Focusing on Mental Wellness

“What’s upsetting you?”

These days, it could be school’s early end, job loss, isolation or balancing working from home with augmenting your child’s virtual learning. In the midst of a global pandemic, families continue to struggle adjusting to their new normal — and it’s stressful.

“Human beings have an amazing capacity to deal with stress. Today we are dealing with an unusual level of stress, because pandemics don’t happen every day,” says Dr. Leonard Rosen, Medical Director at Oakland Community Health Network.

But too much stress can cause serious issues.

“The problem is when stress reaches a point where I would call it distress, and in that situation, we are vulnerable — because when we are in a distressful state, we’re really at a point where we begin to feel and think and believe, ‘I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know what to do. I’m hopeless, I’m lost,'” he says. “And when we get into that frame of mind, then we are at great risk for what I would call mental illness.”

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In stressful times, we go in to fight-or-flight mode, causing our bodies to produce stress hormones, including norepinephrine and cortisol, which are helpful at dealing with stressful situations, Rosen notes.

“If we stay in a fight-or-flight response long term, we are in trouble, because those stress hormones help us in the moment, but if it’s going on day after day after day, those stress hormones are destructive to our bodies. Too much cortisol, for example, turns off the immune response, so we are more prone to infection,” he says, adding that our brains don’t work as well either, which can lead to poor decisions.

So, how can families cope? Read on for tips.

1. Put things into perspective. The morning news could upset you, Rosen says. To cope, tell yourself, “Nobody in my immediate family has this illness. We have been social distancing, washing our hands — we will get through it.”

Instead of panicking, put on some music, have breakfast, or play a game. “The message here is although we are not in control of what happens in Washington, what happens in China, what happens in city hall, we are in control of what we say to ourselves and what we do,” Rosen says.

2. Find an outlet. For Rosen, that means at-home guitar lessons from his son. Music, dancing, writing — whatever the outlet may be, add it to your schedule. Learn a new hobby, read for pleasure or try a new recipe, adds Debbie Smith, the Director of Specialized Services for Youth at Oakland Family Services.

3. Talk, talk, talk. “It is important to let your children – this is true for adults also — talk about the stresses that you’re experiencing,” Rosen says. Ask your child questions like, “What’s upsetting you?” and respond with phrases like, “I’m glad you’re telling me how worried you are.” Avoid saying, “It’s fine. You’re OK.”

Rosen says, “As an adult, you can say to your child that ‘pandemics happen, they’ve happened in the past and we as human beings, as nation, have gotten though it.'”

4. Work together. Share responsibilities with your spouse, Rosen suggests. Create a schedule that builds in breaks for each of you. Include an at-home date night, too.

5. One day at a time. “Above all, be gentle with yourself and others,” Smith says. “It’s OK to feel down or worried and have cereal for dinner one day. It’s OK to allow your children a little more electronic/screen time than usual. Be patient with your child who is acting out more, and be patient with yourself.”

Struggling alone

“Everybody is vulnerable. There’s no such thing as perfect mental health. There’s no such thing as perfect physical health,” Rosen says. “We work to try to be as healthy as we can, but we all need to know what our vulnerabilities are.”

Anxiety, depression, substance use are among them. The response to the coronavirus crisis varies for those with substance use disorders, Smith notes.

“Some people who use substances are used to being isolated — they may flourish and grow during this time, focusing on helping others. Some individuals with substance use disorders may be struggling with not attending their regular AA or NA meetings or interacting with their usual support network,” Smith notes.

To cope, and avoid temptation, schedule a virtual visit with a therapist.

“The message behind substance use disorder treatment is that a person is not alone, and unfortunately, this crisis has prompted the opposite to be true,” Smith adds. “This is a fragile place for those at the beginning of their treatment — staying connected with sponsors, online meetings and chats, therapists and other supports is vital.”

Brought to you by the Oakland Community Health Network. For more information, call 248-464-6363 or visit oaklandchn.org.

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