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Thorner: Mental stress takes its toll during the coronavirus shut down

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By Nancy Thorner –

As of March 31, 2020, about three out of four Americans are, or are about to be, under some form of lockdown, as states tighten measures to fight the coronavirus.

A new study from King’s College London shows life in quarantine can negatively affect your mental health, causing post-traumatic stress, confusion and even anger with separation from loved ones, the loss of freedom, uncertainty over disease status and boredom.

Published in The Lancet medical journal in February, the study comes as country after country have ordered its populations into lockdown to halt the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The seven researchers, all associated with the department of psychological medicine at King’s College London, based their findings on 24 studies previously carried out in 10 countries that have quarantined parts of their populations after the outbreak of deadly viruses. Their findings include the following:

  • People quarantined for longer than 10 days “showed significantly higher post-traumatic stress symptoms” than those who were isolated for a shorter period of time.
  • Long-term negative effects include the development of alcohol abuse and other dependency symptoms, amplified if those in quarantine lack access to healthcare and basic necessities.
  • Fake news and media can fuel anxiety by citing contradictory expert opinion.
  • Serious financial difficulties can lead to mental health problems and suicide.

Uptick in domestic and child abuse

As written by Amanda Gaub in the New York Times on April 6, 2020, A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide:

“Mounting data suggests that domestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic. Now, with families in lock down worldwide, hotlines are lighting up with abuse reports, leaving governments trying to address a crisis that experts say they should have seen coming.”

As to child abuse, Erin Donaghue for CBS News on April 6, 2020, wrote the following in his article, Child abuse fears increase as families isolate during coronavirus pandemic:

"Advocates are raising alarm bells about a potential uptick in child abuse as more families isolate at home amid the coronavirus pandemic. One Texas children's hospital says two children died of suspected abuse on the same day in March, and the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is reporting a 20% increase in calls and more than four times the number of texts compared to the same time last year."

Children spending more time on the internet at home has also created a “perfect storm” for abusers to take advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic the coronavirus crisis.

Although social media and gaming sites are proving to be a lifeline for parents and their children as they adapt to being at home, it must also be recognized there are heightened risks.

It is therefore more important than ever for parents to have regular conversations with their children about what they’re doing online and to reassure them they can come to their parents with any worries.

Mental health and wellness tips during COVID-19

Dr Eileen M Feliciano is a doctoral level psychologist in New York State with a Psy.D. in the specialties of School and Clinical Psychology. After having thirty-one sessions this week with patients where the singular focus was COVID-19 and how to cope, Dr Feliciano decided to consolidate her advice with a list.

Following is Dr. Feliciano's list of fourteen suggestions edited for brevity:

1.  Stick to a routine. Go to sleep and wake up at a reasonable time, write a schedule that is varied and includes time for work as well as self-care.

2.  Dress for the social life you want, not the social life you have. Get showered and dressed in comfortable clothes, wash your face, brush your teeth. Take the time to do a bath or a facial. Put on some bright colors. It is amazing how our dress can impact our mood.

3. Get out at least once a day, for at least thirty minutes. If you are concerned of contact, try first thing in the morning, or later in the evening, and try less traveled streets and avenues. If you are high risk or living with those who are high risk, open the windows and blast the fan. It is amazing how much fresh air can do for spirits.

4. Find some time to move each day, again daily for at least thirty minutes. If you don’t feel comfortable going outside, there are many YouTube videos that offer free movement classes, and if all else fails, turn on the music and have a dance party!

5. Reach out to others, you guessed it, at least once daily for thirty minutes. Try to do FaceTime, Skype, phone calls, texting—connect with other people to seek and provide support. Don’t forget to do this for your children as well. Set up virtual play dates with friends daily via FaceTime, Facebook Messenger Kids, Zoom, etc.—your kids miss their friends, too!

6. Stay hydrated and eat well. This one may seem obvious, but stress and eating often don’t mix well, and we find ourselves over-indulging, forgetting to eat, and avoiding food. Drink plenty of water, eat some good and nutritious foods, and challenge yourself to learn how to cook something new!

7. Develop a self-care toolkit. This can look different for everyone. A lot of successful self-care strategies involve a sensory component (seven senses: touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell, vestibular (movement) and proprioceptive (comforting pressure). An idea for each: a soft blanket or stuffed animal, a hot chocolate, photos of vacations, comforting music, lavender or eucalyptus oil, a small swing or rocking chair, a weighted blanket. A journal, an inspirational book, or a mandala coloring book is wonderful, bubbles to blow or blowing watercolor on paper through a straw are visually appealing as well as work on controlled breath. Mint gum, Listerine strips, ginger ale, frozen Starburst, ice packs, and cold are also good for anxiety regulation. For children, it is great to help them create a self-regulation comfort box (often a shoe box or bin they can decorate) that they can use on the ready for first aid when overwhelmed.

8. Spend extra time playing with children. Children will rarely communicate how they are feeling but will often make a bid for attention and communication through play. Don’t be surprised to see therapeutic themes of illness, doctor visits, and isolation play through. Understand that play is cathartic and helpful for children—it is how they process their world and problem solve, and there’s a lot they are seeing and experiencing in the now.

9.  Give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and a wide berth. A lot of cooped up time can bring out the worst in everyone. Each person will have moments when they will not be at their best. It is important to move with grace through blowups, to not show up to every argument you are invited to, and to not hold grudges and continue disagreements. Everyone is doing the best they can to make it through this.

10. Everyone find their own retreat space. Space is at a premium, particularly with city living. It is important that people think through their own separate space for work and for relaxation. For children, help them identify a place where they can go to retreat when stressed. You can make this place cozy by using blankets, pillows, cushions, scarves, beanbags, tents, and “forts”. It is good to know that even when we are on top of each other, we have our own special place to go to be alone.

11. Expect behavioral issues in children and respond gently. We are all struggling with disruption in routine, none more than children, who rely on routines constructed by others to make them feel safe and to know what comes next. Expect increased anxiety, worries and fears, nightmares, difficulty separating or sleeping, testing limits, and meltdowns. Do not introduce major behavioral plans or consequences at this time—hold stable and focus on emotional connection.

12. Focus on safety and attachment. We are going to be living for a bit with the unprecedented demand of meeting all work deadlines, homeschooling children, running a sterile household, and making a whole lot of entertainment in confinement. We can get wrapped up in meeting expectations in all domains, but we must remember that these are scary and unpredictable times for children. Focus on strengthening the connection through time spent following their lead, through physical touch, through play, through therapeutic books, and via verbal reassurances that you will be there for them in this time.

13. Lower expectations and practice radical self-acceptance. This idea is connected with #12. We are doing too many things in this moment, under fear and stress. This does not make a formula for excellence. Instead, give yourself what psychologists call “radical self-acceptance”: accepting everything about yourself, your current situation, and your life without question, blame, or push back. You cannot fail at this—there is no roadmap, no precedent for this, and we are all truly doing the best we can in an impossible situation.

14. Limit social media and COVID conversation, especially around children. One can find tons of information on COVID-19 to consume, and it changes minute to minute. The information is often sensationalized, negatively skewed, and alarmist. Find a few trusted sources that you can check in with consistently, limit it to a few times a day, and set a time limit for yourself on how much you consume (again 30 minutes tops, 2-3 times daily). Keep news and alarming conversations out of earshot from children—they see and hear everything and can become very frightened by what they hear.

If the shutdown doesn’t end by April 30, 2020, not only will the American people suffer, but also our economy, which could result in more deaths due to depression and suicide than the coronavirus itself.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. My sister-in-law has been in lock down at Green Oaks Retirement. She has been losing ground mentally for a number of months. Now, she is not allowed to leave her little ap’t. She is actually hallucinating, getting panicky; we can’t calm her down. I just talked to the activities woman who asked if we Skype; she was getting ready to set up a schedule for relatives to contact their family members. We don’t, but I may download it to my phone so that we can “visit” with her. I said that the only “infectors” are the staff (one is recovering from the virus) so why can’t the residents interact and have meals together. She said she would mention it to the wellness director. If they could just get out in the sun for awhile and hear nature sounds and sights it would go a long way to re-orienting people who are losing their grip on reality due to “solitary confinement.”