Psychiatrist recommends ways to cope with stress during Coronavirus crisis

Ask the Expert

GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – Whether you are struggling financially, going stir crazy in your house, or are fearful for your health, psychiatrists say it is common for the coronavirus crisis to cause high levels of anxiety.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who may respond more strongly to the stress of the Coronavirus crisis include: people who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, children and teens, first responders and people who have mental health conditions or problems with substance use.

The CDC reports that these reactions to the Coronavirus pandemic are common:

  • Concern about protecting oneself from the virus because they are at higher risk of serious illness.
  • Concern that regular medical care or community services may be disrupted due to facility closures or reductions in services and public transport closure.
  • Feeling socially isolated, especially if they live alone or are in a community setting that is not allowing visitors because of the outbreak.
  • Guilt if loved ones help them with activities of daily living.
  • Increased levels of distress if they:
    • Have mental health concerns before the outbreak, such as depression.
    • Live in lower-income households or have language barriers
    • Experience stigma because of age, race or ethnicity, disability, or perceived likelihood of spreading COVID-19.

Due to the stresses brought on by COVID-19, psychiatrist Dr. Carson Felkel with Bon Secours St. Francis Health says he is seeing a rise in mental health problems in his patients.

“We are finding that people are more stressed anxious and fearful than ever as they’re going through this COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “Whenever there’s some situation that’s as extreme as this one, people react in different ways but most people do have some type of distress reaction, which means its very common to feel like you have no control over the situation. You may feel more anxious, down, overwhelmed, angry than every before,” he said.

He says it is common for a stressful situation to negatively impact your behavioral as well.

“When we have a lot thats out of our control, we tend to change our health behavior, so people are smoking more and drinking more alcohol than ever before,” he explained.

It’s also something that’s affecting children, so he advises parents to be good role models and reassure them that they are safe.

“I think it’ll be important for parents to realize that children are watching these news streams as well and they’re probably really scared,” Dr. Felkel said. “The unique things about kids is when they get scared, they tend to act out their fear, so if they have behavioral issues at home, try to have some patience and understanding because they’re scared and their whole lives have been turned upside down as well.”

To positively cope with his own stress caused by this crisis, Dr. Felkel said he is making a habit of exercising daily outside. “Physical activity is so important,” he said. “My wife and I have scheduled time each morning to exercise in our driveway.”

He also said he is finding challenges in balancing work and parenting/schooling his children. “We are really trying to make turning our phones and TV off a priority during dinner time and playing a board game as opposed to a video game together,” he said.

His other recommendations for positively coping with stress involve taking deliberate breaks during the day to breathe and connecting emotionally with people via phone, video chat, texting, social media, hand written letters or email.

“During a crisis like this, we’re on overdrive. That fight or flight or freeze response is absolutely running full throttle, and that means our bodies are being bathed in a chemical we call cortisol that’s a stress hormone. It’s so important to schedule pauses during your day when you can take a break,” he said. “We breathe 20,000 times a day and we don’t think about it, thankfully. Maybe when you’re washing your hands the next time, for that 20 seconds, be aware of your breathing and count up to 5 when you inhale and as you exhale, count down from 5. If we can train our body to take these pauses and be mindful of our breath, we build what we call our parasympathetic tone and that actually helps heal our hearts and our brains.”

Dr. Felkel warns people not to watch too much television or become too engulfed in social media during periods of isolation. “There’s a risk in being on social media or the TV too much,” he said. “We know that during traumatic times, that can actually lead to post traumatic stress disorder, so I would say get your information that you need to from a good source and then turn off the TV or social media for a few hours to take a break.”

If you or a loved one are battling depression or having suicidal thoughts, call the Suicide Prevention line, which is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. (Recently, the FCC recommended that 988 be designated as a national crisis hotline, so 988 is NOT CURRENTLY ACTIVE and will not connect callers to the Lifeline.)

Bon Secours St. Francis also has virtual counseling sessions available with psychiatrists available. To discuss options for care, please call your provider to schedule a virtual appointment. Click here for more information about the 24/7 app to set up a virtual visit if you do not have a primary care physician.

For more recommendations about strengthening mental health during the Coronavirus crisis, especially if you have a pre-existing mental health illnesses, click here.

If you have a health topic you’d like to submit for our series, click here.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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