The world is consumed with health care concerns — as the coronavirus continues to spread, infecting more than 1 million globally and killing tens of thousands.
But the virus — known for attacking the lungs, among other things — is having an effect on people’s mental health as well, from anxiety over the virus itself to loneliness or even depression from the social isolation it’s demanding.
Emily Kroska — a University of Iowa clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and intervention strategies for people facing struggles, including social isolation — has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 mental health battle and has some insights.
Q. What are the main drivers of anxiety right now?
A. A person’s physical health and the health of loved ones are the biggest concerns facing those Kroska has talked with, although community members also are struggling mentally with the inability to live life as they had or connect with others like they normally would.
“Social support can be something that is, among human beings, uniquely vitalizing,” she said. “So when people feel like their usual mechanisms of getting social support have been removed for safety reasons, they may struggle to find a way to replace that connection.”
Q. What are things they turn to — to replace that connection?
A. A lot of people have been getting creative online — holding Zoom meetings or virtual social hours. And, with clients, Kroska said she’s been stressing the need to be flexible.
“The situation calls for a lot of flexibility in our responses, so being willing to connect with people virtually instead of going to see them in person if it keeps you both safe,” she said. “Or even when preparing for the week, going to the grocery store with a long list of things that you want all week rather than going every day.”
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Q: What do you tell people who find the virtual alternatives insufficient and this new reality’s other stressors to be too much?
A: Kroska said she encourages people to see impediments as detours not roadblocks.
“Because a roadblock is something that we can’t get past or an obstacle that stands squarely in our way,” she said. “When we look at it as a detour, we can typically be resilient and persevere.”
Q: What can anxiety do to a person’s physical health or human experience?
A: Extreme anxiety can have consequences in the form of chronic health conditions and other disorders, but Kroska said management tools can blunt the impact.
“I think the consequences of an acute stressor are manageable if people can use the coping skills that they have,” she said. “And I think our biggest coping skill is our behavioral response. The message that I think is really important in all this is that isolation is not the same as disconnection.”
“There are alternative ways to pursue connection and, and though this is stressful, you don’t have to go it alone.”
Q: What are some of the symptoms of anxiety you’ve seen so far from this pandemic and related social isolation?
A: Fatigue, trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, irritability — which line up with the diagnostic criteria for anxiety and depression.
Q: So what are your top three tips for readers trying to manage their stress through this global pandemic?
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A: First, she said, try to find ways to continue to engage with the things that matter most to you — “even if it’s more challenging than it usually is.” That can include finding unique ways to exercise, for example.
Second, she reiterated “isolation is not the same as disconnection.” And even those who are living alone are not in this alone.
“Trying to reinvigorate connections or continue to maintain the connection that we have is a really important and meaningful thing at this time,” she said.
And third, be aware of your anxiety.
“Noticing that it’s there, even allowing it to be there,” she said. “It makes sense that people are anxious. I worry most about the people who are not anxious during this time.”
Give yourself the validation that your anxiety is sending an important message.
“Which is either I want to be alive, or I want my family to be alive because I’ve got a lot more I want to do here.”
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