Reframing the narrative: How to protect your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

As the coronavirus continues to spread across the country, most people have spent a lot of time worrying about their physical health, leaving less time to consider how the pandemic may be affecting their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, "The mental health effects of COVID-19 are as important to address as are the physical health effects."

The anxiety surrounding such an unprecedented pandemic can feel crippling, and the lack of socialization that comes with self-quarantining gives us plenty of time to dwell on that anxiety, said Brian McCallum, a licensed clinical professional counselor at Samaritan Counseling Center of the Northwest Suburbs.

“Not only do we need to consider the COVID-19 pandemic, we also have to consider that there is, in effect, an emotional pandemic of anxiety, worry and fear,” McCallum said. “Anxiety, worry and fear thrive in environments of ambiguity and uncertainty. In short, emotions are contagious, as well.”

Luckily, just as hand-washing can help protect physical health, there are a few simple exercises that can be done at home to protect mental health, too, McCallum said.

One of the easiest ways to begin calming an anxious mind is to practice breath regulation, which helps bring balance to the body’s nervous system during times of heightened stress, he said.

A good way to practice this skill is through a breathing exercise called “box breathing” or “square breathing,” which McCallum said often is used by U.S. Navy SEALs in the line of duty.

Square breathing gets its name from its emphasis on breathing deeply by counting to four for a total of four steps, he said.

“Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose to the count of four, hold for a count of four and then exhale slowly through the mouth to the count of four, and then hold to a count of four again and repeat the cycle,” he said.

For those who may find themselves consumed by worries of the future, mindfulness exercises can help focus the mind to pay attention only to the present moment, McCallum said.

“That keeps our mind out of the future,” he said. “Often, the future can be a source of worry, anxiety or dread.”

The most popular mindfulness exercise is known as the three senses of mindfulness. For this exercise, try to relax and breathe deeply as you name three things that you can see, hear and feel in the present moment, McCallum said.

“For instance, I can feel my left heel on the floor, and I can feel my elbow touching the arm rest, and I can feel my glasses on the bridge of my nose,” he said.

McCallum said he encourages people to try this exercise as a family, as it provides a release from thoughts of the future and an opportunity to connect together in the present moment.

“The other concrete tip is simply just to remember to move, whether that is walking outside or walking on a treadmill or stretching or following along with a video instruction on Pilates or yoga,” he said.

McCallum said he recommends that people try to limit media consumption to checking in to a few trusted sources about three times a day at most.

Although it is important to stay informed, “constantly monitoring the news, constantly scrolling or refreshing your browser can feed into the anxiety and worry cycle,” he said.

As Illinois residents are asked to self-quarantine as much as possible, mental health professionals expect that this drastic change in environment and daily routine will have an immense effect on mental and emotional health.

However, one thing people can assert some control over amid this pandemic is whether that effect is a positive or a negative one, said Dr. Amanda Karlen, a psychotherapist and owner of the Center for Therapeutic Services and Psychodiagnostics.

“People are feeling isolated, and they start to get scared and anxious,” Karlen said. “A lot of that is about the narrative we’re telling ourselves. We, as humans, do not like to be out of control of what is going on.”

With the spread of the coronavirus, “we have absolutely no control over those variables – what we can control is how we’re going to navigate through them,” she said.

Although it is healthy to identify the negatives of the current situation, Karlen said, people can find a sense of satisfaction in regaining control of how they perceive their situation. This, she said, is the power of reframing one’s narrative.

“Fixating and ruminating on things we cannot control isn’t going to help our mental health,” she said. “I encourage people to view this as an opportunity to refocus on your mental health and the health of your relationships with those around you.”

McCallum said he agrees that people should challenge themselves to use this time for reflection and self-improvement.

“Crises inherently present both danger and opportunity, and we can all view this as an opportunity to practice resilience,” he said.

For families, time spent stuck in the house together can be viewed as time to reconnect. In order to do this effectively, it is important for families to maintain open lines of communication and to avoid taking stress out on one another, Karlen said.

It also is vital that parents talk to their kids about the coronavirus, as they may be experiencing their own fear and anxiety, she said.

“The complexity of understanding infectious diseases takes abstract thought,” Karlen said. “Children don’t have abstract thought until their late teens or early 20s, as your frontal lobe fully develops, so you have to be patient with them because they’re trying to navigate this the best they can.”

For people with preexisting mental health problems, staying healthy while self-quarantining may not be as simple as reframing the narrative, Karlen said.

“Just as individuals with preexisting physical illnesses are more likely to get physically ill from the coronavirus, people whose mental health is compromised are at greater risk of experiencing worsening mental illness as a result of the coronavirus – no matter what their mental illness may be,” according to Mental Health America.

It is important to know that local mental health providers still are available to help anyone and everyone through any issues related to mental health, Karlen said.

The Center for Therapeutic Services and Psychodiagnostics still is allowing clients to schedule in-person sessions, and it has locations in McHenry as well as Lake in the Hills, Karlen said.

“We are taking precautions to ensure that our waiting room is safe and that the clients who are coming in are also safe, so at this point, we have not yet shut down,” she said.

Karlen said her practice also is encouraging its clients to use telehealth options to receive services as the spread of COVID-19 may continue to worsen.

Telehealth uses technology, specifically video calls, to provide health services from a distance rather than meeting in person, she said.

The Samaritan Counseling Center also remains open, but the center is encouraging its clients to use available telehealth options if they feel at all uncomfortable with leaving the house, McCallum said.

"We are migrating toward telehealth," McCallum said. "Insurance companies like Blue Cross and Blue Shield are expanding telehealth benefits for their members, and we're anticipating that other insurance companies will follow suit."

The McHenry County Mental Health Board is working to ensure that local mental health providers have access to funding to continue to support the community while also looking out for their own health, said Scott Block, executive director of the board.

“The message that we want to get out there is that we have resources that are established and in place for the public in these times,” Block said.

There also are a variety of mental health-related organizations that offer online support groups for people struggling with anything from anxiety and depression to substance abuse, McCallum said.

“I think it’s important for people to realize that there is actually free support like that available,” he said.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America hosts an online support group, as does an organization called Smart Recovery, which is specifically designed for people struggling with substance abuse, McCallum said.

He also recommended the use of mobile relaxation and meditation apps such as Calm, Insight Timer and Headspace.

Headspace will offer free subscriptions to its services for health care providers to thank them for their dedication during the pandemic, McCallum said.

In the case of a mental health emergency, Block said he encourages people to call the United Way resource line by dialing 211 or the McHenry County Crisis Hotline at 1-800-892-8900.

McHenry County residents also can seek help through the county’s new McHELP Mobile App, Block said.

“Although this is an unorthodox and uncertain time, the system has not been depleted, and resources are still out there to help,” he said.