More often than not, when people talk about “getting healthy,” they’re referring to physical activity and exercise regimens that burn calories, strengthen their muscles and tone their bodies. Mental health usually isn’t part of the conversation.
But mental health is a critical component of our overall well-being and one we should take regular stock of just as we would our weight or blood pressure – particularly during times of extreme stress, like the current pandemic.
The pandemic has created a perfect storm of sorts that can severely impact our mental stability. Human beings are not programmed to be alone and isolated. We crave interaction with others. In fact, as this article from PSYCOM points out, “…lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking three-quarters of a pack of cigarettes a day…every day.”
Unfortunately, our best defenses against the spread of COVID-19 – like stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and quarantining – can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation for everyone. Feelings of fear, anxiety, helplessness, and hopelessness may also materialize at some point during the pandemic.
“It’s important to understand that experiencing these emotions is perfectly normal right now, and during other times of heightened or ongoing stress,” says Dr. Nazar Al-Saidi, who specializes in behavioral health and psychiatry for Memorial Healthcare. “When those sentiments become constant, inhibit your ability to live life as normal as possible, or lead to thoughts of suicide, however, it is okay and perfectly normal to ask for help from medical professionals.”
Start with your primary care physician, says Dr. Al-Saidi. Explain the feelings you’ve been experiencing, how long they’ve been going on for, and include whether you’ve entertained thoughts of suicide. Your doctor may ask additional questions, or have you fill out a questionnaire to gather additional information. It’s important to be honest in your assessment and feedback in order to get the right level of help you need.
Keep in mind you may not even need to go into your doctor’s office to have this discussion. At Memorial Healthcare, for instance, physicians offer telehealth options that allow you to video conference with your doctor over your phone, tablet or computer. If you’re high risk for COVID-19, contact your doctor’s office to discuss alternative options.
Also understand medication is not always the answer. The solutions to treat and help us cope with our mental health struggles have advanced and evolved to offer options tailored to your specific needs. For example, your primary care physician may refer you to a therapist first who can help you unravel these complicated feelings and develop coping mechanisms to implement when you experience them.
“The pandemic in particular is impacting people in very different and sometimes extreme ways,” says Dr. Al-Saidi. “One individual may be struggling with the fallout of a job loss while another may need help coping with the uncertainty presented by the pandemic or how to keep their children safe from the virus. And these unique circumstances require individualized coping mechanisms to help them get through it.”
While your therapist will play a critical role in helping you develop coping mechanisms that are right for you and your lifestyle, some everyday actions you can take include:
- Limiting social media engagement or news consumption
- Setting realistic expectations for yourself and what you may or may not be able to accomplish during this crisis
- Beginning an at-home exercise program
- Starting a new hobby (or taking up an old one)
Dr. Al-Saidi also says if you’re working from home, be sure to take plenty of breaks and use those days off – even if it’s just to take an unplanned “mental health day.”
“This will help keep you energized and avoid burnout,” he says.
Whether it’s staying off social media, taking a personal day to focus on yourself or seeking the help of a medical professional, remember there is no shame in taking action to prioritize yourself first and foremost. The best thing you can do for you and your loved ones is to carve out the needed time to take care of your own physical and mental wellbeing. And, in times of uncertainty, remember that you are never alone. There is always help available if you ask, and it is time we normalize that.
If you are feeling anxious or depressed, please contact your primary care provider for an inperson or virtual appointment. You may also learn more at Memorial Healthcare Behavioral Health at www.memorialhealthcare.org/service/behavioral-health/. If you are feeling suicidal, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).