Mental health professionals say people should try to maintain as normal a routine as possible.
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Mental health professionals say people should try to maintain a normal routine as much as possible even as the coronavirus crisis brings nearly daily changes to our everyday routines.
In an effort to curb the spread of the virus, many normal activities have been temporarily suspended or altered. For example, we cannot sit down for a meal in a restaurant or have a beer or glass of wine at a favorite pub with family, friends and associates.
We are being told to stay home, if possible, and create social distancing between one another to help thwart the spread of the disease.
For the time being, life is uncomfortable. Awkward. Frustrating, even. People are creatures of habit, and these changes are not what were accustomed to.
I know this is especially tough for people with school-age children all of a sudden at home, and people having to work from home, said John Bigger, the corporate director of Behavioral Health and Sleep services at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center.
Have certain periods of time where you have activities and go outside, and the same with adults who dont have children, he said. Do those things that help you stay focused on self-care. I tell people do meditation, eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise. Things you normally do.
This temporary, more solitary lifestyle, will have an impact on many people, experts say.
I would say the biggest thing is fear and anxiety about the unknown, Bigger said. There are a lot of people who dont know what they dont know. The natural inclination for people is to get fearful of that, especially when youre talking about a disease process that people simply dont know much about.
There isnt that much known, Bigger said of COVID-19. And its a disease where theres no real known cure. In other words, you cant take a pill for it. You cant get a shot and get it cured. You have to let it run its course. I think that creates a lot of stress and anxiety associated with it, as well.
Dr. Mehul Mankad, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Alliance Health, said mental health professionals already are seeing some of the affects of self-isolation on people.
He said he has a problem with the term social distancing.
It implies that you should be socially distant, Mankad said, but really what we want people to be is physically distant. One big difference between 1918 and that particular flu pandemic and 2020 we dont have to be socially distant anymore. Social media, for all its flaws, this is the time for social media to really deliver on its promise of bringing people together who cannot be physically together.
Mankad said he would rather see public health officials use the term physical distancing.
I really want people to connect, he said. The things were seeing is that folks are isolating themselves, holing up in their houses with the doors shut and windows closed. And part of that is fear. And, part of that is, maybe thats what they think theyre supposed to do.
But if theyre largely confined to a house, he said, they need to connect with their loved ones.
Mankad said hes most concerned about the elderly those over the age of 65 and those who are medically compromised of any age. They are the ones who are said to be most susceptible to the virus. That group, Mankad said, should be extra precautious.
I worry about their loneliness, he said. If you think about it, all of us fall into two camps we are either over 65 or medically ill or we know somebody who is. I think its the job of people who are not in a special group to reach out to those who are and to do it electronically (via social media) or on a phone. I think that would go a long way.
Bigger said people with pre-existing mental health conditions should continue with their treatment. They should let their professional or clinical providers know if anything is causing them concerns. They should discuss it through psychotherapy or with their psychiatrist, if they are seeing a psychiatrist. Those health professionals may be able to offer coping skills, he said, and patients will learn ways to manage their anxiety.
Helping children cope
To alleviate parents fears, Bigger recommends adults educate themselves on the coronavirus from credible sources, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services websites.
Those sites provide information on exposure, how to take care of yourself and how to deal with anxiety, he said.
A parent is going to be the best support to a child thats there, Bigger said. If they can cope with this effectively, they can teach those coping skills to their children.
Bigger said parents should not overreact. This ongoing crisis can be overwhelming. He said adults should take a break from watching the news.
Parents should talk privately, away from children, when they want to discuss their fears or concerns, he said. At the same time, he said, its appropriate to talk to a child or teenager about the outbreak, giving them assurance that its safe and letting them know its OK if they feel upset.
Mankad said its not healthy for the young to see unbridled fear from their parents or caregivers. Instead, he said, tell them this is something the family is going to deal with together.
And they should know that they are not alone in this.
I really think of this as a marathon and not a sprint, Mankad said. We dont know how long this is going to go on. I wish we could say this is two weeks and then everything is going to be all better. But its entirely possible this could go on for a few months. If that is the case, we all need to look inside ourselves and think about how we want to be for the next few months.
What do we have to offer the people around us that we live with, Mankad said, and what do we have to offer ourselves? Whether that comes from greater connecting to our friends and family people we live with or electronically or maintaining contact with our health provider, congregation or faith community, all those things are critically important.
Im hopeful that were going to emerge from this with a deeper understanding of who we are and what were made of as North Carolinians and Americans.
Staff writer Michael Futch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-486-3529.
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