Coronavirus and Mental HealthBy Nannette S. Funderburk, PhD, LPCS / March 13, 2020
The arrival of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has captured the attention of the world. We have watched its impact of sickness and quarantine on Chinese citizens, and now the spreading sickness among American citizens, with questions, frustrations and anxieties rising. For some, obsessive thoughts of ‘What happens to the people who get the virus?’ and ‘I was coughing yesterday, do I have it?’ have begun to creep into our minds. Compulsive behaviors of hoarding masks, cleaning supplies and food, beyond what would be needed for a household for a short span of time, begin to change the habits and daily functioning of some individuals. Fear can spread and for some leads to panic.
Our fight-or-flight response system, the brain’s natural survival mechanism, is triggered once a threat is identified. That can be anything deemed as a threat by the individual such as a barking dog, a loud noise, or a surprise visitor at your home. Once fight-or-flight is stimulated, hormones like adrenaline begin to flood our body and we breathe faster, our heart rate increases, blood pressure increases and a flood of adrenaline flows so that we can either stand and fight, or get away quickly. In either case, extra energy, speed and alertness, to respond to the identified threat is needed. This system can work well when there is an emergency deserving immediate attention.
There are sometimes, however, glitches in this system that have it reacting to recurrent worry. The worry could be about finances, family, or even COVID-19. The problem arises as your body prepares to respond as noted above with a faster breathing rate, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and a flood of adrenaline, except there is no situation that would allow you to use the extra energy your body has created. There is nothing to physically stand and fight, nor anything from which to physically run. This extra energy in the body now turns into anxiety because if you have made the energy to “fight” or “flee” without using it, you are now internally on high alert while simply sitting in your living room. This starts to look like that shaking foot or tapping finger that will not stop, or the sudden urge to clean the kitchen, or even the “on edge” or “jumpy” response to someone who taps you on the shoulder. This is the direct opposite of the calm, rational, approach that is needed to respond to the threat of COVID-19. So, the easier said than done response is, calm down! But, how do you do that?
The quickest way to get calm and remain calm is to slow your breathing. Many who wear smart watches get reminders throughout the day to take one minute to do a simple slow breathing exercise. This begins the calming process. Next, use any anxious energy (some call it nervous energy) that your body has created to your benefit. This is the perfect time to exercise. You have the energy so, use it up. Regular exercise will help to keep this extra energy at bay. Finally, tell yourself what to think instead of allowing your mind to meander and snowball into fearful thoughts. This may mean limiting your internet searches on the disease and searching, and implementing, de-stress measures such as caring for your body with good food and good rest, connecting with loved ones and connecting with your spirituality.
The S.E.L. Group The Social and Emotional Learning Group is located at 3300 Battleground Ave. Suite 202, Greensboro. Phone 336-285-7173.
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