William James College Faculty Discuss Mental Health in the Time of Coronavirus

Managing stress and anxiety and maintaining mental well-being during the Coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak can be challenging. William James Faculty offer suggestions.

March 18, 2020

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As concerns about the coronavirus grow, so do concerns about the mental health impacts of this epidemic. We asked William James College faculty members for their thoughts on the psychological impacts of the outbreak. Here are some things to keep in mind during these trying times.

Anxiety is normal and rooted in our biology.

“Alarm is an evolutionary and psychological tool to drive us to take action,” said to Dr. Paul Block, associate professor of Clinical Psychology.

Despite similarities between COVID-19 and illnesses like influenza or other respiratory diseases, COVID-19 has caused a great deal of fear and uncertainty in communities around the world. A big reason for this elevated fear response, Block said, is that this threat is new.

“We react to new threats more than the longer-term ones that we've found ways to adjust to,” Block said, even though threats from more prevalent things like traffic accidents, firearms, or untreated mental health problems are statistically more likely to impact someone.   

This can influence positive behaviors in the short term. For example, following CDC guidelines people have been more diligent about handwashing or avoiding touching their faces—but the effects don’t tend to last, even if the action is something we should be doing anyway, like washing hands to prevent the spread of infection. “We often stop [the behavior] when we don't feel acute threat, even though it's even more important as a regular thing,” he said.

So, practice recommended wellness and personal care habits now, and make them routine.

“We should always be taking care of our basic health and resistance, but these kinds of threats refocus us as if it were temporarily important,” Block said. “Once the threat passes, our added focus and efforts fall away, and so does our motivation…then we're vulnerable to the long-term threats and are less prepared for the next acute ones.”

Physical and mental health are closely connected. Following recommended prevention measures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or other reliable sources helps a person take care of their physical health and it has mental health impacts, too, including reducing anxiety and increasing confidence.

“It’s important that people have as much sense of psychological mastery—feeling like you are doing what you can to stay safe and keep your loved ones safe—as possible,” said  Dr. Jodie Kliman, Clinical Psychology faculty member. “Doing so reduces anxiety, for yourself, for your children, and for your clients. Mindfully following the basic rules of hygiene and reminding children to do so…are important for mental health as well as for physical health.” 

In addition to observing recommendations like handwashing and not touching your face, Kliman and Block both noted other habits like drinking plenty of water, getting enough sleep and exercising as important health habits to boost physical and mental wellbeing. Friends and family can offer much-needed support during times of hardship or worry and the COVID19 outbreak is no different.

Kliman added, “it’s really important not to isolate yourself to the point that you aren’t getting the human contact that we all need for emotional wellbeing. Stay home with just your household members, but stay in close touch by phone, email, virtual contact, and social media -- just remember also to turn off the screen for chunks of the day for your mental health."

From NPR: “How To Be Alone, But Not Lonely, Despite The Coronavirus

Stay connected but be aware of informational overload.

It’s important to stay in touch with friends and family, and to stay informed, but choose your news sources carefully and consume in moderation. The constant discussion of COVID-19 on the news, on social media and in person can be difficult to navigate.

“There is mastery in staying well-informed, rather than either panicked or overly casual about this emergent medical crisis,” Kliman said. The CDC notes sharing the facts about COVID-19 and understanding the actual risk to yourself and people you care about can make an outbreak less stressful, but also advises taking breaks from media.

“Watching non-stop media information creates cognitive overload and can promote increased anxiety,” said Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology Dr. Stan Berman. Berman suggested limiting exposure to the media and only seeking out information from highly-reliable places such as the CDC, World Health Organization (WHO), or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Dr. Carolyn Rabin, associate professor of Clinical Psychology and director of the William James College Clinical Health Psychology Concentration, agreed. Rabin explained that the spread of misinformation “can really aggravate feelings of stress and anxiety.” She added that it’s “important to try to focus on more reliable sources.”

Berman also noted that it is important to pay extra attention to your children and others you feel responsibility toward. Being attentive and responsive to children’s worries can help alleviate their anxiety and keep everyone healthy. Berman recommends the ChildMind Institute for additional information and resources.

Take care of yourself, too.

Utilize stress-reduction strategies.

Anxiety can have a physical impact on the body, including fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping and other symptoms that can interrupt daily life. In order to help manage these symptoms, faculty members including Berman and Dr. Allyson Cherkasky, associate professor of Counseling, suggest engaging in methods to calm increased physiological arousal and reduce stress.

“Deep breathing, yoga, relaxation, distraction and meditation can all help you become and maintain calmness,” said Berman.

The CDC offers this list of recommendations for how to “Manage Anxiety and Stress.”

If you need help, seek professional support.

During the COVID-19 outbreak or during any crisis or hardship, it is important to seek professional support if your anxiety becomes disruptive to daily activities or difficult to manage on your own.