Mentally Processing the Pandemic
How to cope with COVID-19 as a partner, parent, or individual
By now, most of us are aware of the physical symptoms of COVID-19 — cough, fever, fatigue, and possible breathing difficulties. But even more familiar to most are the psychological tolls it's taken, as life's normal rhythms fall away and uncertainties mount. Furthermore, we're not accustomed to spending this much time with our partners, spouses, kids, or selves — all situations that may eventually prove unbearable (if they haven't already).
When it's all said and done, COVID-19 may be more deleterious to society's mental health than anything else. Therefore as we work on preserving our bodies from the illness, we must also put in an equal or greater effort into preserving our minds. On Wednesday, Apr. 1, doctors from the LECOM Institute of Behavioral Health shared insights and fielded questions in a panel discussion entitled "COVID-19 and Your Mental Health," webcast via Facebook Live from the Jefferson Educational Society.
The healthcare panel included residency program director in psychiatry Meghan McCarthy, DO and child/adolescent psychiatrists Gianpiero Martone, DO and Dr. Priyanka Sinha, DO. The hour yielded helpful advice for managing anxiety and finding meaning under an unusually challenging set of circumstances.
Dealing with what we're feeling
How long will this go on? When will I be able to return to the things I know? Will I be able to weather this financially? What most of us are experiencing, according to Dr. McCarthy, is a sense of unease — or more accurately, grief, a "deep and poignant distress."
She reframed Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' "Five Stages of Grief" in the context of COVID-19:
- Denial, i.e. "This [COVID-19] is not going to happen here." As much as we would rather not believe it, it has and will continue to. McCarthy elaborated that not all denial is detrimental — it can be useful in limiting ourselves to only what we can handle.
- Anger, i.e. "Why is this happening?!" So as long as we are not doing harm unto others, it is okay to be angry, says McCarthy. In fact, it may be worse bottling it in than letting it out. So channel it and channel it productively.
- Bargaining, i.e. "Is there a way I can stop this from happening?" You can take the measures to protect yourself, but no you can't individually stonewall a global pandemic.
- Depression, i.e. "I guess it doesn't matter anyway." Feelings of deep sadness and emptiness are normal after incurring loss — in this case, our perception of "normal." McCarthy made the distinction between being generally depressed and clinically depressed. In monitoring for signs of clinical depression, Dr. Martone says to look for things like amotivation, lack of energy, the inability to eat or sleep, severe weight loss or gain, and/or evidence of self-harm or intention to self-harm.
- Acceptance, i.e. "This is the way it is now and I'm prepared to deal with it." McCarthy professed that this a great time to "evaluate our own needs, to evolve, enjoy our lives again and experience meaning."
Dr. Sinha stressed the importance of checking up on the more strong and silent types in your family or social circle — just because they're not speaking up doesn't mean they're not suffering.
Coping for Spouses and Partners
Snarky tweets and memes about disenchanted couples forced to quarantine together have made the rounds in recent weeks, alluding to a post-COVID-19 dating pool overflowing like the shores of Lake Erie. Most experts agree that healthy relationships need some semblance of space. Even if you and your partner are cut from the same cloth, you're not of an identically matching print. So allow the Missus the room to be her paisley eggplant while you be your gingham plum as we stitch together the new COVID fabric of our lives.
Dr. McCarthy suggested defining a time of day or space within the home where you can be alone for a while.
Dr. Martone recommended a deceptively even more obvious strategy, to continue the individual schedules you had before COVID-19 — as romantic as it may sound, you don't have to do literally everything together. Set some boundaries. And when you are together, practice some gratitude, for goodness sake.
Coping for Parents and Caregivers
Many questions the doctors answered addressed perhaps an even greater challenge — how to be a parent or caregiver cooped up with his or her dependents all day.
According to Dr. Sinha, the biggest hurdle for kids is the same one that's tripping up adults — the uncertainty. She advised conveying the current state of affairs and the expectations going forward in simple terms, emphasizing strength, hope, and positivity. Above all, she stressed implementing some kind of routine and structure to kids' days, two blessings sorely missing in the absence of a school schedule. Activities that occupy the mind and empower creativity are best. If they seem disengaged, try doing something you know they like together.
Dr. Martone reiterated that children model their behaviors and attitudes after adults — even if they're being snotty or obstinate, they're still looking to you for cues. So be transparent. Share your feelings and ask them about theirs. And do not forget to take care of yourself, too. Take breaks, eat well, get rest. The current reality may not be ideal, but you can make the most of it.
Coping for Singles and Individuals
Before you plumb the Mariana Trench-level depths of the post-pandemic dating pool prophesied by the aforementioned tweets and memes, realize that this time might be as great an opportunity as you'll ever have to refine yourself as a person. The LECOM behavioral professionals previously spoke about how beneficial structure and routine can be for boys and girls. Guess what — they can be just as fruitful for all you grown men and women out there as well.
Hold yourself accountable to a regular eating, sleeping, and exercising schedule. You may also consider working in a new hobby. In the immortal words of Napoleon Dynamite, "Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills," be it nunchucking, bowhunting, computer hacking, or anything else. (This applies to any sexual orientation, by the way — competence and ability is universally sexy).
Most importantly, cultivate your social skills. Do not let physical distance manifest into emotional distance or detachment from friends, family, or even new people. Connect and reconnect, because research demonstrates the imperative role social connections play in our physical and mental health, leading to longer and more fulfilling lives. "You can still have relationships even if you are six feet apart," McCarthy reassured.
Meanwhile, do not dwell on things you cannot control (i.e. do not obsess over the news) — all three doctors were adamant about this. Turn the news off, focus on the here and now, and reevaluate what matters most. Said Dr. Martone: "As a community we are finding the light, the silver linings. We are realizing how little we need, and how much we have."