How the coronavirus pandemic can attack your mental health | Resources for Coping

Lifting the stigma surrounding mental illness and general mental health issues is an ongoing fight. The notion that one's mental health should be viewed and treated as a normal aspect of overall health and not something to be ashamed of has been gaining ground.

Or at least I believe this to be true because of visible public health efforts, expanded coverage by insurance companies, and awareness bolstered by celebrities and other public figures who #fightstigma by opening up about their own mental illnesses and emotional challenges.

This is all good.

But more needs to happen, especially when a global pandemic kills hundreds of thousands of people, devastates the world's economies, and upends our lives. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic escalated in the United States, public health authorities in New York and New Jersey promoted mental health resources available to anyone who is having a hard time coping with the anxiety, stress, and dread brought on by this terrifying scenario.

Here are some of those resources (and scroll down for more):

In addition to these helplines, apps, and websites, several other avenues of assistance may be open to you. If you have health insurance, your plan may cover mental health visits (and during this pandemic, it likely covers tele-visits). Also, if you have a job, your employer may offer an employee assistance plan (EAP) that can connect you to a licensed counselor. These resources could be free or relatively affordable.

I reached out to my friend Lauren Urban, LCSW, a New York City-based psychotherapist and the founder of Psychobabble Brooklyn, for her insights and takeaways about this pandemic. Here are highlights from our interview, conducted via Zoom.

How can this outbreak affect our mental health, our mental wellbeing? What are you seeing in your experience and practice?

URBAN: What could happen, what will happen, what is happening is changing basically every week and I think that that is creating a lot of anxiety for people. People just don't know how to act and what to do and I think that, that right now, that it's really a wild ride for people. Beyond the fear of actually getting sick or having loved ones get sick, the unknown is the biggest problem for people right now.

How can prolonged isolation affect us?

URBAN: As something that happens with a lot of significant traumas, all of people's unresolved stuff is coming up to the surface. And you're stuck in your home with your own thoughts and so it just feels worse and worse and more uncomfortable. The after-effect of that is going to be pretty significant for folks.

What could be the long-term effects on mental health? Do you think there will be a significant mental health cost to this pandemic?

URBAN: I have to wonder how people will start to treat going outside once they're able to go outside. People are regarding one another with a lot more trepidation and suspicion. How long that's going to last because I would imagine that it's not going to go away immediately. I don't know that this pandemic is going to cause a spike in severe and persistent mental illnesses or people reporting clinical depression, necessarily, but I think it's going to have a major behavioral impact, which will dovetail into mental health issues.

Many people have no experience with mental health providers and resources. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for someone who is a newcomer to mental health resources and might even be skeptical about? Once they have decided to actually ask for help, how do they start?

URBAN: Just jump in. When we feel afraid of something or when we feel anxious about something, we tend to hold back and fight against it, and what that does is it just makes it feel more uncomfortable. Taking the leap of faith, recognizing that asking for help is one of the strongest things that you can do. Recognizing that the person on the other end of the phone or the video call or whatever is there because they want to help you.

[Take] the leap of faith, [recognize] that asking for help is one of the strongest things that you can do.

— Lauren Urban, LCSW

Many of us are separated from loved ones right now. How do we cope with being away from these family members?

URBAN: For a lot of us, I should say, are isolated from different segments of our families. It's hard to know that there's a section of your family, that there are some of your loved ones out there, that you can't keep safe. That is what's primarily at the root of everyone's anxiety these days. It was the fact that there's so much to this situation that's out of our control and what that makes it is a threat.

Staying connected as much as possible is helpful. You can only control yourself and your own responses and your own activities. We need to get a little bit more okay with the things outside of our control right now. It's vital to keeping us mentally healthy. A lot of us have a tendency to shift our energy into our children or our parents or our families when we should really be looking inward and taking care of ourselves to make sure that we're okay first.

Luckily, many of us don't have to deal with being lonely because we're with a spouse, partner or roommate. But being in close quarters for a long time can dredge up certain conflicts. How can a prolonged quarantine affect a relationship?

URBAN: I am definitely encountering folks who you know are engaging in kind of old patterns in their relationships and it's coming up more now because they're in closer proximity and don't have the things that normally distract them from the conflict. Also, you know, because everyone is really stressed out for one reason or another. Our emotional reserves, our tolerance for frustration, our patience is much more depleted.

If you need to ask for space, if you need to go into another room, if you need to find a corner of the one room that you share, whatever it is, and go for a walk or go sit on the roof of your building or sit on the stoop or just get a change of perspective, I would highly recommend that. Whatever feels most right for you—ask for it.

What are some landmines in our path when we're isolated and feeling anxious or sad or stressed? In other words, negative coping strategies?

URBAN: There are lots of potential landmines. People are turning to substances to numb out and escape the reality of the situation and the discomfort of not knowing. I think we all can recognize and understand that that too much is not great—could be very self-destructive. It is also stealing tomorrow's happiness. It's what we put off feeling today, it's just going to follow us.

Focus on building routines that actually feel healthy rather than toxic, and you can kind of tell by how your body reacts to doing these things. When you are on Twitter for the fifth time in two hours and your heart rate starts to increase and you can feel yourself getting angrier or more stressed out, chances are that's not a great coping strategy.

We need to get a little bit more okay with the things outside of our control right now. It's vital to keeping us mentally healthy.

— Urban

So what are some positive outlets for stress?

URBAN: There are a million online movement classes and yoga classes. If financial stuff is an issue right now, a lot of them are either free or donation-based. I would recommend putting that anxious energy into something like that. You will not be putting off the feelings that you're feeling. You'll be channeling them into something a little bit more productive.

Our heads are where we live a lot of the time and it is typically not great for us. We can combat that ruminating, spinning out in anxiety, depression, frustration by just trying to ground ourselves into our actual physical bodies. Sit for two minutes, breathe and notice the sensations of your body in your chair and the air around you and whatever or go online and find an actual guided meditation to help you do that.

As you said, we don't really know what is going to happen because so much is unknown. So what can we actually do?

URBAN: So there's a lot that is out of our control. There are a few things that we can control. One is that we make the choice to do the right thing for ourselves and other people by staying in the house. Take the opportunity to do some work on ourselves, work on our coping strategies. If we're noticing bad coping strategies coming up, we can actively choose and commit—kind of like "Jedi mind trick" ourselves—every day into a little bit more ease than we might normally have. Our job right now is just making it through every single day until this is over.

Thank you so much. Where can people find you?

URBAN: You can find me on my website, which is www.psychobabble-brooklyn.com, or you can find me on Instagram—my handle is @psychobabblebrooklyn.

MORE RESOURCES

Arun Kristian Das is a senior digital content creator for FOX 5 NY. He believes we should all talk more openly and honestly about mental health. Remember: You are not alone.

————

Get breaking news alerts in the FOX5NY News app. It's FREE!

Download for iOS or Android

————