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Protecting Mental Health During the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Theresa Anthony

Today, completely out of nowhere, I flashed upon thoughts of my son and how difficult today's stress level would have been for him. I sense that he would have had a very hard time coping with the insane level of collective anxiety the world is now experiencing due to the coronavirus. Because I lost my 25 year old son to suicide due to co-occurring depression and alcoholism, I am particularly sensitive to the angst that upheaval and unrest can generate in those who are most vulnerable.

The truth is, I doubt my boy would have managed this well at all. I say this not to belittle him, but to simply highlight how afraid I myself am right now, someone who does not struggle with mental health issues. For someone who does, there is a heightened risk of emotional fallout. Consider these risks to mental wellness:

· Risk of relapse. Individuals in the early phase of addiction recovery may be more susceptible to experiencing a relapse during such tumultuous times. Stress, anxiety, and negative life events will often trigger a return to the substance as a means of coping with feelings of distress.

· Increased anxiety. For individuals who struggle with an anxiety disorder, particularly panic disorder or a related trauma disorder, situations like the coronavirus threat can spark an intense sense of fear and dread. Anxiety is generally the result of feeling a lack of control over perceived threats.

· Increased depression. For most of us, the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic will be significant. No one was prepared for something of this magnitude to basically grind worldwide commerce to a halt. Financial problems are often the impetus for developing a depressive disorder.

· Suicide risk. Individuals who struggle with depression may begin to catastrophize events as significant as this one. They may struggle to maintain a healthy perspective and begin to despair about the future. For these individuals the risk of suicide may be significantly increased.

· Illness. So far, the coronavirus remains a mystery. No one knows yet where it came from for sure, or what the long-term health effects are for those who recover from the virus. Again, the unknowns about the coronavirus can cause stress, sleep disruption, and fear.

4 Tips for Managing Stress During the Coronavirus Outbreak

  1. Limit exposure to the news. Yes, we all want to understand what is going on and how government officials are managing the crisis, but news overload can stress us out. Limit news coverage to a morning update and an early evening update, but fill the day with productive pursuits.

  2. Get quality sleep. Because of underlying anxiety related to the virus news, take extra steps to ensure good quality sleep: Try taking a warm bath, or use aromatherapy to fill the air with lavender, rose, chamomile, or ylang ylang essential oils, listen to soothing music, avoid or limit caffeine, and shut down electronic devices one hour before bedtime.

  3. Pray. For me, nothing helps to ease my mind and spirit better than praying. When something is beyond our control, reaching out to Jesus through heartfelt prayer gives us confidence that we are not alone, and reminds us to trust in Him.

  4. Relaxation activities. When feelings of fear emerge, try practicing deep-breathing exercises. This involves taking slow, lung-filling breaths to the count of 4, holding the breath for 4 seconds, and then fully releasing the breath to the count of 4. Repeat 6 times. Other relaxation techniques we can do at home include using guided meditation apps or yoga videos available on YouTube.

For those who have an at-risk teen or young adult child, might I suggest that you keep a very close eye on them during this crisis. According to the health experts, the coronavirus will not peak for at least another 45 days before beginning to subside. The constant media coverage will ramp up as the numbers of people affected by the virus increase, which can be unsettling for individuals with a mental health and/or substance use disorder.

Please pay extra attention to these loved ones. Be available to them, ready to chat, support, and provide a safe place for them to share their feelings or articulate their fears. Just offering them your time and attention will mean so much. And by all means, if there are any signs of suicidal thoughts or planning, immediately contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

As we as a nation face the coming weeks of disruption and unease, let’s connect in our humanness and be there for each other. Knowing we are not alone, that we have each other, and that Almighty God loves us will make all the difference in how we manage the emotional effects of this historic event.

Theresa Anthony is the author of My 13th Station, a memoir about her son's struggle with depression and his suicide.

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