Tips for Taking Care of Mental Health During the Pandemic

As feds and families across the country continue to navigate work, school, and life in general during a worldwide pandemic, it’s important to pay attention to our mental health alongside physical health. We recently sat down with Tom Albert, Director of Behavioral Health Services/LCSW, Anthem, to talk about some ways to manage stress and other mental health issues.

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Robyn: Thanks so much for talking with us today, Tom. I’m looking forward to getting some new stress management ideas myself! Let’s start with how someone might recognize if they’re feeling more stress than usual – are there physical or behavioral symptoms of stress they might notice?

Tom: We all get stressed and there are a number of ways stress can manifest itself in our bodies, minds, and behavior. Here are some of the more common symptoms of stress:

  • Physical symptoms: Most of us experience tense muscles when we are stressed, especially in the jaw and shoulders. Headaches are common, as are shallow breathing, dry mouth, and difficulty swallowing.
  • Mental/Emotional symptoms: You might feel irritable, keyed up, or on edge. Racing thoughts and difficulty concentrating are also common.
  • Behavioral symptoms: We are likely to have difficulty sleeping and changes in appetite when our stress levels increase. The nervous energy we feel may result in fidgeting, biting our nails, or other nervous habits. Those who use alcohol or tobacco are likely to show an increase in the amount or frequency of use.
Robyn: What are some things we can do at home to relieve stress?

Tom: Simple lifestyle changes can significantly reduce the impact of stress. We can all benefit from the following tips:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol intake
  • Practice good sleep hygiene

For those interested in taking a more active role in reducing stress, there is a wide range of relaxation techniques that can be very effective. I suggest both Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Mindfulness training. Progressive Muscle Relaxation involves deep breathing and the physical release of tension that builds up during a stressful day. Mindfulness combines meditation with peaceful awareness and acceptance of your thoughts, sensations, and feelings. When I worked at an inpatient psychiatric hospital, I led relaxation techniques groups. Surveys indicated that the patients found these to be some of the most useful skills they developed while at the facility.

You can find more detail about relaxation techniques and Mindfulness online, and there are a variety of apps that will lead you through the process.

Federal employees should also check with their health insurance provider to learn more about resources that may be available to them through their plan. For example, my organization has a partnership with Livongo® which offers lots of online great tips and tricks to help relieve stress.

Robyn: For those who have children at home, what might parents be noticing with younger children vs. teens that indicate they’re feeling stressed or anxious, and what can they do to help kids manage and relieve stress?

Tom: Younger children may have tantrums or exhibit acting out behavior when they are stressed. Teens and tweens are more likely to become irritable or moody and isolate themselves. Kids of all ages will have some of the same symptoms that adults have, such as problems with sleep, changes in appetite, and an increase in nervous energy.

We can help our children deal with stress by listening to them, validating their feelings, and providing reassurance. It’s important for them to know that what they are experiencing is normal and that we all deal with stress.

As a result of the pandemic, many sports and extra-curricular activities have been cancelled or postponed, leaving children and adolescents with more idle time than usual. We can help by providing as much structure for our children as possible. It may require some creativity, as not every activity allows for social distancing. Running/walking, biking, fishing, and golf are some good examples of physical activities that do not require close physical proximity to others. There are also plenty of virtual classes and activities available online that will help us to structure the day for our children.

Robyn: Many adults and children deal with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues every day. Is there anything we should be especially aware of during the pandemic that might exacerbate or change someone’s normal symptoms, and what should they do if they notice new or worsening symptoms?

Tom: Mental illness is more common than most people realize. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 1 in 5 adults struggle with a mental illness each year. Those individuals are more likely to experience symptoms during times of stress.  In addition to the virus itself, the pandemic brought worry, fear, and isolation, all of which increase the risk of recurrence of mental illness.

Although mental illness affects many of us and our families, it is important to recognize the difference between typical anxiety or sadness and a diagnosable mental illness. The former comes and goes in a matter of days and may be annoying but doesn’t significantly disrupt our routine. The latter involves symptoms that last weeks or longer and make it difficult to function in our daily lives.

If you think you may be dealing with a mental illness, consider talking to a professional.  Telemedicine is a great option, especially during the pandemic, as it will allow you to connect with a mental health professional safely within a relatively short period of time.

Robyn: Is there anything family members or other loved ones can/should be doing to support those who are struggling more right now?

Tom: If you are concerned about loved ones, communicate with them often. Phone or video chat are good options if you do not live in the same household.  If your loved one is hesitant to see a behavioral health provider, even via telemedicine, encourage them to speak to a provider they trust, like a primary care physician (PCP). The PCP may have more success getting your loved one to accept mental health services.

Although we want to help our loved ones to feel better, it will ultimately be their decision to accept the help. Unless an individual poses an imminent danger to self/others, or is unable to care for him/herself, we cannot force them to accept mental health services.

Robyn: Are there any special tips for managers to better support staff who may be working remotely, or help managers recognize when an employee might be feeling overwhelmed?

Tom: As supervisors, many of us now find ourselves with little or no face-to-face contact with our direct reports. It can be difficult to pick up on the signals that would normally tell us when our employees are struggling to keep their heads above water. I recommend touching base with your employees individually. Team meetings are great, but just like during an in-person meeting, you may only hear from the most assertive and outspoken people. Even a very short one-to-one conversation with each person will give you a much better idea how well they are coping with stressors related to work or their personal lives. These virtual check-ins will also go a long way toward building rapport with the members of your team.

Robyn: If we could all do just one thing to look out for our mental health right now, what should that be, in your opinion?

Tom: I believe that we all need to connect with other people. During the pandemic, it has become too easy to isolate ourselves and spend long hours bingeing shows on video streaming apps. This may help us to clear titles from our watch list, but it doesn’t help our mental health. Most of us need regular social interaction to keep our spirits up and to take our minds off the stressful events of the day. Social interaction does not need to be face-to-face. We can take advantage of virtual opportunities to stay connected to each other. In my opinion, this is one thing we can do to improve our mental health during the pandemic.

Thank you again for chatting with us today and providing helpful advice and suggestions. For anyone reading this who is feeling particularly overwhelmed or looking for more resources, here are a few places where you can get additional advice and/or talk to someone who can help:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  or 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Text Line – Text “TALK” to 741741

SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline  or  1-800-985-5990

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) support groups

The American Psychological Association’s “find a psychologist” tool

FEEA thanks the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association for contributing to our #FedLifeHacks program

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