Keeping calm in Richmond’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.
“For people who have always had some underlying anxiety or depression, this [situation] is going to accentuate it,” said Tonia Bagby, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice who also works at Commonwealth Counseling Associates in Richmond.
In our new age of anxiety, what do psychology experts recommend for managing fear and worry and staying connected?
Focus on what you can control
Uncertainty can lead to anxiety. To tame the “what ifs,” Bagby suggests we focus on what we can control; not what we can’t.
“There are a lot of unknowns, but you as an individual have control over your own experience,” Bagby said. Try to think positively. Call a friend or exercise.
“Since you can’t go to the gym,” she said, “find other things you can do, such as going for a walk outside or playing board games or doing other things to keep your mind alert.”
Acknowledge your emotions
It’s important to accept your anxious feelings, said Jelena Kecmanovic, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and head of a private practice in Arlington, Virginia.
“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 taking a few moments to sit quietly and sense 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 “shelter in place” orders in some areas. Call a friend.
“[This pandemic] doesn’t mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family. Technology right now has advanced so greatly that we can keep connecting,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization said in a March press conference.
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.
Or contact your local “village,” or an area volunteer group whose goal is to help older adults who are living at home. For instance, the Fan District’s village offers a daily phone call check-in program. Leave a message at (804) 928-1316.
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 go on a “news fast,” or restrict your news-gathering time.
At the very least, try to notice what it feels like to crave the latest news, suggested therapist Mark Sullivan, a licensed social worker who has worked at the Washington Cancer Institute and at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C.
“Notice when you want to turn on the TV,” he 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.”
Try for mindfulness
When you feel anxious thinking about the future, try to stay in 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, remember 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.
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 now offer telemedicine, or video appointments. Established patients can talk with their clinicians via Skype, Zoom or FaceTime.
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.
If you don’t have a computer, all is not lost. “Reach out,” Bagby said. “There are still providers out there who are willing to see you face to face. Come in for a session.”