11 Questions About the Coronavirus and Your Mental Health, Answered by a Psychologist

Amid safety concerns surrounding the coronavirus, now more than ever, we might experience feelings of overwhelming stress, guilt, and anxiety in a period of massive uncertainty. Worse, staying connected to others—a lifeline from these emotions—is proving increasingly difficult while we social distance from one another and self-isolate. Now, we’re confined to our homes with our loved ones, or on our own, with our television and laptop screens as outlets of virtual escapism. They might help, but they also might not be enough.

To address these issues of mental health as they relate to the coronavirus’ impact on our personal lives, Men’s Health Editor-in-Chief Rich Dorment moderated a conversation on Slack with Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, San Antonio. Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill answered questions about productivity, anxiety, and feeling frustrated, posed by Hearst employees. The following is a summary of that conversation.

How can we prevent isolation and social distancing from reducing our productivity day-to-day?

Working from home can be a challenge, if you’re used to being part of a team or need the office environment to help you focus. But you may be able to use technology to help you cope.

Set productivity goals for yourself or work with a friend or team to create a work from home schedule. Build in deadlines to chat with each other so you have some sense of urgency to stay on task. Arrange virtual breaks in your work day so you can check in with others, chat while you eat lunch, and otherwise maintain your connections.

How do we take refuge when working from home with roommates and/or a partner?

While social support is an important component of mental health, close quarters and anxiety don’t complement each other. Familiarity can cause contempt. Annoying habits, opinions, and mannerisms get amplified when you have nowhere to hide.

Maybe you can agree on guidelines for sharing the space and managing noise so people can find time to work, exercise, and relax. You might have to create new plans for cooking and sharing food while you are confined at home and for taking care of household tasks. If you have kids at home you may want to create a schedule that specifies when they do school work, when they play, when they need to spend quiet time, and how you can find some time to yourself.

How do we keep our cool in front of our kids during such uncertain times?

I don’t think it’s a good idea for parents to burden their children with all of their worries, but they’ve surely noticed that things are not normal right now. Teens and school-age children are seeing the news and talking with their friends and even very young kids know that their routines have changed. Giving them age-appropriate information and talking to them about their own feelings can help.

But admitting that you are on edge, telling them how you are trying to cope, and asking for their help can actually promote a sense of family teamwork. I also like the book Cool Cats, Calm Kids by Mary Williams which helps children learn some relaxation techniques.

What are the things we can do to help us feel connected?

Use text, email, and the phone to reach out to those people you always meant to call. Set goals with your friends (to exercise, organize a drawer, practice meditation, etc.) and then check in to see how it went. Exchange recipes, craft ideas, new music, or movie suggestions. If you find yourself shutting down or are starting to isolate from others because you feel depressed, reach out to someone you trust to talk to. Realize that this crisis won’t last forever.

How do I stop feeling guilty or ashamed when I accidentally touch my face?

I think this is one of those things that we can’t totally eliminate. Humans communicate with facial expressions and our hands and we all have a plethora of personal habits we aren’t even aware of like twirling our hair, pulling our ears, or touching our face. If you try to change too drastically, you are likely to get so frustrated you quit. This phenomenon, called the Abstinence Violation Effect, is responsible for the demise of many New Year’s resolutions.

Instead of punishing yourself for not eliminating the behavior, focus on rewarding yourself for making changes. Maybe you could count how many times you touch your face in an hour and set the goal of reducing that number by using reminders and giving yourself small rewards to maintain your motivation. But remember, too, that there is no one magic way to avoid this virus, so try to focus on using more than one strategy to protect yourself.

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How do we handle feeling frustrated by people who still go to parties and other social gatherings amid the current situation?

People are coping differently with this situation. Some are trying to hang on to a sense of normality by denying the threat or refusing to change their routines, while others are channeling their anxiety into trying to do something to stop the virus. However, as regulations increase people will have to limit their activities, so the gap will decrease. If you can focus on how you take care of yourself, it may help as well.

How do we stop feeling guilty when participating in social activities, even if it’s just going for a run or grocery shopping?

In the absence of widespread testing, none of us know who has had the virus and we don’t even know a whole lot about how it spreads. All we can do is practice good hygiene and social distancing and keep reminding ourselves that 80 percent or more of people who get the virus have mild symptoms.

It’s also important to remember that if you don’t shop, exercise, and take care of yourself, you are at greater risk for getting ill or depressed which won’t help the people around you.

How should someone prepare for changing their lifestyle for the foreseeable future?

We are all in uncharted territory right now. If your life is changing a great deal because of the virus, spend some time thinking about what you enjoyed about going out, watching sports, or socializing. I have friends who have had virtual dinner parties by each preparing food at home and then Skyping the meal. Others have watched the same movie, television show, or classic sports event, and texted while doing so. Maybe it is time to look back at some of the classic games, performances, or concerts you haven’t seen for years.

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How can we support friends who are no longer receiving pay, as a result of city-wide closures of bars, restaurants, and other “non-essential” establishments?

I think I would ask them directly what you can do to help. If money is short, could you help them out with practical gifts like a bottle of shampoo or a pizza? If they are still going to work and you are working from home, could you take on a little more of the housework or meal preparation? In many cases, it’s not how much you do for someone, it’s how much you convey to them that you see what they are going through and care enough about them to reach out.

How can we stay informed without panicking?

I have three suggestions. First, practice media literacy. Always think about who produced the content you are viewing, what their motives are, and who they are targeting. Second, use reason to temper your emotions. We spend a lot of time thinking about worst case scenarios and ruminate about how unfair things [are]. But such dysfunctional or irrational thoughts tend to perpetuate our depression, anxiety, or anger. Forcing ourselves to generate alternatives, to look at the big picture, and to focus on helping other people can interrupt the negative pattern.

Third, increase your understanding of the issues we face. There are also lots of good books on changing habits, making decisions and understanding stress, and coping. We often complain that we don’t have time to do all the things we would like to, but in the next few weeks as things around us close, we are likely to have the time to explore some of these topics.

What’s your general advice for those feeling a little anxious right now?

The Bottom Line: This is an unprecedented experience for all of us. We know that our ancestors have survived disasters, pandemics, and wars, but we tend to dramatize their experiences, and celebrate the rare, but heroic moments. During WWII, the people who stayed home planted victory gardens, tried to conserve as much as they could for the war effort, and wrote letters to soldiers overseas, for years on end. I am confidant that we have the ability to have our “greatest generation” moments during this pandemic as well.

The soldiers on the front lines, our medical personnel, public health specialists, and scientists need our support, so if you know someone doing this work, tell them how much we appreciate their efforts. The rest of us can make a difference by stopping the spread of the virus and taking care of each other. Heroism isn’t always dramatic.

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