During this health crisis, as a therapist, I am being asked how to help others cope. If we thought we were all stressed before, COVID-19 has come in and thrown our worlds upside down. We have been told to change how we work, how we shop, how we learn, how we socialize, and how we conduct our daily routines, all while being told to become very concerned about germs. The changes came suddenly and were accompanied by 24/7 news coverage of COVID-19.
It’s natural to be stressed and anxious. We perceive real threats to our physical and mental well-being and the health of those we love. We worry about being exposed, getting sick, and losing income. Students and faculty alike are worried about the switch to online learning.
Anxiety is normal, and if we keep it at a productive level, it can be useful. It can help us make the changes we need to move forward. If you’re not sure about the changes you need to make, refer to the CDC.gov website.
Try to keep from letting your anxiety become overwhelming. You will know you are succeeding if you also experience some laughs, some fun, feelings of personal achievement, empathy for others, and other emotions.
If you think you could use some help keeping your emotions balanced, support is available.
- UAFS offers counseling services through a telehealth system. UAFS students can call the UAFS Counseling Center at (479) 788-7398 to schedule a confidential telehealth session or phone session at no charge. (Students are entitled to eight free sessions each academic year.)
- Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance and other agencies throughout the greater Fort Smith region also are offering telehealth services and phone calls. Call (479) 452-6650 to schedule a telehealth session with Western AR Counseling and Guidance.
- If you get to a point where you feel persistently sad every day, have no energy to get up, have suicidal or homicidal thoughts, or continue to have panic attacks, please reach out for help. Call the national suicide prevention line or reach out to your local mental health services. Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance has a 24-hour number: 800-542-1031
- You also can consult the webpage or social media posts of the National Alliance on Mental Illness at NAMI.org for tips on coping with anxiety or depression.
Here are some additional tips to help you manage your anxiety.
- Limit your consumption of COVID-19 related news, and get it from reputable sources. As you read or watch news coverage, ask yourself if you are learning something new. If not, do something else. Try to gauge how you feel physically when you view or read the news. Is your heart racing, or do you feel sick to your stomach? If so, it’s probably time to do something fun that makes you happy. You can watch the news later.
- Allow all of your emotions without judgment; try just to notice the feeling. Instead of trying to suppress feelings, try to notice them and let them pass. For example, you might think, “I am having anxiety, my breathing is getting quicker, and all these worries are flooding in.” You can experience them with one part of your mind, while also consoling yourself with positive advice such as “This will pass.” During difficult times, we will experience more anxiety, and it is helpful to have an internal observer that just says, “I see you, anxiety; I see you coming in.” It is when we allow anxiety to be all there is that we start to have a panic attack.
- Be aware of the stages of grief, but don’t expect them to come in order. You may experience shock, denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance in different waves throughout the day. Take note of them as you experience them; it’s helpful to be able to put a label on your emotions. “I am still in shock about this; this is what I’m feeling.” Or maybe “I am angry this is happening.”
- Journaling has always been a counseling recommendation, so yes, journal, blog, and talk to others about how you are feeling and experiencing these changes.
- Try to get back to a level of normalcy by keeping a schedule and having some familiar routines, even if they are different from before.
- Increase your self-care. For some people, that might be working in the garden. For others, it might be taking a bubble bath. Make a list of things that comfort you, and do one or two of them each day.
- Take care of yourself by getting adequate sleep, exercising, and eating healthfully.
- Stay connected with the people you love through social media, face chats, Skype, and phone calls. Use this time of being physically distant to become emotionally closer.
- Focus on things you can control like staying home, wearing a mask, washing your hands.
- Find a purpose. You might make face masks, check in with your mom, do some spring cleaning, or make healthy meals.
- Try to think about the positives in your life and express gratitude for them. “I am thankful that I get to spend time with my family.” Or “I am happy to catch up on my sleep.”
- Think about things you want to do in the future, trips you want to take, goals you want to accomplish.
- Realize that anxiety is like riding a boogie board through a wave in the ocean: What goes up will come down.
- Learn to take deep breaths. A good exercise is the 4-7-8. Breathe in for a count of 4, hold your breath for 7, and breathe out for 8.
- Practice the 54321 grounding exercise. Name five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste.
- Try some guided meditation. The app Headspace has suggestions, and you can search on YouTube for guided meditations. Try to meditate daily for at least 5 minutes. A simple exercise is progressive muscle relaxation: Imagine balls of relaxing light glisten over your forehead, down your shoulders, down your back and chest, all the way into your arm to your fingertips, down your body into your thighs and calves, all the way through your foot to your toes lending relaxation as the pass.
- Imagine you can put your worries into an imaginary container.
- Spend some time outside. Nature helps.
- Talk about your feelings with others and listen to their concerns. Thinking of others helps you get your mind off yourself. Learn to reflect what you are hearing: “So you are worried about losing your job.
- It is helpful to carry our worries out. For example, what would you do if someone you loved got sick, how would you cope, how would you handle it, keep asking then what? This is only helpful if we can come to a resolution that you will be OK, it will be hard, but you will be OK regardless of what happens. Then ask yourself, what control do I have of any of that?
- Sometimes we also need to tell ourselves that “possibility is not probability.” Just because you may get sick, does that mean that you will be one of the worst cases? Ask yourself what is probable not only what is possible.
- Make a plan for what would you do If a family member gets exposed, such as where will they be in the house, how will you handle that?
- Acceptance. As you go through the grief stages, ask yourself, “What do I need to accept, what do I need to tell myself to accept what is going on?” We have to accept some uncertainty. COVID-19 is an invisible virus. Although we can do our best and eliminate most risk, we have to tolerate some uncertainty. We might not do that well in a class and focus instead on controlling what we can, such as how much we are studying. After you have given it your all, you have to accept that someone else is in charge of grading it. Ask yourself, “What can I control?”
Holly Hannam is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has served the students of UAFS since 2011 as an integral member of the UAFS Counseling Center on campus. She has open led virtual sessions on coping with COVID-19 and assisted students through telehealth since remote instruction began in March.