring for our family members has become incredibly challenging. Parents of young children are having to navigate online schooling and childcare while still juggling their own work schedules. Sometimes parents are stuck with the difficult decision of bringing someone into the home to help even when that could open the family up to infection or backing away from work to manage home life differently. Additionally, parents have to decide how to explain this scary time to their children.

People with older family members they usually care for are facing their own challenges. Being unable to visit with or care for these family members can create a sense of guilt and powerlessness.

Physical Stress: On top of all of these stressors, we are also experiencing a united stressor regarding physical health— will I get sick? Will someone I love get sick? Will we ever be able to enter the world in the same way again? 

Q: What can we do to lessen the stress?

Stress is a response to real life challenges, so it is imperative that you not ignore it. We know that stress has impact on our physical and mental health so learning how to respond to it effectively is incredibly important.

Practice self-compassion: First and foremost, you must offer yourself compassion. There is no guilt in talking about your struggles. It can be easy to dismiss your feelings when thinking about others who you think have it worse or else wonder why you are feeling this way despite having resources or support. What we are experiencing with the pandemic isn’t “normal” by any means, so we are all experiencing new or atypical feelings in response to it. Besides, dismissing your stress does not get rid of it, it only allows it to fester. Remind yourself that the things you are experiencing are real and truly challenging and cut yourself some slack. 

Breathe for relaxation: Our body is equipped with a natural relaxation system, our breath. Practice taking deep belly breaths where you hold the air in for a few seconds and then exhale with a huge sigh. Doing this periodically can release tension. Practice incorporating deep breathing throughout your day.

Pay attention to muscle tension: We hold an incredible amount of stress in our forehead, jaw, shoulders, tummy and hips. Check in with yourself throughout the day and make sure to relax these areas, as it can relieve a great amount of stress. Scan your body periodically and think: 

  • Am I furrowing my brow? Can I relax my eyebrows?
  • Are my shoulders by my ears? Can I drop them?
  • Am I sucking my tummy in? Can I release it?
  • Have I clenched together my hips or thighs? Can I allow myself to let my hips fall to either side?

Set boundaries for yourself: We talk a lot about setting boundaries with others but learning to set boundaries with yourself will help you manage stress. It is important to know when it is time to turn off your computer and leave that e-mail or work for the next morning. It is also OK to say "no" to a Zoom date and instead get outside for a walk.  

Q: Will I always feel this way? 

Our feelings may change, evolve, heighten or lessen as we continue navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no right or wrong way to feel—this is important, yet, it can be challenging to identify or acknowledge difficult feelings (how often have we expressed anger when we are really sad or afraid?). Consider talking with loved ones, family, friends or other trusted supports to share your experiences. You may find that they are feeling the same way that you are and create greater connections. 

Q: What should I do when the stress becomes too much?

If managing stress on your own is not cutting it, there is help out there. Most therapy practices have turned to telehealth to offer their services. This means you can work with someone anywhere in your state. You can find a therapist through your insurance carrier or if you do not have insurance or want to pay out of pocket through search sites like Psychology Today, Open Path or Good Therapy.

If you are uncomfortable with a therapist, start a conversation with your primary care physician or healthcare provider you know and are comfortable with as they may have suggestions. Depending on the provider and the community, they may also be able to suggest a point of access to other services like a social worker in the clinic, a referral to a therapist within the organization, or a community health program. They can also help you recognize the signs and symptoms of when a typical response to “stress” is something bigger, such as anxiety or depression. Additionally, they can provide help in the event of a crisis or concern about mental health safety for one’s self or others.  

You can also get help through the Lung Association Help Line.

Q: What can I do to help others during this time?

Learn to be responsive to yourself and others. In response to stress, we often try to dismiss it so the other person (or the self) doesn't feel it. Now is a good time to learn how to talk about it instead. Ask open ended questions, practice empathy and withhold problem solving.

It is also important to acknowledge that there are different lenses through which to view our experience of COVID-19, and depending on our communities and our socio-economic backgrounds, stressors and responses can range from the immediate of safety and survival to the unknown of the future and everything in between. The impact of stress from the pandemic will undoubtedly affect our communities in ways we have yet to see and so good tips for lessening stress may not be as easy or accessible for all. 

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