By Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP
Earlier this month, I was asked by Jenelle Janci, an editor and reporter at LNP in Lancaster, Pa., to comment on mental and emotional health related to the re-opening of the United States as we suffer and navigate the continuing effects of the Coronavirus pandemic. She excerpted some of my thoughts in today's article here, and I’m sharing the full interview below:
How are feelings of anxiety and other mental health issues around reopening different than what people might have experienced at the beginning of the stay-at-home order?
It’s easier to manage a difficult experience when we know there’s an end to the experience. With this pandemic, the stay-at-home order may be modified and eventually lifted, but the Coronavirus hasn’t gone anywhere. We are still asked to face this highly infectious virus with lots of uncertainties.
People’s anxieties may focus on different parts of this collective experience. Some may feel anxious about their health and worry about
contracting the virus. Some may worry about the health of elder family and friends. Others may be anxious about their finances and employment, especially if they are working in a high-risk occupation or have been laid off. There’s also a significant amount of anxiety about the political leadership of the country and it decisions that are being made about the health and welfare of its people.
We are not going back to normal. There is no more normal. There is only new territory, and we will be learning how to navigate this territory.
How can people cope with anxiety surrounding a reopening?
I’d like to replace the word “coping” with the word “comforting.” For instance, let’s think of a little baby who is fussing and crying. We don’t ask the baby to cope. We comfort the baby – cuddling, rocking, speaking in tender voices, perhaps giving the baby something pleasant and warm like a soft toy or a snuggly blanket.
When we are anxious – and we all are anxious about this pandemic although we may not show it in exactly the same way – it helps to comfort ourselves in healthy ways. Taking breaks, talking lovingly and forgivingly to ourselves, reaching out to comforting people and helpful places and admitting vulnerability are some of the ways that we can address our anxieties.
There’s a lot of anger, too. Some may be upset it took this long to open up, others may be upset we’re opening too soon. And no matter their opinion is on that issue, everyone is likely angry about missing out on personal things, from postponed weddings to canceled vacations. What are some strategies for coping with anger?
We are typically angry about what we cannot control. It’s helpful if people who are feeling angry give themselves the opportunity to look more deeply into their anger. This takes a certain amount of courage and willingness to look within and determine the source of these angry feelings. When we look, we often find deep disappointment, grief, loss and loneliness. We also may discover and name personal needs that have not been met that are crying out for resolution.
Is it safe to assume some people will feel like their energy is depleted as they return to old schedules and re-adjust to being around people? How can they manage that?
It takes a huge amount of energy to live with uncertainty. The suggested safety measures take additional energy to carry out. We need to take it easy with ourselves, especially if we tend toward perfectionism. We can also identify our personal, relational and spiritual qualities strengths – a good problem solver? Caring? Persistent? Easy to talk with others? Love of music? Connection with nature? Strong relationship with God? – and notice how we can apply these strengths to our lives.
Some people – the folks on the front lines – have had to interact with people this whole time, and it’s likely been a difficult few weeks. Is there anything special they can do to keep themselves healthy mentally as we transition into a new phase of this pandemic?
It’s unfortunate that people on the front lines have sometimes been the target of the anger that typically emerges during collective trauma. I’m a fan of mutual support groups, of people getting together to process their feelings and experiences. Sometimes this happens by talking, but also in other ways.
Jennie Kristel, a colleague who is expressive arts therapist in Massachusetts, started an online program for doctors and mental health practitioners on the front lines. This program includes breathing exercises followed by 30 minutes of creating, when participants mute their microphones and work on a project, whether painting, playing an instrument, dance or writing. The members reconvene, unmute and discuss their art. Others are finding ways to connect with others for mutual support with text apps like Signal and WhatsApp.
People may be feeling excited heading into a reopening, because they’ve missed social interactions. Is there anything that person should keep in mind in terms of mental health?
People will have to take responsibility for themselves and their health. This means seeking out reliable and trustworthy information about the pandemic and identifying sensible safety measures they can take. It also means people get the opportunity to be conscious about healthy activities – movement, healthy food and the like – and problem solving. We also can focus on improving our immune system. We still have choices, and we can determine how we are going to use our choices.
Of course, there are sadly many Lancaster County residents who have lost a loved one to COVID-19. How can they best manage themselves during the reopening as they continue to grieve?
Grief is always painful, and what is extra difficult now is that the pandemic and social distancing has robbed grieving people of the comfort of others because funeral services are delayed or shortened. Hugs, warm handshakes and hand holding, gathering over a covered dish meal after a funeral remind us that we are not alone as we grieve and fortify our connections to others.
What are some of the ways you anticipate the pandemic affecting individuals’ mental health long-term? How do you think this will this change the way we interact with each other and move through the world?
In an effort to protect themselves from the virus, we are learning to avoid people who might be carriers of the virus. Unfortunately, this creates deep loneliness and disconnection within us. We have to be creative in maintaining connections with others.
Are there any other mental health issues around reopening you would like to address?
Get in the habit of taking what I call your feelings temperature on a regular basis. This includes taking time to check your emotional feelings and physical feelings. It is oddly powerful to be able to name your feelings to yourself and to others – and it is a better alternative to stuffing or suppressing feelings, using alcohol, drugs, and cookies.
Take a look at how your actions and words are affecting yourself and others. If you’re lashing out at people – the cashier at the grocery store, members of your family or with people social media – or thinking about harming yourself, that’s a big sign you need to reach out for additional help.
You can now receive counseling online. Therapists and counseling are conveniently available through video conferencing, e-mailing and texting. There are lots of free support groups online, both locally and nationally. I’m a big fan of www.intherooms.com, which offers resources for people in addiction and family recovery, as well as loss and other situations. There are also hotlines and Facebook groups that are supportive and offer helpful resources, plus apps like Calm, Clear Fear and Insight Timer.
There are great YouTube videos with alternative health practitioners like Donna Eden and trauma experts like Peter Levine who can offer simple body practices to calm your body and release anxious energy.
Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP, is an author, trainer and psychotherapist who promotes, practices and teaches experiential methods including psychodrama, Family and Systemic Constellations, sand tray, mindfulness and Tarot imagery.