Keeping calm in HoCo’s turbulent times
A racing heart, sweaty palms, an incessant urge to check the latest news. It’s normal to feel anxious during the current coronavirus pandemic. Our lives have been disrupted; businesses are shuttered; the stock market has tanked; and no one knows when life will return to normal.
But there are silver linings to the cloud, according to Indrani Mookerjee, licensed social worker at IME Behavioral Health in Columbia. “This situation has brought us closer because we’re all in this together,” she said.
In our new age of anxiety, what do area psychology experts recommend for managing fear and worry and staying connected?
Acknowledge your emotions
First, accept your anxious feelings, suggested Jelena Kecmanovic, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and head of the Arlington/D.C. Behavior Therapy Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
“These negative emotions are going to show up more these days. These are objectively stressful times,” Kecmanovic said.
If you try to push your feelings away with distractions such as Netflix, ice cream or alcohol, it can make matters worse. Carl Jung pointed out this paradox in his famous quote, “What you resist, persists.”
It helps to acknowledge our fear, anger or confusion. Learn to feel those emotions and their effect on our bodies, and eventually they will pass.
“If we don’t fight with [negative] emotions or engage with them, they won’t stay long,” Kecmanovic said. “It’s about allowing them to pass.”
She suggests sitting quietly and sensing your breath and heartbeat. Take note if your jaw is clenched or you have a lump in your throat.
Consider the feelings with a gentle curiosity, and notice if they change or ebb. Most likely, she assures her patients, they will fade in a short time.
Stay in touch with others
Next, don’t eschew all social contact, even with the “stay at home” order in Maryland. Pick up the phone and call a friend.
“Physical distancing doesn’t mean social distance. There are things you can do to continue the connection,” Mookerjee said.
Now is the time to become familiar with video chat programs you can use on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Most of them — including Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger and WeChat — are free. Many churches are live-streaming services now, too.
If you want to learn how to connect with neighbors over the computer, reach out to the Village in Howard, a membership group that helps homeowners throughout the county remain safely in their homes. The Village in Howard has started video activities such as a “virtual lunch bunch” to connect members during this pandemic. Leave a message for a volunteer at (443) 367-9043.
Go on a news diet
While information is important, watching the news all day may do more harm than good. If keeping up with the news brings you too much worry, it may be a good idea for you to limit your news-gathering time.
At the very least, try to notice what it feels like to crave the latest news, suggested Maryland-based therapist Mark Sullivan, licensed social worker who has worked at the Washington Cancer Institute and at Sibley Memorial Hospital.
“Notice when you want to turn on the TV,” Sullivan said. “That’s a totally natural, totally normal impulse. But pause right there and ask, ‘What need am I seeking to fill? Do I want information, or do I want connection?’
“If you leap at every impulse and you don’t know what need you’re trying to fill, chances are you’ll do it over and over again without ever feeling a sense of safety or closure or satisfaction,” Sullivan said. “It’s like a behavioral addiction.”
Mookerjee said some of her patients are “addicted to the TV” because they don’t want to feel alone. She suggests they try watching comedy programs or nature documentaries instead of the news.
“There are alternatives,” she said. “They can still have that sound in the background, and it’s not triggering; it’s actually soothing.”
Try for mindfulness
When you feel anxious thinking about the future, try to focus on the present moment, known as practicing “mindfulness.” Pause for self-reflection. Notice what’s around you. After all, at this instant, you are safe.
“The only thing we are certain of is what’s happening right now,” Kecmanovic said. “What we can control is our behavior. Really mindfully be in the moment, and try to do the best you can while making a painting or writing or playing guitar or discovering some of those old recipes.
“What joy, this mindful act of cooking,” she said. “You have to participate with all your senses. When you participate in any activity with all your senses, that is very grounding.”
Above all, most psychologists suggest the therapeutic physical and mental benefits of exercise. If your anxiety is rising, take a bike ride or walk on an uncrowded street. Follow along with a free exercise video on YouTube.
“We’re encouraging fitness programs you can do at home through your online library system,” said Jenny Smith-Peers, spokeswoman at Iona Senior Services, based in Washington, D.C. “That hopefully will keep your mood up.”
If you don’t have an internet connection, pull out your favorite albums (or old Jane Fonda workout tapes) and dance in your living room.
Even gentle stretching can release endorphins and boost your mood. Tai chi is a perfect exercise for this purpose.
How to get help
If you are experiencing extreme anxiety or depression, reach out to a mental health professional.
Many psychologists, including Mookerjee, Sullivan and Kecmanovic, now offer telemedicine, or video appointments. Established patients can talk with their clinicians via Skype, Zoom or FaceTime — or by telephone.
Medicare recently announced that it will be temporarily expanding coverage for telehealth services due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, and for the duration of the virus outbreak, doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists and licensed clinical social workers may bill Medicare for health screenings, evaluations, mental health counseling and more taking place via telemedicine rather than in person.
Medicare Advantage plans will also be expanding their telehealth services. For more information on the new coverage, see Medicare.gov/medicare-coronavirus.
Mookerjee wants people suffering from anxiety to know that “There’s hope. There’s a difference between saying ‘Oh, everything is going to be fine,’ which nobody believes, and having some rational reasons for hope.”
IME Behavioral Health offers same-day phone or video appointments, she said. In just 45 minutes, people can learn the tools to help themselves. About 60% of the practice’s patients are over age 55, and about a third are over age 75, she said.
“We teach the patients to defeat their own negative thoughts that are jacking up their anxiety. We teach our patients to be their own therapists.”
For mental health information and referrals, call the Howard County Bureau of Behavioral Health at (410) 313-6202. IME Behavioral Health can be reached at (410) 512-0141.