Coping with COVID Tips, Part IV: Mental Health

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Dr. Watson's photo with the title 'Coping with Covid Tips 6 part series with Dr. Watson'

Families, Inc. Trumann Clinical Supervisor and psychologist Dr. Dana Watson has been featured regularly this spring on KFIN’s Breakfast Club to discuss maintaining a healthy mindset during the coronavirus pandemic. The following transcript is of her conversation with KFIN’s Brandon Baxter on April 15, 2020.

Q: For several weeks now, we’ve talked about everything from how to cope with the fear and anxiety of catching COVID, the emotional impact of physical distancing, and last week, job loss. And every week it seems the topics get more and more intense. You even said last week that you’d broken down and cried and called your mom when you were missing being with her and her hugs. Do you think it’s getting worse for all of us?

I think that as time goes by, many of us have been able to make adjustments to accommodate some of the changes and challenges we’ve had to face, and although certainly not our preferences and not easy, we have made a lot of things work. But some of the other changes—real hardships like job loss, trying to find/pay for child care while you can still work, homes and businesses being destroyed by some of the recent tornadoes, becoming ill from COVID, managing other illnesses or pregnancies or mental health issues—those things are getting more difficult to bear as time goes on.

It’s not just the immediate impact of this virus, although that’s devastating enough. It’s also the uncertainty of how long this will last. A lot of people were living paycheck to paycheck. Others had a couple weeks or a couple months of savings. We don’t know when this illness will go away, if we and our loved ones will make it through without catching it or dying from it, if we’ll keep our homes, when we can reunite with loved ones… This is a global pandemic and an economic crisis. For many people, this is truly traumatic.
 

Q: That’s no joke. Some people are experiencing this differently than others. It seems that while it’s hard for everyone, some people are more vulnerable because of their mental health issues. 

I’ve said this before, and it’s worth reinforcing—people who are already battling depression or anxiety, or trauma-related issues can certainly be more vulnerable because of this stress. In so many cases, these events are triggering the same feelings and experiences they may have had as children—food insecurity, losing homes and livelihoods, loved ones dying… It can be much worse for people who have already endured past trauma.

You know, last week I encouraged everyone who has children in the home to be mindful of what we are modeling for our children. We want to model that you can face adversity and challenges and still find healthy ways to cope through it, that we can find power and hope and relief in what we do. But those who live alone or who don’t have children should also be mindful of how they’re doing and what’s going on for them. I still maintain the single best thing all of us can do is to take time every day to consider what we need—emotionally and physically—to get through the day and to allow ourselves to experience and process our emotions as they come. Sometimes it’s waves of grief and despair. Sometimes it’s full out panic. Sometimes we are just so numb we can’t feel. All of it is to be expected, because we are humans and we are in a really difficult time right now. 


Q: Exercise is what helps me when I’m down or anxious, but I know it’s not a one-size-fits all approach to mental health.

Right. Just like we are not experiencing this in the exact same way, we won’t cope through it exactly the same way either. There are definitely common ways we can all feel better and take care of ourselves, like staying emotionally connected to others, good eating, good sleeping and gratitude. But ultimately, we all have to find the combination that works for us.

And you are so right on when you discuss exercise. And it doesn’t have to be power lifting or hardcore training or marathon runs. Even short walks, washing your car, riding a bike, yoga, exercise videos from YouTube or dancing in your living room—which is one of my personal favorites because I’m about as amazing at it as you would think a 40-year old lady would be—are super energizing to your mood and your body. Your brain gets bathed in endorphins, blood and oxygen is pumping throughout your body, you have a sense that you’ve done something fun and healthy for yourself and you can get out of a funk real fast. Research shows that about an hour a few times a week is optimal, but if you’ve only got time for two 1990s’ hair band songs today, then give it your all.
 

Q: So, what should we do if we have those struggles? What can all of us do to feel better and handle this stress better?

For a lot of us, we need some small goals and at least a little activity during the day. I spoke before that our family has a daily schedule—because knowing what to expect can reduce chaos and increase safety—and that includes an academic, physical, emotional and creativity goal. Each one takes about 20-30 minutes, but it breaks up the monotony and keeps us moving forward. Now, we have plenty of eat-cereal-for-dinner and watch-a-movie-in-bed days, too. We do a lot of Facetime to stay connected to family. And don’t tell my preacher, but I decompress with a glass of wine and friends over Facetime on occasion. 

But in all seriousness, for some people, it’s important to remember that survival is the daily goal. Just getting through the day will be a success. We joked about me calling my mom and crying, although I know so many people understand how awesome that can feel. But that’s what we want people to do. To develop healthy support networks and to reach out for comfort and reassurance so that then they can reset and get back into their lives.
 

Q: And sometimes people have needs that are bigger than family or friends can manage. They need professional help. What can they do?

If you are struggling to keep your head above water, it is easier now than it has ever been to get professional help. We do the whole thing from intake to doctor’s visits over the phone or by Facetime or one of those other visual platforms. You do not have to continue to suffer or fall further down the rabbit hole of depression. You are not alone in this and people all over the world are dealing with the consequences of this distressing time. Your life and your survival are important and there is help. To me, therapy is one of the most effective and healing types of self-care. It really works.