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Take care of you: UTHealth experts share mental health tips during a pandemic

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A certain amount of anxiety is normal when facing the unknown, and that anxiety can be helpful in making sure the community safeguards itself the best it can from COVID-19, by washing hands frequently and following CDC guidelines to protect yourself, family members, and the community.

There are techniques to help keep anxiety from becoming debilitating. People with preexisting mental health conditions, including substance use, may be more vulnerable to stress.

Sharlene Johnson, senior assessment and referral specialist with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Office of Employee Assistance Programs, recommends these practices to help keep anxiety down.

  • Have limits on the amount of information consumed.
  • Keep the information in context.
  • Focus on practical things that can be done instead of unknowns.
  • Stay in contact with loved ones, and if working remotely, stay in contact with your co-workers as needed.

There is such a thing as too much news

COVID-19 is dominating the news cycle and community conversation. And while it’s useful to keep up with the news of the day, reading a constant stream of news can cause extra anxiety.

“Minimize the amount of information you receive. In the digital age, we have access to infinite information. Taking a break from listening or reading the news can help reduce anxiety,” she said. “Everyone is different; a guideline is to check the news no more than twice before noon, and twice in the afternoon, once around dinner time and maybe once before bed to prepare for the next day. Some people are getting push alerts and reading long feeds of information several times throughout the day, and it can be overwhelming.”

Johnson notes while there is more to report about the virus daily, the core information about how to protect yourself from it has not. Frequent handwashing, staying home when sick, and practicing social distancing are prevention hallmarks during the pandemic.

Another key to reducing anxiety is to put the news in context. Focusing only on the number of cases, or the severity of some, causes undue anxiety and fear of the unknown. Instead, focus on any adjustments you can make to stay safe.

Focus on what you can control

Another strategy to help ease anxiety is to accept that there are many factors beyond any individual’s control. Change and disruptions to routine are inevitable as Americans balance a change in work structure with having children home from school.

Working remotely comes with its own challenges. Employees may be learning new programs to complete their work, or make adjustments to complete it. For example, hosting video meetings or conference calls instead of meeting in person. Consulting with colleagues during this transition to working remotely can help ease anxiety also.

Johnson said fear of change or of the unknown cause anxiety, and it can be helpful to talk through those situations.

“Focus on the things that are within your control or influence, such as addressing the needs of your family members. Supportive comments can have a significant impact during challenging times,” she said.

Johnson suggests reviewing all available resources for addressing an area of concern, selecting the best option, creating a plan and implementing it, then evaluating the outcome and making adjustments as needed.

“Change is usually stressful to some degree. However, it is even more stressful for individuals who resist change outright or for individuals who resist change by being dogmatic about maintaining their exact same routine, when it’s clear that may not be possible,” she said. “You have to step back and ask, ‘What is the best thing to do in this moment, and what is the best way for me to address this issue today?’”

Keeping some form of a routine can be helpful in times of change, but Johnson warned not to be too hard on yourself, if the day didn’t go exactly as planned.

“Be easy on yourself,” she said. “Maybe things didn’t go smoothly today, but it may go smoothly tomorrow. Do the best you can each day.”

It is also helpful to stay connected with your support system, e.g., friends and loved ones. While practicing social distancing, use phone calls or video chats to connect with others who have a positive outlook, offer comfort, or serve as a sounding board is beneficial in relieving anxiety.

Doing things that you find enjoyable or calming can help you get through this difficult time. Create a list of practical relaxation activities and perform them a few times a day. This can be meditating, deep breathing, stretching, or even sitting quietly and mindfully.

Some examples:

  • Take a short 10-minute break after a couple of hours to just breathe, or take a walk.
  • Listen to music that is uplifting for you.
  • Meditate, or just be quiet, for a few moments.
  • Exercise is a great way to reduce stress.
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