For many, it’s a time of fear, anxiety and empty toilet paper shelves, but there are ways to cope as people adapt to working from home, social distancing and self-quarantining during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“When everything changes and transitions and the world kind of just shifts into something like this where there’s a lot of unknowns, people get really panicky,” said Lisa Hughes, a licensed certified social worker-clinical therapist who operates in both Washington and Frederick counties. “People get really anxious, and so they start doing things that they don’t really need to do.”
That includes panic buying.
Hughes said this anxiety doesn’t just feed into actions that may not be logical. It can also affect a person’s immune system.
People who panic or have high levels of anxiety also release a stress hormone called cortisol, Hughes said.
As it courses through your body, cortisol can deplete your immune system.
“In a time where we’re trying to avoid spreading a virus or catching a virus, we really want to be as healthy as possible,” Hughes said.
It’s also important for people to take stock of their mental health as they potentially spend more time alone, with the same people, or at home for long periods of time, in part because this situation is not changing immediately and could be a longer-term one.
“If you already have a mental health issue, and there’s no shame in that, but if you already suffer from depression, or a mood disorder, or anxiety, or some sort of past trauma and you’re told to stay home, where you can’t socially connect, it tends to exacerbate your symptoms,” Hughes said.
Even for people who don’t have an underlying mental health problem, staying home, isolation and less social contact can still lend themselves to dark thoughts such as “this is going to last forever” or “I can’t talk to anyone.”
These thoughts can lead to feelings of hopelessness and disruption to routine, such as staying in bed and not showering, Hughes said.
“You’ve got to have structure and routine to some degree, to help yourself,” she said.
Hughes said another thing people can do to help themselves is staying informed but not consuming the news constantly.
“I think you need to take breaks so that you can be focused on the world in front of you,” she said.
It’s also important not to completely isolate. Hughes said people should take advantage of technology such as FaceTime and Zoom to stay in touch with family and friends.
“Making sure that you don’t lose connection with the outside world,” she said.
People can also check on others. This might include neighbors, elderly friends or people in at-risk populations.
And it’s OK to go outside while maintaining a safe distance from others. Hughes suggested taking a walk or going for a drive.
“Change your environment so you don’t only see the walls of your house every single day. That gets very overwhelming,” she said. “And when you are active and taking a walk, you’re going to reduce the stress hormone and increase those good chemicals.”
Keeping the mind active is also important and helps people feel more productive. Examples of this include knitting, doing a puzzle, cooking, or doing a project at home.
Some “vegging out” is OK, Hughes said, but being productive can help people feel better.
As for those people who have suddenly started to work from home, everyone is different but Hughes said she would recommend that people “treat it as a regular day.”
She said working from bed might be OK for a few days as people make the transition into working from home, but as the novelty wears off and working from home becomes routine, it’s time to get up.
“Get up, get dressed, have your coffee, take a shower, and sit down as though you are having your workday so that it’s built into your new structure,” Hughes said, adding that if people don’t move their bodies, they never fully wake up and staying in bed can make people more tired.
Hughes is included in the group of people who are both essential and working from home at this time, and she, like many others in her field, is using tele-therapy.
She said some people who were already seeing a therapist might be thinking of “waiting it out” until they can meet in person, because communicating virtually is different, but Hughes said she would not recommend that.
“If you already have a therapist for whatever reason ... you’re losing a support system, and even though doing tele-therapy is a little bit different, we’re lucky enough to still be able to see people,” Hughes said. “If you’re already using a resource, it allows you to stay grounded and be reminded of whatever tools or coping skills your therapist has been working on prior to all of this happening.”
For people who don’t currently see a therapist or other mental health professional, Hughes said this time can still be difficult because people don’t generally like change, but if someone needs help to manage their feelings, it can be valuable.
She also stressed that Maryland has open enrollment for state health insurance for those who may not have had it before.
“Talking to a therapist just during the state of emergency or whatever you may need can actually give you skills. They can talk you through it, they can talk you down, they can tell you some ways to think or change your thinking or how to maybe make your day more structured and manageable,” Hughes said.