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It's Okay if You're not Okay about COVID-19: Understanding how the public health crisis affects our mental health

Exposure to COVID-19 can have an adverse effect on our health. Protecting the community from this risk is one of the reasons why government officials have said to #StayHomeKC. What many in our community didn’t anticipate or prepare for is that exposure to COVID-19 can also have an adverse effect on our mental health. Decorative mother and toddler sitting together

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the virus causes mental health conditions. However, the constant parade of new information about COVID-19 on TV, social media, inboxes and text conversations can become overwhelming. Having to stay home over a long period of time and completely disrupting our normal habits and rhythms can also be disorienting.

These disruptions can create intense stress. The community can find solidarity in the fact that we are all experiencing this together. It’s called collective trauma. It comes as we consider potential losses or the threat of losses in our everyday life: childcare, job, income, routine, health, connection, etc.

Trauma affects everyone differently. Physically, people may experience fatigue or insomnia, inactivity or overactivity, or increased appetite or decreased appetite. Individuals could startle more often, have digestive programs or even a headache.

Cognitive (mental) functions might be affected, too. Short-term and long-term memory could be disrupted. Have you found yourself walking into a room to get something, then forgetting what you came to get? Individuals may experience difficulty with concentration, solving problems or making decisions. Flashbacks or the inability to attach importance to anything outside of this crisis may also be symptoms.

Emotional reactions are also possible. Individuals may experience any or all of these feelings: fear, guilt, emotional numbing, anxiety, depression, over-sensitivity or anger. Manifestations of anger might look like irritability, scapegoating for the crisis or frustration over processes or bureaucracy. A person might recognize many of these emotions on their friends’ and families’ social media accounts. A person may be experiencing any of these symptoms or none and they may be experienced mildly or severely. While these reactions may be painful or frustrating, they’re also a normal part of how we process events like this. It’s okay if you’re not okay.

There are some basic activities and behaviors individuals can try to help cope with these uncomfortable feelings:

  • Structure your days and weeks.
  • Talk to people. This can be by phone, video chats or apps, such as Marco Polo, Zoom or Facetime.
  • Check-in on friends, family and coworkers.
  • Help others with projects online or over the phone. Offer skills that you can do for others remotely.
  • Give yourself permission to feel down. It really is okay if you’re not okay.
  • Talk about your feelings with others.
  • Keep a written or video journal.
  • Do things that feel good to you.
  • Exercise.
  • Recognize that others are having many of the same feelings that you are.
  • Make sure you’re meeting your essential nutritional needs.
  • Drink plenty of water and avoid using substances such as alcohol or drugs for coping.
  • Make as many daily decisions as you can to give you a feeling of control over the situation.
  • Call Johnson County Mental Health Center’s 24/7 crisis line at 913-268-0156.

In Episode 5 of It’s Okay if You’re not Okay Renee Van Meter introduces the idea of a sphere of control. This is the recognition that a person can only control their own actions, thoughts and feelings and can’t control the actions, thoughts or feelings of others. diagram of spheres of control with examples in the circle and other examples out of the circle.

A mindfulness exercise that can be helpful in this time is to take time to consider what about this crisis you have control over. Some examples might be what time you get up in the morning, whether your shower or not, what you eat and what time you eat, how much you’re on social media. Consider what choices you can make to make the most out of these choices you do have control over. Next, consider what aspects of this crisis you don’t have control over: how long this will last, what food items are available at the store, which businesses are open, etc. Allow yourself to let go of these items.

If you need help knowing how to talk about anxiety and coping, there are additional resources available on jocogov.org/mentalhealth. If you would like more conversations on mental wellness in everyday life, subscribe to It’s Okay if You’re not Okay on your favorite podcasting app. Remember, you are not alone and help is available.

The spheres of control graphic was created by The Counseling Teacher and used by permission.