By Mary Beth Sallee
Jobe Publishing Reporter
Recent weeks have been full of stressful and confusing times for everyone. As the COVID-19 pandemic affects society and individuals in a variety of ways, disruptions in daily life are being felt across the board. Colleges have sent students packing, churches have canceled services, and social gatherings are off-limits. In addition, a vast majority of businesses have closed, leaving several people unemployed.
Many Kentuckians are feeling uncertain about what is to come in the days ahead as more coronavirus cases are being confirmed daily throughout the state. Fear and anxiety about a disease can become overwhelming, causing strong emotions in both adults and children.
Robert R. Cassman is the Chief Operating Officer at Bluegrass Professional Counseling. He is a licensed professional clinical counselor and also a nationally certified counselor with 14 years of experience as a therapist.
According to Cassman, anxiety is the most common issue seen in therapy.
“A child becomes anxious when separated from his mother. A person suffering from PTSD is showing anxiety-related issues. Someone who is panicking is also showing anxiety,” Cassman said. “When people say ‘I’m freaking out,’ they are usually referring to anxiety. It is very similar to stress. Anxiety is exhibited as agitation, racing thoughts, inattention, avoidance of people, etc. Ultimately, anxiety is fear of some future event. We can be anxious over a public speech or a job interview. Once that event has occurred, our anxiety goes down.”
Anyone, Cassman said, can develop anxiety from an accumulation of pressure and stress. Repeated new reports, such as those about the current coronavirus outbreak, can lead many people to either develop fears or have genetic factors of anxiety “triggered” by environmental factors.
“With the coronavirus, there is a constant discussion of potential harm or doom,” Cassman said. “This repetition can lead people to becoming fearful. We know fear is at the heart of anxiety. We can become anxious that we may ‘catch’ the virus and therefore engage in avoidance behaviors. This is unique to the coronavirus because the social distancing mandate can almost make someone’s anxiety worse as it reinforces their negative thinking about others. They can avoid others without the guilt that usually comes with it. They are almost given permission to engage in their anxiety…”
Unemployment is another factor in play among anxiety caused by fear and worry of COVID-19. With several nonessential businesses mandated to close as a way to help flatten the curve of the virus, many have found themselves without a job.
“This (unemployment) is one of the unintended side-effects of keeping everyone home,” Cassman said. “Even though they may not be getting sick, people are out of work. They won’t have money to pay bills. They may be thinking, ‘I will lose my house, my spouse, my livelihood.’ This sort of catastrophic thinking is the main ingredient to anxiety and depression. Focusing on what they can actually control is essential to avoid falling into a depressive chasm.”
Other forms of stress during the coronavirus pandemic may include changes in sleep patterns, worry about loved ones, and increased use of drugs and alcohol. In some cases, other negativity may arise, such as abuse and self-harm.
“Some reports are already showing a rise in domestic violence 911 calls,” Cassman said. “We also know that people tend to overeat the longer they stay at home. These are indicators that people are self-medicating. Some use violence while others use more self-inflicted medicators…Some will self-harm, overeat, or drink heavily. Drug use can also be easier to do if no one is checking on you. If you don’t have to report to work, then what is to stop you? If one has been laid off, that can give the person an allowance or another reason to relapse.”
Cassman said that it isn’t only adults dealing with anxiety during the pandemic. Children are also susceptible to have fear-driven anxiety, especially based upon the reaction of their parents or guardians.
“Children and teens are affected partly by how the adults in their lives react,” Cassman said. “If the adults show some tempered reactions and give them straightforward and succinct answers to questions, they will adapt better than if they are given a ‘the sky is falling’ response. No answers can also be unhelpful. Children are also affected by a dramatic change in their social life, in their schooling environment, and the general sense of being restricted. Teens are more susceptible to the influence of social media when they don’t have strong, healthy influences by adults.”
“Adults can be sources of healthy influence by discussing concerns and helping children and teens to have a sense of control,” Cassman added. “It is helpful for children to know their parents are looking after their best interests.”
Another guideline for parents and guardians to help children fend off anxiety during this time is a simple one: adults must also help themselves and one another.
“Shrinking one’s world to focus on their children, their laundry, a board game, etc., can help to alleviate some of the ‘there’s too much going on’ thoughts,” Cassman said. “We can’t do anything about what government officials are doing or what is happening in China. But we can cook dinner for our children, read a book, or clean the living room. Distractions can help to keep someone focused on more neutral or positive ideas. Comedy shows are great distractors as well.”
“Turning these sorts of situations into opportunities can be helpful,” Cassman added. “Maybe this is the time to clean out the attic you have been procrastinating doing…By doing this, we give ourselves something to do and, in the process, create a sense of purpose and potential accomplishment. Do something. Don’t just sit around fretting.”
Cassman said that being outdoors, while still practicing social distancing, is also key in helping to alleviate stress and anxiety.
“We know that sunlight helps to alleviate depressive symptoms,” Cassman said. “Seasonal affective disorder is real because our circadian rhythms are influenced by the sun. Serotonin (which influences mood), melatonin, and vitamin D are all affected by the amount of sunlight we get. The more sunlight we get, the less depressed we will feel.”
It is important to remember that social distancing does not mean social isolation. Connecting with loved ones and friends can help everyone maintain ties and give one another strength during this chaotic time.
“Social distancing can worsen some anxiety issues,” Cassman said. “With the advancement of technology, a video call is fairly easy. Calling regularly on loved ones can help those loved ones, but can also give us who do the calling a sense of being helpful. This can also be done by children and teens.”
For those coping with anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cassman said optimism is key. For others, reaching out for help is also a necessity.
“I’d encourage folks to take a deep breath,” Cassman said. “Education on the pandemic is good, but obsession is not. Bring balance into your life by engaging in some normalcy. Have fun, laugh, and reconnect with some of your family members if you are stuck in your house. Create new family traditions. Watch for negative thinking, and focus on the positive in your life. Reaching out to a therapist who provides telehealth can be beneficial. We at Bluegrass Professional Counseling offer that, but so do other providers. Seek them out if you feel as though your anxiety or depression is more than you can handle. Sometimes waiting can make it worse.”
If you or someone you know are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, stress, or sadness, contact Bluegrass Professional Counseling at 270-696-3181. You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746.