Keeping calm in D.C.’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.
“The collective world is developing an anxiety disorder over this [pandemic], and we have to be careful that we don’t normalize what regularly would be clinical anxiety,” said Dr. Joanna Kaplan, director of the Washington Anxiety Center of Capitol Hill.
About a quarter of Kaplan’s patients are over age 50, and she has treated people as old as 92 for various anxiety disorders, such as fear of falling and agoraphobia.
“Just because we’re socially distancing doesn’t mean we’re socially isolating,” Kaplan added.
In our new age of anxiety, what do local 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 some of the “shelter in place” orders in areas like California, New York, and Illinois and Maryland.
“[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,” said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization in a press conference in March.
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 simply pick up the phone and talk with a friend. If you want to receive a phone call from a neighbor, reach out to your local “village” or an area volunteer group whose goal is to help older adults who are living at home. Many such organizations are ramping up their phone call check-in programs.
Go on a news diet
Dennis May, 73, a retiree in Takoma Park, Maryland, said he’s had to scale back his normally voracious intake of the news this spring.
“I skim the Washington Post for 10 or 15 minutes, and then I go do something else,” he said. He’s focusing instead on a new gardening project.
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, who has a private practice in Northwest D.C.
“Notice when you want to turn on the TV,” said Sullivan, a licensed social worker who has worked at the Washington Cancer Institute and at Sibley Memorial Hospital.
“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.
“We’re encouraging fitness programs you can do at home through your online library system,” said Jennie 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.
Iona Senior Services has a help line that older adults can call anytime. Call (202) 895-8448 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, and a staff member will return the call within 24 hours.
Many psychologists, including Sullivan, Kaplan and Kecmanovic, now offer telemedicine, or video appointments. Established patients can talk with their clinicians via Skype, Zoom or FaceTime.
So far, Kecmanovic said, “The ones who are willing to try [teletherapy] tend to like it.”
Medicare recently announced that it will be temporarily expanding coverage for telehealth services due to the pandemic.
Medicare Advantage plans will also be expanding their telehealth with doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists and licensed clinical social workers for the duration of the virus outbreak. For more information on the new coverage, see Medicare.gov/medicare-coronavirus.
Train the brain
Kaplan wants people suffering from anxiety to know that there’s hope. Her practice focuses on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can help alleviate depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.
“Dive into that anxiety and really face those fears, and the brain learns it doesn’t have to have a fight or flight response,” she said.
Kaplan has seen many people, even those with Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment, benefit from CBT, she said. It works because our brains throughout life continue to form new nerve cells in a process called neurogenesis.
“The cool thing about this therapy is that we’re finding, especially in older adults, that neurogenesis occurs all the way through old age.”
Ed. Note: If you’re looking for more resources, click here for a mental health professional’s guide to navigating COVID-19.