Planning, virtual counselling help fight COVID-19 blues

Dr. Marc Lockhart gives advice for coping

Dr. Marc Lockhart

The global impact of coronavirus may feel overwhelming for any one person to process. The news updates are both constant and frightening, and it’s natural for that to take an emotional toll.

In times like these, however, it is important to remember that we are not powerless. Mental health techniques and resources can help us reclaim a sense of calm and direction in our lives.

Dr. Marc Lockhart, chairperson of the Cayman Islands Mental Health Commission, broke down some suggestions to help manage our mental wellbeing during these exceptionally stressful times.

For mental health resources, read our related story, ‘Online resources expand to address coronavirus anxiety‘.

Accept the changes

It may feel like coronavirus has taken over our lives. Schools and workplaces are closed. We can’t meet up with our friends. Our regular routines have fallen apart.

Unfortunately, this feeling isn’t far from the truth.

“Coronavirus, to some extent, has taken over our lives and I have been repeating that we need to accept that,” Lockhart said.

The urge to deny and push away the very real disruptions in our lives only makes it more difficult to adapt and respond, he explained.

“The first thing we have to accept is that these are uncharted, unusual, very challenging times that we’re living in. And there’s a lot of uncertainty and that uncertainty is something that we as human beings do not like.”

So, say we accept that coronavirus has severely disrupted our lives and turned our plans upside down. What then? Lockhart suggests some ways to help cope.

There are a number of online counselling services available.

Be patient, but plan

“Our schedules have been one of the biggest, most obvious changes affecting most of us, and you know, I really sympathise with families right now who are juggling maybe working from home and having their children learning from home,” Lockhart said.

“It’s going to take us some time to reorganise and re-establish a schedule, and in order for that to be done, we are going to have to really do something tangible.”

While we can’t seamlessly restructure our lives overnight, we can take proactive steps to return some sense of control to our schedules, he explained.

“We need to sit down, make a list, write things down in terms of how we’re going to manage having the kids at home, working from home, preparing meals, keeping a distance from others, giving [the kids] activities,” he said.

Making a list and writing down our needs can help us feel more organised and empower us to actually become more organised.

“It reduces that feeling of being overwhelmed,” Lockhart said. “So, make a list.”

Factor in school and work schedules, meals, screen time, exercise, and activities meant to disconnect. This to-do list can also be treated as a journal, where we write down our thoughts, our plans and our goals.

“It’s going take you about seven to 10 days to really get into a schedule and get things organised. So, be patient with yourself, but don’t just rely on time to change things,” he said.

“We have to really involve ourselves by making a list and trying to organise ourselves cognitively with what we have to face.”

Avoid an onslaught of news updates and monitor use of social media, experts advise.

Manage intake of information

While digital tools can help connect us, they can also overwhelm us with a constant onslaught of news updates. It’s important to recognise the type of information we are consuming and how it makes us feel.

“We think of it as a coin, heads and tails,” Lockhart said. “So, one side of that coin is we want valuable, legitimate, validated information. So, we have to be careful of the sources that we’re using to get information about what’s happening.”

He suggests first turning to public health resources, like the World Health Organization, the Health Services Authority and the chief medical officer, Dr. John Lee.

“Then on the other side of the coin, we have to manage the amount.”

Pay attention to time spent on devices and watching the news. At a certain point in the evening, it may help to turn off cellphones or leave them in another room.

“There are times you have to disconnect and I’m saying we’re now in a situation where that is extremely important,” he said.

“We have to turn the phone off. You have to get to a certain point in the day and realise that there’s a point of negative returns on the amount of information we take in … It’s not going to help you to get the rest you need, to recharge your body and your mind to face the next day. Nothing’s going to happen between that time that’s going to change anything worthwhile of benefit for us.”

Reframe the situation

Sitting idle at home can feel frustrating but we have more power in this situation than it initially appears. Staying home and doing nothing are actually the most important acts we can commit right now, he said.

By practising social isolation and following public health advice, we become part of the larger solution.

“So, staying at home, keeping up social isolation, not going out unnecessarily, using the hygiene techniques in terms of washing our hands and being careful who we interact with is actually a very solid means of contributing to helping control the spread of what’s going on, and hopefully shortening the duration of what we’re going through,” Lockhart said.

“So, it’s reframing in our mind the ways that we can contribute and help. Many of us feel that, ‘Well, I’m just sitting at home. I’m just locked away.’ And, I say, we need to restructure that. You are doing something. You’re doing quite a lot.”

Recognise unhealthy environments

For many people, home can be a stressful, unsafe or traumatic place. That makes the curfew measures even more painful and unhealthy for many members of our community.

“Many of us are in environments that are very disruptive, that there is substance use. There is physical and emotional abuse,” Lockhart said.

“It’s still very important to know that if you are feeling overwhelmed, you can reach out to a lot of the private facilities on island. You can reach out to the Health Services Authority that does have a counselling and psychiatric department to get guidance and help.”

While exercising, maintaining a good diet and getting enough sleep can help reduce stress, it is important to recognise when a situation is out of control.

“We don’t want to minimise. If those things aren’t helping or you’re in an environment that is challenging, we still have resources that will continue to provide help, guidance, and support, and if necessary, remove you from that environment and find somewhere else.”

Experts advise that limiting alcohol consumption can help with managing stress.

Monitor drug and alcohol use

A sudden surge in stress and tension can increase the temptation to self-medicate and turn to drugs or alcohol to disconnect from reality. In fact, an increase in substance abuse is something health care professionals anticipate and are ready to address.

“Whenever we’re going through any type of a major, traumatic community event, we find that as time goes on, the longer that we have to isolate, the higher the risk increases for things like poor coping-type mechanisms, increased alcohol use, increased use of substances,” Lockhart said.

It’s important to be aware of how much we’re consuming and even writing down how many drinks, cigarettes or other harmful substances we’re consuming each day, he explained.

“Again, if we find that we’ve gotten into a problem or there’s an issue with that, help is still available.”

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