The New Normal: Tips From a Psychiatrist on how to Optimize Mental Health and Wellness During the Current Pandemic

by Dr. Jake Hollingsworth

An Original Article by Dr. Jake Hollingsworth, a board-certified psychiatrist.

We’re all in this together.

COVID-19 is a very unique situation for one very specific reason; we are all dealing with it together; doctors and patients alike.  These are a new set of stressors that are affecting all people, all races, all nationalities, all socioeconomic classes, etc. Typically when a patient is seen in a psychiatric clinic, the patients are discussing stressors that are specific to themselves and sometimes there are similarities in the patients’ issues with the psychiatrist or therapist, but usually it’s the job of the mental health professional to keep their problems to themselves.  With COVID-19, we all know this is an issue that we are facing together. There is zero percent chance that anyone is immune to stress caused by the impact of COVID-19.

Personally, I’ve decided to be fairly open with my patients that COVID stressors are pervasive and persistent and they are affecting everyone.  With that being said, I am still a professional and the appointments are for my patients, not me. I think that my being more open than I normally would be, it gives a sense of normalcy to my patients that they aren’t broken or disordered because they are feeling the weight of the circumstances.

So what can we do?

Unless you’re an epidemiologist, or infectious disease doctor, finding a cure or vaccine for COVID-19 is not our job.  What we can do to help slow the spread of disease is adhere to what the local authorities are advising us to do such as: wear masks, practice social distancing, wash hands frequently, and avoid touching our faces.

What can we do to maintain our sanity and mental health during this crisis?  Well, here are a few things that I’ve come up with over the past few weeks working with people that have been struggling with this issue.

Research alternative coping strategies for stress.

  • Limit your time watching news.
  • Stay connected with family and friends and neighbors.
  • Find ways to serve and help others.
  • Look for the silver lining in this current situation.
  • Seek out professional help when necessary.

When a global event like a pandemic happens, it alters our lifestyles very quickly, literally overnight.  Given human beings are creatures of habit, it is very disturbing to have our world turned upside down like that.  We all have our ways of destressing or dealing with frustration or anxiety provoking situations, but now that the world has changed, we are faced with new stressors and our previous methods of coping may not be available.  For some of us we like to be alone to destress, but now that the whole family is home, it’s hard to find this alone time. Some people like to go to the gym, the theater, or the bowling alley; none of which are options. The good news is that just because our old ways are no longer accessible, it doesn’t mean that we can’t find new ways.  For example, my son has had a ukulele hanging on his wall for the last 2 years and has never really put much effort into it. Over the past 2 weeks he has been strumming along with an online instructor via YouTube. Now’s he actually pretty good and playing to relax all on his own. It may not be easy to find new ways, but I assure you, they are there.

Limit your time watching news.

The news can be very helpful, but it can be very stressful to watch.  It’s easy to get lost in the pursuit of information via the news networks and internet, but their main purpose is to obtain ratings, and ratings are driven by sensational headlines.  I like watching some amount of news in the morning and in the evenings to catch the major headlines. Any more than that, and I start feeling stressed out that nothing is improving, usually because throughout the course of a day, it’s the same stories played over and over.  It makes it seem as if nothing is changing. I’m not certain what the right amount is for every single person, but for me it’s about 20 minutes in the morning and another 20 minutes after dinner.

Stay connected with family and friends and neighbors.

The theme continues.  We had ways of staying socially connected with family, friends, neighbors, etc., but now some of those methods are no longer there, specifically the physical/in-person connections.  This is hard for a lot of people, especially the people that are on “lock down” that live alone. These people are finding the COVID lifestyle changes particularly challenging. Many of my current patients are in this situation, and they tell me each time they come in for a treatment that they are so grateful that our clinic has remained open for in-person treatments, as this is one of the few times they get any type of intimate human connection.  I suggest exploring some of the webchat platforms like FaceTime and Skype more than you typically do. These platforms are actually pretty good and seem to do a good job at keeping people connected.

Find ways to serve and help others.

The Dalai Lama says, “The root of happiness is altruism – the wish to be of service to others.”  If you are in a position to help others in your community take advantage of this opportunity. It doesn’t have to be heroic either.  Random acts of kindness can be very meaningful. Some people are sewing face masks to donate to local organizations, or volunteering at a food bank. My suggestion is to be creative and be on the lookout for ways to be helpful.  There are opportunities to help all around, and if you aren’t in a position to help others for whatever reason don’t worry about it, just staying home is helpful in limiting the spread of disease and keeping others well.

Pacific Psychiatric Centers - Blog - The New Normal - ImageLook for the silver lining in this current situation.

I almost hate to say it, but the COVID-19 situation isn’t all bad.  It’s bringing families and communities together on a scale that can hardly be recreated.  My family has spent more evenings together in the last few weeks than we have in a long time.  I’m actually enjoying that aspect of it. We’ve been cooking together, cleaning together, and exercising together.  We’ve also been arguing a lot from time to time, which I feel comes with the territory. Also there will be great innovation born out of this isolation.  Creativity is booming within individuals and organizations looking to solve new problems. See if there are ways that you can bloom during this adversity.

Seek out professional help when necessary.

Lastly, these are definitely trying times.  There is so much uncertainty and many stories of tragedy.  For some, this can be overwhelming. Don’t think that reaching out to professionals is a shameful thing to do.  It’s not admitting defeat. Looking to professionals for assistance is a healthy behavior, especially if the alternative is to give in to unhealthy ways to cope.  The mental health professionals have dedicated their lives for this exact situation, to assist people in need of support and treatment. One good thing about the current circumstances is that the medical and mental health community has embraced telemedicine technology like never before.  Our clinic in San Diego has converted 100% of psychotherapy and psychiatry appointments to telemedicine and we accept almost all commercial insurance plans. My providers, including myself, love it, as do our patients. It’s a way to continue much needed care, allow accessibility, and reduce the risk of infection to 0% compared to an in-person session.  Additionally, we are accessible to patients throughout California, whereas prior to COVID, we were only seeing patients that were local to San Diego.

We’re all in this together… and we will get through this.

Don’t forget, we’re going to get through this, and the more we can rely on one another, the quicker and easier it will be.