COVID-19 is extremely stressful for many, especially those who already have a mental health issue, but even those without a predisposing illness feel stressed and anxious during this time – it is completely normal to feel that way considering the situation. Fear, panic and anxiety about the Coronavirus can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children.
“It’s natural to feel worried and overwhelmed about our safety and wellbeing. So, if you’re feeling concerned about the Coronavirus, you’re not alone. Yet, for some of us, this concern can quickly grow into anxiety, even panic. Hearing about shortages of hand sanitizer, people stocking their homes with food, and the number of deaths worldwide only fuels this fire,” says clinical psychologist, Dessy Tzoneva.
“In this time of global health crisis, South Africans from all walks of life are confronted with new realities in a challenging and uncertain environment, requiring of all of us to work on building and strengthening personal resilience. Being resilient means to be psychologically flexible, to take hold of our minds in order to calm our emotions and face the new realities that confront us with clear sight and thought.”
So advises Sandy Lewis, a clinical social worker and head of therapeutic services at Akeso mental health facilities, who was commenting on the mental effects that the COVID-19 outbreak in South Africa could have on individuals, families and communities. Lewis provides the following insights and advice on how people can cope with the potential future challenges that the pandemic may hold for us as individuals, families and the country at large.
“Anxiety and worry are understandable emotions when looking into a future we simply cannot know. Our anxiety serves little constructive purpose and tends to erode our personal resilience in the face of challenges. However, what we should be trying to do is to accept our rapidly changing reality for what it is and turn our minds to confronting the immediate challenges we face. In this way, we can solve problems in a more constructive manner that can meaningfully improve the situation for ourselves and others,” adds Lewis.
BUILDING PERSONAL RESILIENCE
Lewis says that one can start by not getting stuck in negative thinking and not dwelling on the past with thoughts like ‘I always expected something bad to happen to me’, or ‘Why me?’ Furthermore, worrying about the future and asking yourself questions such as ‘Am I perhaps going to fall ill and die?’, or ‘Will the economy crash and leave us destitute?’, tend to just lead to more anxiety.
“We should direct our energy towards focusing on what we need to manage today and solving those issues. In other words, we should focus fully on the present, without any other noise and clutter from either the past or the future to stress our body and mind, and work towards dealing with the practical daily tasks at hand.” Lewis says patients can practise social distancing and take all practical steps to safeguard their health.
“If you are at home with your children, plan their day to provide them with the necessary structure and routine to keep them feeling safe. Focusing on and addressing the practical aspects of today is much more useful than worrying about a future that none of us are able to predict,” she added.
AVOID YOUR ANXIETY OR DEPRESSION TRIGGERS
By establishing what triggers anxiety or other distractive responses such as selfblame, patients can try to either steer clear of those particular triggers or find ways around them that will stop them from feeling anxious or negative. “Staying present with the reality that you are faced with today, focusing on your current tasks and distracting yourself if you find you are having trouble coping, can all assist in developing greater resilience.”
“In the interim, strength, grace and tenacity are needed, so that we can all get through this together. We need each other, both to prevent the spread of this disease, and to offer each other the support to cope with it until it is over. “Now is the time to be generous, thoughtful, kind and compassionate, with an attitude that embraces the well-being of all. And if the world is a different place after COVID-19, then we will face that new reality with renewed strength, coping with its challenge’s day by day, in the same way that we dealt with this pandemic,” concludes Lewis.
STATEMENT FROM SADAG
“SADAG are aware that during this time many people might feel even more anxious or stressed. While we don’t want to add any further to the panic or hysteria, we want to offer help and support to so many South Africans who feel scared, confused, anxious and overwhelmed. SADAG Helplines are a critical service to many, and since the development of the Coronavirus SADAG has received many calls from people who are already feeling stressed and anxious.”
LIVING WITH A MENTAL ILLNESS AND COPING DURING COVID-19
For many people living with a mental health issue, the current situation may be worsening or intensifying symptoms so it is important to take extra care during this time with more support and self-care steps to ensure your mental wellness:
- Be sensitive to patients with a compromised immune system or a medical condition that they’re worried about
- Some therapists offer online sessions
- Advise patients to avoid searching online, media sourcing or having conversations throughout the day around the virus as this will cause increased anxiety that may lead to panic. Again – filter what you are reading, watching and exposing yourself too, especially since it can be very negative and scary. Try to set specific times to check for updates – but rather spend more time that could be adding value to your wellness such as doing things that you enjoy, doing more relaxation and stress relieving activities
- Don’t use smoking, alcohol or other drugs to deal with emotions. If patients (or you) feel overwhelmed, talk to your mental health professional, counsellor, family or friend. Have a plan, where to go to and how to seek help for physical and mental health needs if required
- Use online tools, online forums, helpful websites and online support to help you through this time – try a new app that helps to manage your sleep, or provides mindfulness techniques, listen to a meditation podcast.
- SMS 31393 or 32312 and a counsellor will call you back – available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.
- SADAG Helplines providing free telephonic counselling, information, referrals and resources 7 days a week, 24 hours a day – call 0800 21 22 23, 0800 70 80 90 or 0800 456 789 or the Suicide Helpline: 0800 567 567.
- Akeso Psychiatric Response Unit 24 Hour: 0861 435 787.