INSIGHT – Q&A: Coping during the COVID-19 crisis

Surveys conducted in the British public in recent months confirmed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health will be staggering. The public is anxious and fearful. This article addresses some common questions the public may have in how to cope with the uncertainties and restrictions associated with the pandemic.

How can we deal with fear of contracting the virus?

It would not be wise to pretend we cannot contract the virus because its very nature makes it so easily transmissible. We are in a pandemic that is killing people through a virus that has traversed the globe on its human carriers. It’s been sudden. It’s been our status in The Bahamas since mid-March. One way to cope is to acknowledge our emotions as normal. We can also adhere to the steps given by health care professionals to decrease the risk of contracting the virus. We can also remind ourselves that even though we’re bombarded by statistics about deaths worldwide there are also many who have recovered. That message gets lost. We have to have a balanced view of what is happening.

How can I keep my children grounded with so much fear and death around us?

This is the time more than ever where your actions will speak louder than your words. If your children have a sense of safety and stability through watching you they will fare better. You can normalise their experience by letting them know this is a unique event in our lifetime – a global pandemic. Let them know that it’s normal to feel anxious and confused and yes bored! You can acknowledge that even as a parent you have those feelings. However, if you are overly anxious and afraid they will feel that, see that, absorb it and respond similarly.

Give them time to talk with you about what they may be thinking and feeling. You may accomplish this by having your own family updates time e.g. at dinner. If you watch the daily press conference invite them to join you. But also limit their exposure as far as you are able because a steady diet of the negative is overwhelming. Also, make room for enjoyable activities.

How can we respond to job loss, layoffs and financial upheaval?

This is not an easy fix. Loss of employment and income are tangible stressors because our basic survival needs are threatened: food, clothing, shelter, and care of our families. Dealing with this is not just psychological issue. This calls for a multi-faceted approach anchored in community: mental health support, spiritual encouragement financial counseling and economic interventions etc. Residents can utilize the assistance provided by local and regional health organizations and the psychology community published support phone lines and services. In faith communities virtual services by online platform foster hope, resilience and practical support. Governmental short-term funding is in place to mitigate the immediate impact while long-range interventions are a work in progress. Don’t give up.

What are ways to cope with loneliness amid lockdowns and curfews?

Psychological research confirms people can respond negatively to quarantines and curfews. People feel lonely in this context because we want connection. That’s normal. Even those who self-identify as introvert and have higher thresholds for alone-time need community. One way to deal with the loneliness is to acknowledge the emotion so that it’s not formless and vague. Another way is to reach out to others proactively. Make the call. We have technology that allows for connection even while we practice physical distancing. I keep seeing the phrase, “we’re all in this together.” So let’s extend ourselves to others and stretch ourselves to reach out and ask for what we need from others.

What about panic buying?

We have seen this scenario played out on social media and news broadcasts globally. It’s a human response driven by fear grounded in the perception of a threat to survival and those things we need to survive – yes, even the toilet paper. The delicate balancing act is one of purchasing what we need, believing the government and food distributors that there is enough for all for the foreseeable future. Then we have to resist the fearful cognitions that drive us to buy and hoard. We have to pay attention to what we’re thinking because our cognitions drive our emotions and behaviour. We compound the situation when we spread our fears in our discussions with others so that there’s this contagion of fear and not just of the virus. The short answer: Stop and think about what you’re doing and why.

What do I do if a loved one gets the virus?

The isolating nature of this virus adds another layer to the stressor of this disease. The key features of support and contact are restricted for the good of the patient and the family. This is difficult because it flies in the face of what we know to do intuitively. It would be good if there is a designated point person to keep the family current with updates, and to liaise with the treatment team. Self-care is important: adequate sleep, rest, regular meals, exercise in the house or yard or neighbourhood, keeping a diary, positive activities are also helpful strategies.

What can we learn from the COVID experience?

This season will end. If we take stock of how the world rebounded after the 1918 flu pandemic, there is a precedent that we will also rebound even though life as we knew it pre-Corona might be different. We have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and our priorities and our communities for the better.

Dr. Hutcheson is a Clinical Psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of The Bahamas; Email stephanie.hutcheson@ub.edu.bs


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