In uncertain times, keeping an eye on mental health is more important than ever, experts say

The coronavirus pandemic has completely interrupted the lives of many people both in Washington State in all across the United States and the world.

Folks all over are facing economic uncertainty — unemployment claims have skyrocketed as companies have furloughed many of their employees. Those who are still working, unless they have been deemed essential, are likely telecommuting; and many of them are trying to find a balance between performing their duties from home while caring for their children, who will be out of school for the rest of the school year.

On top of that, social distancing protocols have kept people largely cut off from their family support and their communities at large. That can have grave effects on anyone, but especially hits hard those with mental or substance issues.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has been largely inescapable as it has dominated both local and national news cycles for several weeks. Numbers of new cases flooding in from all over the world can be overwhelming. All of this combined is testing the coping skills of everyone.

“Stress and anxiety are normal during the time like this,” said Dr. Jürgen Unützer, professor and chair of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington. “If you’re not feeling stress right now, you might be a robot.”

Fortunately, humans are resilient. Many of us simply need a little guidance to deal with our anxiety and stress.

So what can be done? How can we best help ourselves and each other navigate these unprecedented times?

It may sound simple, but to start, take a deep breath and exhale. When circumstances are too overwhelming, taking a moment to pause, breathe in and breathe out, can help you reset and get back on a healthier course, said Dr. Kristen Lindgren, a professor and licensed clinical psychologist in the University of Washington’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“Being mindful of your breathing and taking long exhales,” Lindgren said. “It just does a wonderful thing for the body in calming things down.”

Both adults and children have had their schedules completely disrupted, so creating a new routine to ensure time for exercise, proper sleep and healthy eating is paramount. Many trails and parks are closed to vehicular traffic, but it costs nothing to take a walk around the neighborhood on the warm spring days ahead.

Folks should also maintain good social support. While social distancing keeps us physically apart for the time being, phone calls, group video chats, and even text messages can help keep us connected.

Avoid substance use as a way to cope with stressful feelings. One of the most difficult parts of the coronavirus pandemic is the inability to know when any sense of normalcy restored. People could be out of work or working from home for the next several months.

If you know someone who has had or currently does have a substance abuse issue, be sure to check in on them.

“There is a lot we can do right now to help people in need while staying safe,” Unützer said.

Limiting media exposure can also be helpful. If you find the endless chatter of cable news channels, the high volume of media reports to be simply too much, or you find yourself clicking away on link after link for two to three hours at a time, be cognizant of that and take a break.

Stay in touch, stay informed of what’s going on in your community, but don’t be afraid to tune out and focus on something else.

“If what you’re finding is that you’re getting distressed from it and it’s not part of your job,” Lindgren said, be sure to tune out for a little while.