In trying times, maintain your mental health
by Maria Lameiras | April 24, 2020
From exercise and meditation to keeping in touch with loved ones and maintaining routines, University of Georgia experts recommend that people formulate strategies to help mitigate the stress many people are experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Stress is simply a reaction that happens when a person has demands made on them that are more than they think their current resources can handle,” said Anna Scheyett, dean of the UGA School of Social Work. “In a typical situation, when you feel stress, you problem solve or you ask for help or you look for additional resources. A little stress pushes us to grow. But huge stresses become toxic, and right now … lots of things feel like they’re out of our control, which builds stress.”
A psychiatric social worker by training, Scheyett emphasized that it is important to remember that stress is a normal response to an abnormal situation.
“It’s not a weakness on your part. And, even in this unique and kind of scary COVID situation, we can still talk about stress management. We can’t control a virus, we can’t control the economy, but we can take care of ourselves, our reactions, emotions and health and become more resilient against stress,” she said.
Building resilience by maintaining personal health and focusing on managing stressors can keep the stress from becoming toxic and causing physical, mental and emotional consequences.
“The first step is recognizing when you or a loved one has stress levels that are really getting toxic,” said Scheyett, adding that people should be cognizant of changes in health, behavior, emotions and thinking, such as trouble sleeping, loss of appetite and physical symptoms. Headaches, stomachaches, constant fatigue or muscle aches and pains are physical manifestations of stress.
“Stress causes negative changes, so you need to make positive changes to fight the stress. There are some proven ways to combat stress and the most important thing is that you need to take care of yourself,” she added.
Eating healthy foods, exercising and limiting exposure to news and social media are all helpful strategies to deal with excess stress.
“Plan ahead, set priorities and don’t be afraid to say no to something that’s not a priority for you. Set realistic daily goals and then pay attention and be positive and celebrate when you meet them,” Scheyett said.
Ted Futris, Extension specialist and family life education professor in the department of human development in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences, specializes in family relationships, many of which can become strained during extended periods of forced togetherness.
“It’s really important that you take time to take care of yourself. It’s analogous to when you fly on an airplane. In an emergency, they tell you put your own oxygen mask on first before you take care of someone else,” Futris said. “If you don’t stop and take care of your own body and soul, your own health, it’s going to be really hard to be there physically, mentally and emotionally for others.”
Futris recommends carving out dedicated time for exercise and maintaining routines for rest, recreation and relaxation to manage stress.
“Invest time in yourself and in each other more now than ever before. We have to be intentional about the time that we invest in in our relationships,” he said. “Research shows that when couples deposit more positive energy into their relationship, it really helps weather those storms, and we’re in a doozy right now. Just be mindful of thanking your partner and being grateful for the time that you have with each other.”
With so many people working from home, many of them in communal family spaces, it is important to disconnect from work and fully engage with those around you when the workday is done.
“Give your full attention when you’re interacting. Use kind words. Be mindful of your tone. Remember, it’s not so much what you say — it’s how you say it,” Futris said. And, if things get fraught, “don’t interrupt and attempt to explain yourself during the situation. Just take time to listen, to soak it in, to seek understanding. Ask for clarification as you need it and just summarize what you’re hearing. These are some helpful active listening techniques that I think are really important right now.”
Taking breaks just to relax and have fun are critical.
“If you have some sort of ritual that you had at the end of the day when you got home from work, keep doing that as much as you can to just maintain that normalcy during this very abnormal time. If you have game nights with the kids, keep doing those things.
Now more than ever … whatever your traditions, you and your family have to try to maintain as much of that as possible,” he said.
Staying connected to friends, family and community group, whether virtually or through on old-fashioned phone call, is one of the best protections against toxic stress, according to Scheyett.
“People can’t read your mind, you have to reach out and talk to them in order for them to know that you need the extra support,” she said. “It’s not a sign of weakness. It is OK to say you’re struggling and confide in someone you trust.”
Andrea Scarrow, Southwest District director for UGA Extension, said it is important for people to take advantage of the support systems in place for individuals and families.
“I love the hashtag #alonetogether because, while we may be socially distanced right now physically, we need to know that we have a support network and we are not alone,” Scarrow said.
The UGA Extension website at extension.uga.edu/emergencies offers a robust list of resources covering mental and emotional well-being, sanitation and health, money and home finances, food safety and cooking, youth education and parenting, self-reliance and more.
Other emergency resources available for dealing with mental health and COVID-19 include: