The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it heightened fear and stress due to the virus, as well as the isolation which can accompany strict social distancing.
The threat of job losses and other changes to social circumstances only exacerbated the strain.
Sutton Burke, clinical director and psychotherapist at Infinite Mindcare, says these issues can affect one’s mental health in a multitude of ways.
“Heightened fear can bring panic and a strong feeling of external loss of control, which leads to despair, depression, and anxiety,” she says. “Social distancing and isolation lead to feelings of loneliness that eventually can turn into depression, sleep issues, cognitive decline which, in turn, leads to lower self-esteem, plus all of the physical health issues that then pop up from the mental health stuff.”
The physical health issues may be the most obvious sign of stress for some.
Dr. Alexandra Bodden of OnCourse Cayman says, “Even if we do not subjectively ‘feel’ the stress, our bodies may be responding to it with stomach aches, headaches, fatigue, lethargy, difficulties sleeping, changes in appetite. These are all signs of stress in the mind and body.”
Loneliness and the associated stress can lead to unhealthy coping habits including poor eating, binge drinking, over-spending and self-harm, says Burke.
“We need people,” says Burke. “Many studies support that. In 2018, a study including 12,000 US adults 50 years and older found that loneliness was associated with a 40% increase in risk for dementia. Other studies associate loneliness with premature death.”
This stress may not be alleviated once we are allowed to mingle with others due to the risk of spreading the virus during an outbreak.
“Things that would normally bring us comfort, such as spending time with friends and family, now can be a trigger for the same anxiety,” says Dr. Bodden.
For those with existing mental health issues, there is also the possibility that the pandemic could exacerbate symptoms or cause a relapse in dormant conditions.
Asking for help
Burke says Infinite Mindcare has seen an increase in people reaching out to them for support since the pandemic began, and she believes there are several motivating factors.
“Lockdown and the pandemic provided an opportunity for people to gain insight into how they live, how they feel about life itself… for some during this time they became increasingly interested in how to learn skills for change, and feeling better,” she explains. “Other people have reached out in total distress, missing their family and friends they can no longer see in Cayman or abroad.”
While domestic violence increased significantly due to the pandemic, so did the number of couples seeking help at Infinite Mindcare.
“While maybe before COVID there were stressors in households, during COVID, forced to be around those you share your home with, some realised that not working on the problems was unbearable,” says Burke.
“We see a lot more people wanting to address the concerns in their lives rather than continue on pretending they don’t exist.”
The pandemic wasn’t the first major event that Cayman’s population has had to deal with in 2020. This year has also provided an earthquake, tsunami warnings and landfill fires.
“The earthquake and pandemic seem to have caused the greatest rise in anxiety and fear in the clients that I have been working with,” says Dr. Bodden. “For many, it exacerbated underlying anxious tendencies, for others, it was their first time experiencing the panic and helplessness of such conditions and so they sought support through therapy to learn ways of coping.
“It is always important for persons who go through such experiences to realise that they are not ‘going crazy’ or ‘weak’ for having an emotional response to the situation, but rather what they are going through is actually a typical response to a traumatic situation or crisis.”
Dr. Bodden points out that globally there has been an increase in anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts and attempts. This is especially the case in countries with high numbers of cases and death tolls and in populations with greater exposure to the virus and its consequences, including healthcare workers.
“Our minds and body can only remain in panic mode for so long before it takes a toll on our health and mental health,” she says.
How to combat COVID-19 stress
For those suffering from heightened stress in these unnerving times, routine is an especially important coping tool, say both Burke and Dr. Bodden. They advise exercising, maintaining sleep hygiene, and an adequate and healthy diet so that the body has enough energy to deal with stressors.
Working on changing negative thoughts to a more balanced perspective will also help. However, Dr. Bodden does advise reaching out for additional support such as therapy or counselling if the feelings are overwhelming.
“There are many private services available, but government also offers free counselling services through the Counselling Centre at 949-8789. In case of talk or concerns of suicide, the Emergency Room at HSA and 911 are always an option for immediate support.”
Burke believes working through and processing challenging emotions will help, while not letting them devour you.
“The biggest and best piece of advice I can give, is the reminder that life is uncertain,” she says. “Anything is possible at any moment in time, and we have no idea what all of those possibilities are. Allow yourself to feel the feeling of fear, but actively work on not becoming the feeling. You are more than a feeling. Take action within your values and take a baby step in the direction of what’s in your control.”
This processing will also be a useful tool if Cayman goes into lock down again in the future.
“Feel the feeling of disappointment that you are there once again, and then accept, this is it, and it’s doable,” says Burke. “Remind yourself of your resiliency and try to maintain what you have been doing already to help yourself get through and thrive.”