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COVID-19: Protecting mental health as vital as physical

Vicky O. Misa

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. If local news is important to you, please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Shawnee News-Star at news-star.com/subscribe.]

With most of the country under some form of a shelter-at-home directive, the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic is striking residents on several levels. Not only are worries over catching and/or spreading the coronavirus a very real concern, the general fallout from precautions is hitting the community hard. Situations like schools being out for the rest of the year or small businesses unable to make payroll — or even keep their doors open at all — are stressing everyone out as most are stuck behind the same four walls.

Residents need to heed signs of crippling stress and take action now to manage it.

Lanette Long, a licensed professional counselor with SSM Health St. Anthony Hospital-Shawnee, teaches mindfulness practices for wellbeing.

She said mental health is just as important as physical health. If stress is not dealt with now, it will become far worse down the road.

“If you handle it now there will be fewer problems later,” she said. “The goal is to get through this with minimal trauma.”

She said the effects of the pandemic are not just a physical concern, mental health is just as vital.

While everyone reacts an handles stress differently, Long said people know their own bodies and can see when things are getting to be too much to handle.

Signs of stress

Long said there are three general areas to look at for signs of stress: physical, thoughts and moods.

Some physical signs are:

• increase in heart rate

• headaches

• backaches

• stiff neck

• tight shoulders

• sweating

• upset stomach

• diarrhea

Some signs of stressful thinking include:

• difficulty concentrating

• hard time focusing

• increased worry

• doubting one's abilities

• imagining negative or terrifying scenes

• decisions being made based on emotions

Some signs of a negative shift in mood:

• irritability

• frustration

• mental exhaustion

• jumpy

• losing temper easily

• yelling at others

• no tolerance

What next?

Once a person has assessed where their stress level is, Long said anything appearing severe and/or concerning needs to be followed up with a consultation with one's doctor.

Milder forms of stress can be eased with things like controlled breathing exercises and purposeful changes relating to thoughts and focus.

Long said taking conscious control over negative thoughts is important. Negativity digs a rut that becomes harder to break out of over time.

“If someone holds onto a negative thought for more than 17 seconds, another will join it, and so on, to create a neural pathway,” she said. “You must catch it quickly and change it.”

Those who worry about going to work while the threat of COVID-19 looms can focus on the positive, Long said.

“They can remind themselves of the precautions they are taking to keep themselves safe instead of focusing on the fear,” she said.

They will feel better and that will trigger better thoughts, she explained.

“Positive pathways are built the same way,” she said. “Eventually it becomes automatic — a default.”

There are simple techniques out there, she said, and the more often and consistent they are used, the more difference it makes.

Long said consciously living in the present moment can be helpful.

“Listening to music, walking or eating are things that pull you into the present,” she said.

One thing residents should not do is constantly watch the news, Long said.

“While it's important to stay informed and educated, it's not healthy to saturate yourself with coverage of the pandemic crisis,” she said. “That would definitely be detrimental to your wellbeing.”

Instead, she said do something to cause laughter.

“It's amazing what laughter can do, whether it's watching a comedy on TV or playing a board game with your family,” she said.

Reducing stress

Long said some stress can be alleviated with a little focus in three areas: routine, organization and fun activity.

“Sticking with your normal routine as much as possible provides stability,” she said.

People are creatures of habit, she said, so things like regular bedtimes, hygiene practices and meals are helpful.

Now is not a time to build bad habits that will need to be broken later, she explained.

Organization is another plus, Long said.

For people working from home or children who are doing homework, keeping supplies and papers together in a box or basket can be useful and portable.

It makes it easy to travel from the kitchen table to the back porch — and easy to put away when other household routines like mealtimes are underway, she said.

Staying active and seizing the opportunity to do fun things with the family are important during this time of mandatory closeness, she said.

“Since recess is out and the gyms are closed, doing exercise together can be an amazing opportunity to build family time,” she said. “Take a walk, do laundry or cook to get to know each other again and spend time together.”

Resources

Long said there are lots of resources to try out — apps and online.

“Many of them have free trials, with instructions on how to get into it,” she said. “Take the time to try them out before spending money on anything.”

She said it's just like buying a treadmill, it will be a waste of money if it's not going to be used.

Some websites are:

• headspace.com

• stopbreathethink.com

• centerpointmeditation.com

Check out helpful options

Slow down and breathe

Lanette Long, a licensed professional counselor with SSM Health in Oklahoma, said, “While it can be very beneficial if we’re able to isolate ourselves in solitude for the meaningful reflection and quieting of the mind that we often think of when we hear the word ‘meditation,’ simply being intentional and using a few simple techniques can help us be mindful anytime, anywhere we need it throughout the day.”

Mindfulness activities can include deep breathing, meditation, observing and reflecting intentionally on something important to you, listening to music, mindful walking, and mindful eating, she said. It can include any activity, as long as that activity is an anchor to the present.

Start with simple activities that can be incorporated into the day to help ease into the practice of mindfulness. Some activities that take little to no time include:

• Set a timer for at least once a day to close your eyes and breathe deeply in through your nose and slowly out through your mouth; count four full seconds for each inhalation and exhalation, holding four seconds between them both

• When the phone rings, stop and take a deep breath before you answer it

• Every time you look at your watch, acknowledge the time and then become aware of your breathing. Take two to three deep breaths

• Deliberately prolong feelings of happiness; this will increase dopamine and your ability to stay focused

Information from SSM Health St. Anthony-Shawnee.

•••

Behavioral Health services available at County Health Departments through MyCare technology

The Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) is partnering with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS) and MyCare to offer services to clients who may find themselves in crisis. Local county health departments at 81 sites will have access to iPads designed to assist clients who may be in mental health distress during the COVID-19 crisis.

The MyCare application is setup on electronic tablets provided to local health departments as a quick resource for immediate assistance from behavioral health specialists enlisted by the ODMHSAS through the tele-health format.

“This is a great example of agencies joining together and using technology to provide essential services to the public during this COVID-19 crisis,” Commissioner of Health Gary Cox said. “We know this is a difficult time for everyone in Oklahoma and we want to ensure we are helping connect those in crisis with the appropriate resources.”

As an additional resource to the public, the disaster distress helpline is available by calling 1 (800) 985-5990. For more information about COVID-19, visit coronavirus.health.ok.gov.

Information from the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH).