Tricia Buteau is not normally an anxious or overly emotional person, but quarantine has changed her mental health. She worries about her everyday life and the uncertainties that lie ahead. Will her daughter go back to college in the fall? How will she manage her bills after being laid off from her job? She also finds herself worrying about others — and now, with recent events affecting the black community, even more so.
“I feel an overwhelming sadness for all people,” she says. Buteau’s anxiety has disrupted her everyday life. She is not sleeping as well as she used to and has to work hard to stay focused in the moment. Buteau isn’t alone.
Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist from Santa Rosa, California, reports an increase in outreach for mental health support. She says distress hotlines throughout the US have reported substantial upticks in the number of calls received. The Washington Post reports that 20,000 people texted the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline in April 2020, compared to 1,790 in April 2019.
According to Manly, people are needing help with substance and alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, suicidality, and stress. Domestic violence is also on the rise. Unfortunately, Manly predicts that these trends will continue for as long as the pandemic does and “particularly if the economic downturn worsens.”
Fortunately, there are things that Buteau and others like her can do to address the situation head-on and to experience a sense of empowerment in doing so.
Tune Into Your Feelings
It’s important to know the warning signs. Shane Owens, Assistant Director of Campus Mental Health at Farmingdale State College, points out that any change in the way you “think, feel, or behave,” could be a sign of a larger issue. But what you really need to watch for are “changes that last more than a couple of days, come back frequently, or are intense.”
While it’s normal to feel nervous and sad about the state of the world right now, steadily intense feelings without a break are cause for concern. Thoughts like, this is hopeless or there’s nothing anyone can do about this, are signs of mental health difficulties. Try keeping a journal to track your thoughts and emotions or confiding in a trusted friend or loved one regularly — both will help you tune-in to your own emotions.
Remember You Are Not Alone
If you, like Buteau, are experiencing an overwhelming sense of anxiety and/or sadness, do not be ashamed or embarrassed. In fact, it is best to share your thoughts, fears, and emotions with others, who are likely feeling the same way. According to Manly, “anxiety, depression, and loneliness are absolutely normal responses to the uncertainty, isolation, and deeply challenging circumstances.” Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness, so don’t be afraid to pick up that phone and give therapy a try.
Many therapists are utilizing telehealth forums to keep patients safe. If you do not already have a counselor or therapist, you can try a tele-therapy service like Talkspace. They will ask you to take a brief online assessment, set you up with a payment plan, and match you with a licensed therapist with whom you can message weekly or daily if needed.
Choose (and Stick to) a Routine
Don’t underestimate the value and power of sticking to a regular routine — even when you don’t have to. Sure, it is tempting to stay in your pajama pants before logging on to your Zoom call, but try putting on a dress or pants, styling your hair, and doing your makeup as you would if you were going to the office. Owens points out that “you chose the life you live, and not even a pandemic can take that from you.” Make a decision to stick to a routine — write it down if you must— and then follow it each day. This is a simple way to “remind yourself and the world that you are steadfast even in the face of great adversity.”
Limit Your Time on Social Media
It’s easy to scroll away the hours on your phone, liking pictures or reading the latest headlines, but social media is not always the best for our mental health — especially if you are comparing yourself to others. Owens reminds us “that people post only what they really want you to see,” and that is never the whole picture. The risk of overexposure is also present; you can begin to forget that the world exists beyond social media’s portrayal. All of this can lead to overstimulation and increased anxiety, so try to limit your exposure to an hour or so a day.
Manage Your Expectations
Now is not the time to compare yourself to others or be hard on yourself. Don’t worry about the Joneses next store, your kids’ screen-time, or the laundry piled in the basket. While we have a lot more free-time on our hands, Owens says it is important to remember that “few, if any of us are prepared for anything like a pandemic response. Keeping yourself and your family fed, clothed, housed, healthy, and safe is good enough. The rest we’ll learn to do together.” Be gentle with yourself and don’t stress the small (or medium) stuff.
When anxiety hits, try to prioritize and focus on one small task at a time. Owens says, “If you are making coffee, just make coffee. If you are helping your kid with math homework, just help your kid. If you’re on Zoom, just pay attention to the faces and the discussion.” Try using a mantra like “I am here, I am now, I am enough,” or “be here now,” and repeat it over and over as you take deep breaths and redirect your thoughts to the present moment.
Remember What You Enjoy
It is extremely important to include self-care and prioritize the activities that feed and refuel your soul each day. “Remember the things that make your life worth living,” says Owen. “Make sure those things have ample time in your routine and respect them as much as you do everything else.” When this is all over, we will find ourselves rushing again— from point a to point b—and we will likely miss certain aspects of life at home. Now is a great time to start a new hobby or project!
As for Buteau, she has turned her focus to the positive aspects of a life less-loud. As she struggles to accept that most of the future remains unknown, she is trying to incorporate gratitude into her life and use this time to better herself. “I want to look back at this as a positive time, not a negative one,” she says. “I want to come out [of this] a better person. I am more patient these days and I am getting some quality time with my [children].”
Perhaps the most amazing thing about life during a pandemic is our resilience. As Buteau points out: “In the beginning, it felt like it was the worst thing in the world, but now, we have all adapted and are finding some unexpected luxuries underneath the sadness and anxiety.”