We’ve been living with the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly a year, and it’s taken an enormous toll.
A quick Google search makes it clear that we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis nested within the pandemic. Overdose deaths are on the rise. A recent study of people who’ve survived COVID-19 suggests that the virus may pose mental health risks.
I talked to my friend Hannah Curtis, an LCSW and the founder of New Approaches, a counseling and coaching center in Maine, to get her thoughts about caring for our mental health during the pandemic.
What are you noticing in your practice in terms of mental health and the pandemic?
“Basically, anything that already existed is most likely going to be amplified,” Curtis says, noting that she’s witnessed an increase in anxiety, depression, and panic symptoms among clients in her practice.
While some people are battling with the effects of isolation as they protect their physical health, others have been cooped up together, work and home and school lives all blurring together.
“People who are parenting are extremely stressed out because of the lack of any kind of break,” Curtis says.
Curtis notes that those who work in helping fields are facing some unique struggles. “I work with a lot of educators and healthcare providers and therapists—they’re living through the same thing and trying to support people, but also sometimes feeling that it’s not okay to have their own needs or take care of their own safety during this time. That can feel hard and discouraging,” she says.
Prioritize your mental health.
Curtis suggests we protect our mental health with the same level of vigilance we’re employing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Make mental health your number one priority. Expect to spend more time and energy on it, and do other things less—for example, working or doing things for other people. Make more space to rest,” she says.
What if we treated self-care practices not as an indulgence but as hygiene for our mental health?
“I have to spend a lot more time doing things that are good for me than I normally would. And don’t feel guilty about it,” she says.
Early in the pandemic, there was some social media buzz suggesting the pandemic might be an opportunity to learn new skills or discover new hobbies. Curtis suggests that if we’re struggling, we tune those aspirational ideas out.
“Instead of pushing yourself on other goals that you might normally have, you might need to prioritize your mental health instead because it’s the foundation for everything else.”
Lower your expectations about your mood.
If you’re finding your emotions are more volatile or your moods trend lower than they did pre-pandemic, you’re not alone.
“It’s important to lower our expectations around how we might feel—we might just have more emotions and feel worse,” Curtis says.
Instead of feeling bad about our moods, Curtis suggests we strive for self-acceptance and compassion. “Ask, what could I do that could help me feel a little better? We know going outside works, exercise works, engaging with people works,” she says.
She also says to be wary of our tendency to scan for quick fixes. “None of those are going to work 100 percent of the time. Whenever people are struggling, they want to find the thing that’s going to make things better…and there isn’t one thing,” says Curtis. “Everything helps, but only a little bit,” she says.
Ask, “What do I really need?”
Curtis notes that one thing she’s observed is a deep need for flexibility during the pandemic.
“I’m asking people to really embrace what they actually need and get really honest about ourselves. The people struggling the most are holding themselves to their pre-pandemic norm, and the people doing better are adapting to meeting their emotional needs,” she says.
In other words, we can’t expect ourselves to function at the same level we did before the pandemic. We may need to lower our expectations—of ourselves and of others—dramatically.
“We can either try to not accept that our lives have changed and try to hold onto a norm, which I think is causing way more problems, or we can say, ‘Can I allow myself to have the feelings and go through this process? Can I see what I’m learning? Can I see if there’s new opportunity and understanding from this time?’ If you do this, you’re going to build an orientation of resilience,” Curtis says.
I can’t find a therapist. How can I get help?
I’ve heard anecdotally that many therapists have seen their practices fill up during the pandemic. I asked Curtis if she had any advice for those who recognize they need support around their mental health but are having a hard time finding it.
Sometimes, Curtis says, our assumptions hold us back from seeking help.
“The assumptions people have about therapy are I don’t have the time, I don’t have the money, or it won’t help. If you’re going to prioritize your mental health and say you can only go after work, can you rethink that?”
“Look at your budget and see if there’s something you’re spending your money on that’s not as important as therapy. You’re going to have a much easier time finding a therapist if you have a flexible schedule and you’re independent,” she says.
If you’re still having a hard time finding a therapist, Curtis suggests expanding your search to include interns or a wider geographical area. “There are people who are interning and have a lot of expertise and good supervision and can they can be a lifeline,” she says. “With teletherapy, we’re licensed by the state, so you can expand your search geographically,” she advises.
Another option is to join a support group. “We might feel like we’re the only one going through a situation and we’re finding there are lots of shared experiences,” she says. NAMI, for instance, offers online support groups.
Finally, keep asking around. Ask your primary care doctor to make a referral to a therapist, and research what benefits you might have through an Employee Assistance Plan.
Is there anything people should keep in mind when the pandemic ends?
As new COVID-19 cases begin to decline and we trickle back to something resembling normal, it’s worth considering if we want to go back to the way we were living pre-COVID or if we’d like to incorporate anything we’ve learned during the pandemic into our post-COVID lives.
“See what habits you want to keep,” Curtis suggests. For instance, Curtis discovered that spending time outdoors is a priority for her. “I’m going to continue to do that in all weather. Whether it’s a hobby or working less or living on less money so you can have less stress, there’s an opportunity to keep living according to our values and prioritizing our time, energy, and money.”
It’s also important to remember that the events we live through shape and morph us. Like any traumatic event, we may emerge altered by our experiences.
“You’re not quite the same person you were before,” Curtis says. “Seeing that as an opportunity that you can engage in now is probably the most adaptive thing that can do.”
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