- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2020

Mental health experts are tamping down panic amid the coronavirus pandemic, advising anxious people how to deal with social distancing and other prevention tactics — and to just breathe.

“We’ve seen a huge uptick in anxiety, and we’re getting more concerned about people, if they are more isolated, and worried about if this is going to lead to greater depression,” said Mary Alvord, a principal of the Alvord, Baker & Associates psychotherapy practice in Rockville, Maryland.

Earlier mixed messages about the danger of coronavirus did not help, causing confusion and uncertainty about the evolving situation and contributing to people’s anxiety, Ms. Alvord added.

Lynn Bufka, senior director for practice, research and policy at the American Psychological Association, said people should be thinking about the routines they usually engage in and the kinds of interactions with others they experience in those routines.

“So how do you still maintain and engage in the kinds of things that tend to bring you stability and sort of organize your life when you can’t go to the gym or you aren’t meeting your friends for happy hour or you are not physically going to a place of work because you might be teleworking or things have dramatically changed with your work?” Ms. Bufka said.

The psychologists voiced extra concern about particular groups of people, including those more prone to anxiety and depression, parents trying to balance working at home and taking care of children, the elderly and people with disabilities, people who don’t speak English and can’t navigate systems like unemployment insurance, and hourly workers who lack benefits or who are vulnerable economically.

As the coronavirus continues to disrupt lives and cause stress and anxiety, psychologists offered some tips for how to cope:

Enjoy the outdoors. Take a walk around the block or go for a bike ride.

Stay physically active. Movement can affect our mood and staying sedentary is not helpful, Ms. Alvord said. Add steps into the daily routine and take advantage of the spring weather. Do yoga or other exercises in a nearby park.

Make sure to get some quality sleep. WebMD says to keep your room dark and quiet, avoid large meals two hours and caffeine 4-6 hours before bedtime, go to bed at the same time each night and wind down and stop working on any task, especially ones that include computers and devices, an hour before bedtime.

Maintain healthy eating habits and make sure to get in enough protein, fiber and other essential nutrients.

Stay socially connected through online platforms, video chats and phone calls. Physical isolation doesn’t mean people can’t stay connected. Set up virtual happy hours with friends or take advantage of virtual museum tours, concerts and other entertainment. Also, be mindful of who you keep in touch with. For example, don’t talk with a friend who tends to elevate anxiety about coronavirus.

If teleworking, designate an area in the house that is reserved for work.

Limit news about the coronavirus. Ms. Bufka suggested designating times or allotting a certain amount of time to catch up on the news and to filter through information that is relevant and helpful. The constant stream of news can be an overload, she said, noting people want to get just enough information to take the right precautions. Get information from a credible source.

Release tension with breathing exercises. Clinical psychologist Seth Gillihan wrote in a WebMD article that stress and anxiety about current events lead to the build up of physical tension in the body such as stomach tightness and an aching back. He suggested pausing several times a day to notice unnecessary tension and take three calming breaths, exhaling for a count of five and then inhaling.

Mr. Gillihan also said people should beware of fortune-telling and question catastrophizing, which can trigger terrifying thoughts. Think realistically about how bad a problem is likely to be and its impact.

While there are things during a disease outbreak that are uncontrollable, Ms. Alvord urged people to focus on what they can control and to remember that the coronavirus episode is another difficult time the public will push through.

“We are resilient. We’ve gone through some really rough times and we are all going to pull together. We can do things to help ourselves. Because we’re all affected, there will be systems that will help us,” Ms. Alvord said. “The message is we are not alone.”

• Shen Wu Tan can be reached at stan@washingtontimes.com.

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