SIERRA VISTA — At a time when nobody is immune to the effects caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — whether it’s the stress caused by a reeling economy, the pressure of caring for kids at home while trying to work remotely, or countless other stressors — mental health issues both old and new are arising, and self-care is imperative, says a Sierra Vista psychologist trained in such matters.
Toni Leo, one of the only — if not the only — clinical psychologists in private practice in Sierra Vista, said that as feelings of isolation can grow during periods of self-quarantine and “shelter in place” orders, people should be paying close attention now to their mental health and wellbeing, and taking steps to mitigate feelings of anxiety and depression, among others.
As stress levels rise, people who have had past mental trauma or who have suffered from various things such as depression and anxiety will often be triggered and can fall back into those states. Meanwhile, even people who have never experienced feelings of depression or intense anxiety might see those things rear their head as they live through this stressful time.
“It’s important to understand what types of things influence when people feel stress,” said Leo, who first moved to Sierra Vista in 1999, then returned in 2005 after a six-year hiatus while her military husband was stationed in Virginia. “So, in general, when we feel like situations are unpredictable and uncontrollable, we feel more stress. This is definitely a time when there’s a lot of uncertainty; people are responding with fear, anxiety, there are past issues that are unresolved that are coming up.
“It’s a game-changer for a lot of folks.”
Michael Barr, the director of outpatient services at Sonora Behavioral Health, notes that there is limited research on the psychological toll of social distancing during epidemics or pandemics. He did, though, cite a recent study outlined in Psychology Today that examined the effects of social distancing during outbreaks of SARS, H1N1 flu, Ebola and other infectious diseases since the early 2000s.
“Most of the individuals that were quarantined experienced long- and short-term mental health issues including stress, insomnia, emotional exhaustion, substance abuse and even PTSD,” Barr said.
As for the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder aspect, Leo took Barr’s comment a step further, noting, “Times like this, when everybody feels stress, are especially difficult for people who have had trauma, because it inevitably rocks the, I guess you could say, foundation that they have that’s already a bit shaky.
“So it’s an opportunity for them, really, if they’re able to, to go back and resolve the trauma that they’ve had in the past.”
How to cope
Though projections regarding how long the coronavirus pandemic might keep our “normal” daily lives turned upside-down are ever-changing, Barr said, “It’s important to remember that while this seems overwhelming and like there is no end in sight, it will pass.”
As we plod ahead into this relative unknown, Barr offered four reminders to people struggling with any aspect of the COVID-19 situation and their feelings about it:
Be kind to yourself and allow for grace
Remember it’s OK to feel anxious about safety for yourself, your family, friends and even strangers
Focus on the positive things around you and the situations that you do have control over
Remember that sadness, grief, anger and confusion are normal reactions
Leo said focus on self-care and what she specifically described as “self-soothing” is critical for people grappling with mental health issues. Things like taking a walk, playing with pets, participating in video chats with family and friends, exercising, doing yoga, taking a hot bath, and eating healthy were among the laundry list of activities and behaviors Leo suggested for people to maintain a sense of calm.
Addressing the normal social needs humans tend to have is also important to minimize risk of breakdowns or mental and emotional stress.
“The difficulty, of course, is that for a lot of people, we tend to feel safe when we’re connected to other people,” Leo said. “So, now that we’re isolated — at home, a lot of times — we don’t have that sense of connection.
“For many people, being able to talk on the phone or using Skype, Zoom, or some other video-type of capacity is helpful in maintaining that sense of connection. ... Social support is very important for health and mental health. But especially in times of crisis, most people do want to be connected to other people. That’s how we cope; we get reassurance, we get comfort.”
Cochise County officials, too, are exhorting people to stay in touch with loved ones to avoid loneliness.
“Residents should continue to communicate with friends, family, neighbors and other social groups via phone, social media, Facetime, and other socially connected apps and devices,” wrote county public information officer Amanda Baillie in an email. “While social interaction looks a little different right now, it’s essential to continue to connect to avoid those feelings of social isolation.”
Baillie also noted the many outdoor offerings in Cochise County, saying residents “are lucky to live in a rural area with open spaces that allow social distancing practices to be followed while enjoying our temperate climate and beautiful landscapes, and we actively encourage our residents to take advantage of that. Take time to unwind and safely enjoy your favorite activities.”
And while Barr and other experts want people to remain informed of the most recent guidance and recommendations from federal, state and local health officials, Barr, like Baillie, suggested people “limit the time you spend watching media coverage of COVID-19,” and instead schedule activities and take time for enjoyable interactions.
For those grappling with mental or emotional strife, or who suspect they might be, there are many resources available. Leo, the Sierra Vista psychologist, said there are a number of practitioners who are available for people to speak with, along with other resources like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which has a southeastern Arizona chapter. There were a multitude of other internet-based and local support groups Leo also said are available.
Baillie, meanwhile, said people who feel they’re at the end of their rope may call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). She also listed other local, state and federal resources (listed in fact box accompanying story).
Ultimately, Leo urges people to not focus on things beyond their control, instead zeroing in on what they can command.
“The only control we do have is to take care of ourselves — social distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands, not touching our faces — doing these things that help minimize our risk,” Leo said.
And as for the stress that accompanies the challenges people all across the nation and the Earth are experiencing right now, Leo stressed, “This is a time when folks need to be reminded that it’s OK, what you’re feeling; it’s normal, what you’re feeling, and there are people out here who can help you.”