In your words

COVID-19: Maintaining your mental health during a pandemic

Here are some ways health care professionals can safeguard their wellbeing during this turbulent time.

Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece; the views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Every Saturday is my “self-care Saturday.” As a psychiatrist, I know self-care is critical to good mental health. However, this past weekend, as I started my long run on an empty university trail where college students typically abound, I felt less motivated than I usually do.

I did not feel like I had the energy for a run. It was in that moment that I realized that the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), while not affecting me physically, was in fact affecting me mentally.

Our TVs, radios and social media are being flooded with guidelines and precautions about COVID-19, as they should be. Despite all the coverage, so far there has been limited talk about mental health care during this chaotic time. And that is not OK. The entire world is suffering from an Adjustment Disorder of some sort. We are faced with adapting to what is being called the “new normal,” and that is causing anxiety and depression. So, what can be done about it?

Communicate

First, communication is key. We all need to talk about our feelings, worries and concerns. We are all anxious and THAT IS OK!

Communication is also extremely important for physicians and medical students. As the leader of the health care team, however, we do not always feel like we can express our anxieties and fears, because we are the “leader.” But we must talk about them to remain strong mentally.

I have been very fortunate to have a “safe space” where I can talk to my colleagues. I’m a member of a Facebook page strictly for my state’s doctors called Physicians for Mississippians. In this forum, we discuss our fears and concerns without judgment. We are all there to support one another. It is also a great place to share resources and information about COVID-19 with physicians all over the state. It is invaluable to know that we are not alone in this battle.

Family ties

And when we return home to our families, communication needs to continue. Because we are not just physicians—many of us are also wives, husbands, mothers and fathers. Talk to your family. Discuss your fears with your partner and let them talk about theirs. We must also talk to our kids.

Regarding kids, let’s not assume that kids are just excited to be out of school and are merely seeing this as an “extended snow day.” They sense the fear their parents are feeling and are likely anxious as well.

Do not hide from them what is going on. Communicate to them in a loving, gentle way that there is an illness going around that is making people very sick, but that there are very smart people doing everything to keep us all safe. Express to them what you as a family can do to keep yourself healthy and keep others healthy as well. Explain to them why social distancing is necessary but also how the family is going to make the best of it.

Prioritize self-care

Secondly, self-care is what will get us all through this “new normal.” Social isolation is deep, dark and depressing. But there are ways to care for yourself even in times when social distancing is critical to flattening the curve in this pandemic. Social isolation does not mean that you cannot communicate with others. We live in a time with amazing technology that allows us to stay connected when we’re not physically near one another. Take the time to call friends and family that you normally see. FaceTiming friends and family is a great way to see them and talk with them. 

Health care workers on the front lines fighting this battle are at a much higher risk of exposure and subsequent quarantine. All the aforementioned ways to connect with others are even more invaluable should you or a loved one become quarantined.

Exercise

In addition to maintaining social connections, exercise is critical not only for mental health but also physical health. Reconnect with nature. Go for walks, hikes and run outside while maintaining social distancing.

And while you’re out in nature, BREATHE. Take a moment to enjoy the calm and the fresh air. Endorphins are real and they are great, but they are not limited to just physical exercise. Go outside and work in the yard, fly kites. Listen to music and dance. There are no better dance parties than the ones I have in the kitchen with my kids. This often leads to an overload of laughter, and we all know that “laughter is the best medicine.”

When possible, embrace distractions

With the constant barrage of COVID-19 news, it is hard to think about anything else. It can be all-consuming. Distraction is a great way to reduce anxiety. There are several ways to distract from the negative thoughts while social distancing. Read a book, paint, color, cook/bake, take a nap, practice mediation or yoga to keep anxiety-provoking thoughts at bay.

Lastly, be present in the moment and stay present. Try to not worry about what “could” happen. Focus on what you have direct control over. Focusing on things out of our control only increases anxiety and keeps us from enjoying the moment. This pandemic will not last forever. Social distancing, while difficult, will also not last forever. But it is a necessary practice that we all must take to #FlattenTheCurve and protect ourselves and others.

Don’t avoid seeking professional help

But if, despite implementing good self-care, you are unable to cope and are suffering, do not hesitate to reach out for professional help.

You can contact the National Alliance of Mental Illness Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI for resources available in your area. As a health care professional and leader of the health care team, your expertise is desperately needed right now and always, and the best way to ensure you can continue serving others is to take care of your own health, including your mental wellbeing.

Related reading:

Mind-body connection: The osteopathic approach to mental health

5 ways to maintain mental wellness and avoid burnout

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