Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us have found our way forward by adjusting our routines and practicing social distancing to care for our physical health. However, this life-altering pandemic has also affected our mental well-being, as the constant flow of information and all of the uncertainty can be hard to process emotionally.
Now, more than ever, we’re also experiencing the heightened emotions of those that we are in quarantine with — family members, roommates, etc. — which can be difficult to manage on top of our own.
Rush psychiatric nurse practitioner Kathryn (Katy) Perticone, APN, discusses signs to watch for and how to cope with emotions in this ever-changing new normal.
Recognizing our own emotions
Behavioral health issues affect tens of millions of people — anxiety disorders and depression being some of the most common conditions.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in a given year 18% of people in the United States will struggle with an anxiety disorder, and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that 7% will have at least one major depressive episode.
Research also shows that the current pandemic is creating added strain on our emotional well-being. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in March, nearly the same time as the outbreak, reports that almost half of Americans said the COVID-19 crisis has had a negative impact on their mental health.
Perticone says emotions connected to COVID-19 include anxiety about health and finances, uncertainty about if and when life will return to "normal," anger over loss of control, a sense of loneliness and, ultimately, fear of the unknown.
"If not processed properly, these emotions can get to the point where they interfere with your ability to be your best self," Perticone says. "When they start to affect your health, relationships and job, it’s time for an intervention."
These are some signs that it’s time to reach out for help:
- Decreased concentration
- Lack of interest in things that previously were interesting
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Inability to sleep or sleeping too much
- Increased use of drugs and alcohol
Managing others’ emotions
Perticone encourages you not only to recognize your own emotions, but to acknowledge how members of your household may be dealing with this crisis.
“Keep in mind that every person is experiencing COVID-19 in a different way and will have different emotional reactions,” Perticone says. “It’s important to come to a general understanding about the fears that members in your household may have, so you can better understand and respond to their behavior.”
Often, the emotions of others can influence our own and vice versa. This can have a greater impact on your family dynamics and relationships in quarantine — including making everyone more sensitive and quick to anger. In stressful times, minor irritations and differences can easily escalate into major blowups.
Perticone emphasizes the importance of creating healthy boundaries.
If you know that a relationship can be overwhelming in the best of times, now is the time to set a polite and firm boundary about your level of engagement.
Confronted with toxic relationships
Although you can attempt to implement healthy boundaries, spending more time with a person whom you are in a toxic relationship with can lead to or intensify instances of emotional abuse.
A growing number of callers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline say that their abusers are using COVID-19 as a means of further distancing them from their friends and family. Perticone says the same strategies used by the abuser during normal times — such as social isolation, surveillance and controlling mechanisms — are being reinforced during the pandemic.
“Incidents of domestic violence always trend upwards during times when families spend more time together in confined spaces, such as holidays, and with increased emotion,” Perticone says. “With shelter-in-place currently in effect, people are quite literally trapped in a space with a perpetrator. Previous strategies to attempt to protect against abuse, such as leaving the house, are gone.”
If you’re concerned you’re in this situation, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233. Or, if you’re a Rush employee or student, visit the Rush Wellness Assistance Program web page for additional resources.
Practicing healthy ways to cope
Whether you are managing your own emotions, your families’ or both, it’s important to find healthy coping mechanisms so you don’t become overwhelmed or take out your emotions on each other.
“As a society, we have never been through something like this, and the feelings you’re experiencing because of it are normal," Perticone says. "Try your best to give yourself a break and find something healthy to help you get through.”
Perticone shares some healthy coping tips to practice during this time:
- Set boundaries. If you are able to, remove yourself from toxic relationships. Reach out for assistance if the situation gets to an unhealthy point. But even within healthy relationships, make sure you to carve out alone time and space to relax and practice self-care.
- Limit media and social media content. Set specific times during the day to check in on the latest news and social media. Participate in other activities throughout the day to keep your mind busy.
- Establish a routine. Find a daily routine that works within the current situation and follow it as best you can for more structure — similar to a usual day.
- Eat healthy. Maintain a healthy meal plan, eating at regularly scheduled times, and try new recipes to keep your diet interesting.
- Keep moving. Try different exercises to keep your body healthy, including stretching, walking laps outside, online workout classes, or even standing up during meetings or Zoom calls.
- Try basic meditation techniques. Look for guided mediations and breathing exercise resources online and, if possible, practice a session once a day.
- Connect with others. Use technology to bridge gaps and support each other. Reach out to family and friends via FaceTime, Skype, texting or social media.
- Write in a journal. Journaling can be a great way to express and process your emotions. And try to also identify things you’re grateful for during this time.
Balance your mind and body
In times of crisis, we tend to focus our efforts on adapting to a new normal physically. But don’t forget to reconnect with yourself and try to build a stronger bond with members in your household. As a reminder, balance is the key to caring for both our physical and emotional well-being during this time.