Reframing the narrative: How to protect your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic
As the coronavirus continues to spread across the country, most people have spent a lot of time worrying about their physical health, leaving less time to consider how the pandemic may be impacting their mental health.
According to Mental Health America, "the mental health effects of COVID-19 are as important to address as are the physical health effects."
The anxiety surrounding such an unprecedented pandemic can feel crippling and the lack of socialization that comes with self-quarantining gives us plenty of time to dwell on that anxiety, said Brian McCallum, a licensed clinical professional counselor for Samaritan Counseling Center of the Northwest Suburbs.
"Not only do we need to consider the COVID-19 pandemic, we also have to consider that there is, in effect, an emotional pandemic of anxiety, worry and fear," McCallum said.
"Anxiety, worry and fear thrive in environments of ambiguity and uncertainty," he added. "In short, emotions are contagious as well."
Luckily, just as hand-washing can help protect physical health, there are a few simple exercises that can be done at home to protect your mental health too, McCallum said.
One of the easiest ways to begin calming an anxious mind is to practice breath regulation, which helps bring balance to the body's nervous system during times of heightened stress, he said.
A good way to practice this skill is through a breathing exercise called "box breathing" or "square breathing," which McCallum said is often used by U.S. Navy SEALs in the line of duty.
Square breathing gets its name from its emphasis on breathing deeply by counting to four for a total of four steps, he explained.
"Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose to the count of four, hold for a count of four and then exhale slowly through the mouth to the count of four and then hold to a count of four again and repeat the cycle," he said.
For those who may find themselves consumed by worries of the future, mindfulness exercises can help focus the mind to pay attention only to the present moment, McCallum said.
"That keeps our mind out of the future," he said. "Often the future can be a source of worry, anxiety or dread."
The most popular mindfulness exercise is known as the three senses of mindfulness. For this exercise, try to relax and breathe deeply as you name three things that you can see, hear and feel in the present moment, McCallum said.
"For instance, I can feel my left heel on the floor and I can feel my elbow touching the armrest and I can feel my glasses on the bridge of my nose," he said.
McCallum said he encourages folks to try this exercise as a family as it provides a release from thoughts of the future and an opportunity to connect together in the present moment.
"The other concrete tip is simply just to remember to move whether that is walking outside or walking on a treadmill or stretching or following along with a video instruction on Pilates or yoga," he said.
Finally, McCallum said he recommends people try to limit media consumption to checking in to a few trusted sources around three times a day at most.
While it is important to stay informed, "constantly monitoring the news, constantly scrolling or refreshing your browser can feed into the anxiety and worry cycle," he said.
The McHenry County Mental Health Board is working to ensure local mental health providers have access to funding to continue to support the community while also looking out for their own health, said Scott Block, the board's executive director.
"The message that we want to get out there is that we have resources that are established and in place for the public in these times," Block said.