In the midst of a global crisis that is very tangibly affecting everything from physical health to job security, it’s easy to neglect the invisible consequences a situation like this can have on mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Even for those who have never experienced clinical anxiety, the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic might be deeply disturbing. And that fear is multiplied among those who are prone to mental illness, especially now that several go-to coping strategies have become inaccessible.
But, according to these three Butler University experts, you can find comfort in not being alone: Everyone is experiencing this together. Plus, there are plenty of ways to stay healthy while staying inside.
Counseling and Consultation Services (CCS)
How does the COVID-19 pandemic influence mental health?
I want to start by clarifying the difference between anxiety and worry. By definition, anxiety is an irrational fear. When there is a legitimate threat to our health, the feelings people experience might not be actual anxiety—you might be having a normal, legitimate response to a threat.
For some people, though, those concerns can be more irrational, leading to real anxiety. For individuals who are prone to anxiety or have other underlying mental health conditions, a situation like this would likely activate that.
Responses to crisis vary widely, but it’s not unusual for people to either maximize or minimize a situation like this. Some people are out living their lives like there’s nothing going on, while others are hunkering down and buying eight packs of toilet paper. Especially for those who are prone to anxiety, some people will try to do anything they can to fix things that are really out of their control.
There’s just a lot of ambiguity with this pandemic, and that’s something people don’t always tolerate very well. Not knowing something can be very unsettling, especially if you like to plan. With this particular situation, there’s also a lot of disappointment that things are being canceled and that you can’t do some of the things you want to do.
And then of course the social distancing, for some, is social isolating. It can lead to a sense of loneliness. But I think on the flip side, the fact that this is such a universal concern can draw people together. Almost every place you go—whether that’s going to the grocery store or walking outside—almost every person you see is going to be experiencing something similar. You can know you aren’t alone in this, which can help you feel protected.
What coping strategies do you recommend?
This might sound cliché, but I would really encourage people to get off of social media right now. There’s no benefit to exposing yourself to all those anxieties that other people have. Anxiety can be very contagious. And it’s important to stay informed, but because the news about COVID-19 is changing so rapidly, you might consider finding a reliable source and checking in with it just once a day or every couple days. I think we could all do ourselves a very big favor by limiting exposure to some of that anxiety that’s out there.
If you do find yourself in an anxiety spiral, there are a couple grounding techniques I like. For example, in the “5-4-3-2-1” technique, you look for five things you can see around you, and you say them out loud. And then you find four things that you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Going through your senses like that can bring you back to the present.
You can also look through this list of very common cognitive errors and recognize which ones you might be dealing with right now. This will help you challenge thoughts that aren’t helpful.
And you can just remember the basics of self-care. Go for a walk. Read a book. Set goals and accomplish some of those tasks you’ve been putting off. Make a list of things you’re grateful for. If you have a faith community, stay connected as much as possible. Make a playlist of songs you find encouraging.
For Butler students: The CCS phone and email lines are open. Teletherapy is now available for students currently residing in Indiana (as we are only legally able to practice in-state). However, we can provide over-the-phone consultations with both in-state and out-of-state students to help with talking through options and providing some support.
We also recommend these online resources that are available to anyone.
Center for Faith and Vocation (CFV)
How does this crisis affect spiritual and emotional well-being?
Obviously, the element of uncertainty is huge here. There is this vast unknown, and for many, that is combined with disappointment about all the things that need to be canceled or moved to a virtual space. People are also facing the need to quickly adjust in a variety of ways, including working or learning from home, which can be a strain.
How can people take care of themselves?
In general, it’s really important to start by building structure into your day. Get up at a regular time, get dressed, and observe your normal rituals. Adding that structure takes care of the three essential elements of mind, body, and spirit.
I think we also need to remember that this is a temporary situation. Although we don’t know exactly what the future holds, I encourage people to be resourceful in staying spiritually healthy. Reach out to others as you need to, and know that the faculty and staff at Butler are working very hard and thoughtfully to provide continuous support.
The CFV recently started offering Spiritual Care Conversations, which are available to faculty, staff, and students. Through this resource (which we have now moved online), you can request confidential or private conversations with CFV staff, advisors, or affiliates who can help you work through challenges, feelings, or questions. These conversations are open to people of various faith traditions, as well as those who are nonreligious.
We at the CFV are also working to create new content that we hope will be supportive and informative for the Butler community. We are sending out writing prompts, meditation videos, and information on how to practice mindfulness in your everyday life. You can find these resources by following us on social media (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook), or by signing up for our e-newsletter. Just reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Assistant Professor of Psychology
What are the psychological impacts of this situation?
This crisis is consuming all the news we see. When people talk to their friends and families, they are all talking about the same thing. There’s this feeling of all-consumption, like COVID-19 is the only thing happening. It seems to be taking over everything and creating a new normal. It’s hard to think about anything else.
I’m not a clinical expert, but I know that for individuals who are prone to paranoia, this can really contribute to that. Maybe that means constant thoughts of “I need to wash my hands again” or, in states with lockdowns, “What will happen to me if I go outside?” At the grocery store, people might worry that every person they see is infected with the virus.
And even for those we would consider to be completely mentally healthy, a crisis like this can cause feelings of doubt or concern that might be unfamiliar for people who have never been scared to go to the grocery store. Fear isn’t something a lot of us deal with on a daily basis, so people are needing to learn to cope with it in new ways.
The biggest factor I’ve been hearing and reading about is the removal of social connections. Some psychologists have been advocating for a change in terminology from “social distancing” to “physical distancing.” They’re advocating for a focus on how we can still communicate, whether that’s through Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, or a phone call. I can get behind that relabeling: I want to remind people that we do still have opportunities to seek social contact with those who are important to us.
What other strategies can help people stay mentally healthy?
Make the best of every situation. I’ve been thinking about how I don’t want to be stuck in my basement all day long. I don’t want to be teaching online. There’s a lot of “I don’t want tos.” But this is what we’ve been presented with, so it’s time to buckle up and make do.
Another thing I’ve been focused on is that my schedule has changed drastically, which is the case for most people. But this actually provides an opportunity to change your behavior in a desired way. Now is a great time to build positive habits. With a little bit of mindfulness and determination, even in the face of changes you can’t control, you can introduce the change you want.
I usually take care of my mental health by going to the gym and hanging out with friends. Of course, now, neither of those are options. But you can look for other solutions. Maybe you can’t go to the gym, but you can stay home and do yoga, pilates, pushups, or situps. Staying active is so important to feeling good.
The other thing I’ve been advocating for is making some sort of routine. I’ve found that regimenting my time—scheduling when I’ll be working and when I’ll be taking breaks—has helped me get things done and enjoy my days at home.
You can also work on that list of all the things you’ve been meaning to do, whether that’s reading a book or calling a friend from high school. Make time to watch that 15-minute TED Talk you’ve had bookmarked for a while.
And remember that humans get used to things. After a few weeks, we will be used to this. It just takes a little bit of time, so hang in there.
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