Taking a different look at mental and emotional health in today’s turbulent times | By Amy Meadows
News anchor Robin Meade speaks directly to us during the 30-second spot for the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI). She asserts, “You are not alone if you’re feeling like there’s so much uncertainty to face right now.” Then she notes how important it is to care for ourselves and others right now. It’s a refrain we’ve heard often since this past spring, when a global pandemic gripped the nation and sent the country into lockdown. Suddenly, we began dealing with issues we never could have imagined. And many of us quickly recognized the effects that these turbulent times—from the fear of the coronavirus itself to the ongoing sense of isolation—could have on our mental and emotional well-being.
“There’s a lot of anxiety, because we are having to come to terms with that element of uncertainty, a lack of control,” explains Julie Coker, LPC, CPCS, EdS, NCC, co-owner of Petrichor Counseling, LLC. “That can be challenging and difficult, but there is an opportunity on the other side of it. It can be grounds to explore some of these things that we have not looked at before.”While the current situation undoubtedly has caused fear and stress for people of all ages, and that must be dealt with head on, it’s also important to look at the positive circumstances that have derived from these unprecedented times. When it comes to your mental health, what you take away from this experience actually could leave you enlightened and on a path that you may not have taken before.
Getting Off the Hamster Wheel
For so long, you may have been juggling your own jam-packed schedule with that of your spouse or partner and even your children, who probably were busy with school, sports, playdates, weekend birthday parties and so much more. It might have felt like you were on a hamster wheel and you just couldn’t get off of it. Then one day, the wheel unexpectedly stopped. In all likelihood, it gave you a chance to slow down and bond with your family in a way that you haven’t been able to before. Maybe you’ve played board games, cooked meals or worked on home projects together, and you have been able to develop a new level of closeness.
“People have had the time to recognize things they took for granted,”
Coker says. “They’re seeing the importance of having a real connection with other people. Because of how prevalent technology is, we’re usually on the
phone all the time and plugged in. People are present and in the moment
versus being on autopilot. This has given people the opportunity to get to know each other again.”
In some instances, it also has given them a chance to get to know themselves. There’s a good chance this downtime has allowed you to stop and focus on your mental health. “Being quarantined forces us to stay in place, which forces us to deal with our realities,” notes
Nikeisha Whatley-León, Director of Behavioral Services for Northside Hospital.
“This means we don’t have the same distractions, and we can’t run from ourselves, so to speak. People are able to take the time to work through their emotions. It’s up to us whether we choose to cope in the healthiest way. [This situation] definitely makes us face the facts in a lot of ways and on so many levels.”
Tatiana Matthews, MS, LPC, CRS, Clinical Director of Atlanta Specialized Care, explains that this time at home has provided many people with a chance to reflect and practice mindful awareness. “For the first time, life has slowed down. We can’t use our job or our kids’ sports as a distraction,” she observes, noting that some people have actually been able to identify troubling coping mechanisms that they may have ignored before. From drinking too heavily to pulling away from peers and loved ones, certain actions ultimately can be detrimental—and now is the time to recognize them. “We have to cope in a way that creates healthy long-term outcomes instead of immediate short-term gratification,” Matthews continues.
“We cannot control what we cannot control, but we can ask ourselves, ‘How can I fuel myself in a way that will help me work towards my long-term goal?’ We have to work on relinquishing control in a healthy way, and we have to take care of ourselves so we can go with the flow.”
A New Level of Innovation
If you’ve decided that it’s time to seek professional help for your mental health issues during this trying time, then you’ve discovered how the mental health profession has been able to adapt to the needs of patients everywhere.
“This situation has created innovation in our industry,” Matthews says. “We have had to be nimble and flexible, and we’re doing things we’ve never done before.”
Namely, when COVID-19 became a widespread concern, mental health professionals were given the opportunity to begin providing essential services via HIPAA-compliant telehealth platforms. “Most agencies are offering talk therapy and medication management via telehealth. Access to care has been very successful for our department in reaching patients and being sure their services were not interrupted,” Whatley-León explains. “This has been shown to be successful with access to care across the country for our profession.”
According to Coker, the telehealth experience is very similar to
in-person therapy, although there is a bit of a learning curve and the always-present issues with technology. Yet, mental health professionals have worked hard to ensure that clients feel safe and secure in this new and necessary online environment and receive the help they need. They also have been able to reach even more patients than ever before. “Virtual sessions have a tremendous benefit, and they can now be accessed in areas that may not have therapists, such as rural locations,” she observes. “It’s allowed the industry to provide access to marginalized people.”
The ability to maintain therapy for someone who was seeking it prior to quarantine, as well as the opportunity to offer it to someone who may never have sought it before, has been key to helping people address mental health concerns over the last
several months. “Consistency and structure are key,” Matthews asserts. “We are a source of strength and support for our clients.” And as the lockdowns are lifted and offices slowly start to reopen, many practices have found ways to offer a hybrid version of their counseling services, blending telehealth and in-person sessions. “There have been positive changes, and the changes will continue,” she adds.
As the country continues to reopen, it’s important to take things slowly as we reemerge from quarantine. The last several months have been traumatic for so many of us, and it makes complete sense to feel apprehensive about returning to what we consider normal. “It’s key to gradually go back into the new normal. Be okay with speaking out when you’re uncomfortable with certain situations, as it can be anxiety-provoking given the situation,” Whatley-León says. “Some people may experience [mental health] symptoms post-COVID as well. It’s important to recognize when you’re not feeling like yourself. Set healthy boundaries so that you have the time to respond to your own needs.”
“You’re going to have to feel the fear—that’s the only way through,” Matthews advises. “It’s like exposure therapy. You have to do something until it’s not as scary. Don’t ignore your gut instincts to protect yourself. It’s okay to give yourself time and continue to assess. But you also have to figure out how much of your response is avoidance behavior and how much is your body saying something just isn’t right for you.”
Coker recommends learning from the things you have found out about yourself and building on those as you move into the upcoming months.
She also points to an array of resources and strategies for maintaining your mental and emotional health. From practicing meditation and using mindfulness apps on your smartphone to journaling and adopting healthy lifestyle habits, there are many beneficial things you can do to manage stress and maintain a calm demeanor. “Take things as they come and work on developing your self-knowledge,” she says. “It’s about figuring out what works best for us personally to create a sense of meaning day-to-day and get the rest, care and recuperation that we need.”
Whatley-León adds that finding joy and balance are key to managing your mental health now and in the future. And many of us have finally been able to figure out how to do that thanks to the ability to slow down. “Stay connected to those who bring you joy and make you laugh. Get out and take walks; we need fresh air. Join online dance classes and listen to upbeat music. Explore your interests and don’t be afraid to try something different. Remember to set limits if you’re working from home; you need work-life balance more now than ever. Have family night and date night to keep your family well. We need things to look forward to,” she concludes. “It’s key to recharge, reconnect and reframe negative thoughts. These are the tools to thriving during these times. I think a positive development will include being able to experience the empowerment of not just surviving, but thriving through a pandemic.”
For more information:
Atlanta Specialized Care
Northside Hospital Behavioral Health Services
Petrichor Counseling, LLC