Virus fears, isolation can trigger anxiety. Here are some tips on how to cope

In a growing pandemic that threatens global health, the worry about the unknown, upended routines and economic concerns can significantly impact people’s mental health. 

And those with underlying mental illness are particularly vulnerable, advocates say. 

As of Monday, 33,404 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported nationwide and 400 people had died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Alabama, the Department of Public Health shows 196 confirmed cases in the state, with no reported deaths. 

Alabamians have been asked to stay home as much as possible, and schools and some businesses and government offices have closed. Health officials have said the U.S. could be dealing with this health emergency for weeks, if not months.

Uncertainty “can trigger many mental illnesses whether it be anxiety or depression or isolation,” said Kelly Emerson, the executive director of the Alabama chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Mental health advocates across the state acknowledged that it is normal for all people to feel additional stress and anxiousness amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

“I think everyone needs to do something, whatever makes them happy during the day,” Marbi McCann, the community outreach manager at Self-Recovery LCC, an addiction treatment program, said in a phone interview. “Whether that’s reading a book, talking on the phone with a loved one, whatever it is for you and your personal preferences.”

“It’s important to stay connected to those people around you during this time,” McCann said. 

There are ways to manage the impact COVID-19-related disruption and worry has on mental health and the anxiety many Alabamians likely feel. Here are some ways to cope with stress and anxiety during the outbreak: 

Maintain a schedule

In an online resource, the University of Alabama at Birmingham noted maintaining day-to-day normal activities can help during uncertain times.

By practicing consistency, those affected are more willing to benefit from the normalcy a schedule can provide, Emerson said.  

“Maintaining a routine is really important,” Emerson said. “So even if you’re at home working remotely, get dressed like you’re going to work and maintain your morning routine just to provide some sense of normalcy.” 

Limit media intake

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends those worried about the coronavirus or its impacts take breaks from watching, reading or listening to news stories, including social media. 

“Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting,” said the CDC on its website offering guidance to worried Americans. 

“It is important to stay informed from valid sources,” said Emerson. “Check daily with the CDC and the Department of Mental Health here in Alabama, but stay away from unverified information on social media and those types of environments.”

One tip to stay informed while not becoming overwhelmed could be limiting news intake to twice a day at scheduled times, Emerson said. 

Know you’re not alone

The uncertainty surrounding the virus has created a widespread public anxiety, one the CDC has acknowledged. It says everyone reacts differently in emergency situations depending on the social and economic circumstances of the person and the community.

Therapist Teri Murphy uses the social media platform Instagram to provide mental health access to those who may feel worried about the virus. Using the hashtag #AskATherapist, Murphy answers questions from those seeking advice on how to cope with anxiety. 

“Once we know what we need, then we can cope in a way that best cares for ourselves.” Murphy wrote. “Coping can be connection, rest, moving your body, prayer, water. Whatever you need.

“You can't choose what's happening. You can choose how you respond. We will have all our feelings — anxiety, sadness, fear, anger, everything. And those are just right. We are wired to feel. We share those feelings with our safe others and it helps us feel better.”

Seek support

While we should all practice social distancing, there are certain ways to maintain the comfort we get from contact with others, Emerson said. 

“Maintain communication through text, Skype, Facetime and get some fresh air and enjoy the sunshine,” Emerson said. 

Colleges and universities across the state have published additional coronavirus mental health resource webpages. 

Many universities, such as the University of Montevallo and Jacksonville State University, are providing individual consultation with the student body by phone. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness released tips on its website Friday for those with mental illness. These tips include asking for accommodations for therapy sessions and prescribed medications. NAMI recommends asking health care providers about online or electronic therapy sessions and gaining access to a 90-day supply for prescribed medications as opposed to a 60- or 30-day supply. 

Other tips

When asked how individuals can help those people with mental illness, Emerson said, “Practice empathy. I think it will go a long way,”

According to a press release by the Alabama Department of Mental Health last Friday, the highest priority of the Alabama Department of Mental Health is the health, safety and well-being of individuals with disabilities, families, staff and all Alabamians.

Mental health advocates across the state are encouraging people to stay in contact with a provider. For the latest on COVID-19 from Alabama health officials, visit www.alabamapublichealth.gov/infectiousdiseases/2019-coronavirus.html 

To learn more about the CDC’s COVID-19 response, visit www.cdc.gov/COVID19

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