Numerous stressors are associated with the COVID-19 pandemic including health, employment, financial, and caregiving issues. A significant issue for many people is the physical separation they are experiencing from loved ones. This separation has forced many to reconfigure how to manage day-to-day tasks (i.e. educating children and working from home). This social isolation adds another layer of stress during this time, and the emotional impact may be even more burdensome for many. Separation from family and friends can lead to increased worry, feelings of uncertainty and isolation, and an increase in mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression. It’s important that we prioritize positive coping strategies during this time to improve and preserve good mental health.
Before we focus on positive coping skills, let’s discuss some negative habits people may fall into during this stressful time. Recent data suggests that many are using alcohol at an excessive rate. This can exacerbate mental and physical distress. Also, some families find themselves spending much more time together, which can lead to increased frustration and conflict. For those forced to reconsider basic activities like grocery shopping and food preparation, it’s sometimes easier to turn to less healthy foods, which negatively impacts well-being. It’s important that we recognize these potential pitfalls in order to avoid them.
A first step for coping well with being separated from family and friends is to improve your coping skills overall. Control those things that you can control. It is important to maintain a routine – even if working from home. Ensure that you make time for exercise, maintain consistent sleep routines, and engage in spiritual practices. It will also be helpful to carve out time to practice relaxation strategies to include meditation, engaging in leisure activities (i.e. reading a good book, taking a bubble bath, etc.), and having fun. While this may require thinking a bit outside of the box, there are numerous online resources available that can help you in these endeavors. Many online platforms offer guidance for exercise, gaming, and relaxing your mind and body. Lastly, ensure that you are engaging in productive communication with the people in your household. Allow for honest and supportive discussions regarding changes in routine and any experiences of distress. This is particularly important for children who will look to the adults in their household for ways to feel grounded and safe.
While social distancing is encouraged, this really translates into physical distancing. It is incredibly important to maintain our social interactions. While we may not be able to be in the same geographic location as our friends and family, we can still interact with them regularly. Numerous online platforms allow for real-time video interactions. Find a platform that works for you and your friends and loved ones. Ensure that you schedule regular times to check in with those people who are important to you. Some platforms offer game options for groups of people, and there are options appropriate for various demographics. This is a particular consideration for children who may struggle even more with the lack of peer interaction they’re accustomed to. Never discount the power of social interaction as it can greatly reduce feelings of isolation and disconnection.
For those who are caregivers for elderly loved ones, there are additional variables to consider. Medical facilities may not allow a caregiver to accompany a loved one to an appointment, and this can be a cause of significant concern. Consider alternatives such as telehealth appointments or proactive phone calls or emails to the provider. For those dealing with loved ones with memory problems, badges or placards that the loved one can wear may help identify their point of contact and reason for their visit.
As our lives continue to be impacted by COVID-19, it’s important that we remain focused on our physical and mental health. Embracing new approaches and prioritizing positive coping strategies will allow each of us to emerge from this pandemic as healthy and happy as possible.
Maj. Markivich is an Army clinical psychologist with the Clinical Care Branch at the Psychological Health Center of Excellence.
The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Psychological Health Center of Excellence or Department of Defense.