Ask 2: Health Reporter Haley Hernandez speaks with Houston Methodist psychologist about your concerns

Mental health professionals provide tips for dealing with coronavirus anxiety

HOUSTON – These are some of the most important times to reach out for help. It also feels like the hardest time to do that. Health Reporter Haley Hernandez speaks with Houston Methodist psychologist Dr. William Orme in this Facebook live about your top mental health concerns.

Q: It’s critical to have a routine. It sounds basic but why is a routine so important?

A: It provides a sense of regularity, stability, very important in general in our lives, but especially when things are so chaotic now. Gives us something to expect. The coronavirus has come in between us and our regular routines. There’s an added need for us to try to implement those in our day. So we know what to expect as much as possible.

Q: Does that mean going back to basics like having a bedtime? Shower time, exercise, etc?

A: Simple but so important. Getting back to basics right now. Sleep, nutrition, getting outside, going for a walk, doing some exercise, Avoiding the pitfalls of coping in other ways that are not as helpful or healthy. (A lot of time isolation, on-screen, not taking care of nutrition.)

Q: What about alcohol and substance abuse rising now? Our society jokes about this a lot, but it can be serious.

A: Bring in other ways of coping to offset this.

We have to add in other ways to deal with the stress, instead of attempting to deal with it by using substances.

Q: How?

A: That will vary per individual and per circumstance. Ask yourself, ‘what has worked in the past as far as coping?’ Maybe for someone it’s exercising. Maybe it’s listening to a certain soundtrack or song. Could be reaching out and connecting with certain friends.

Q: What are some of the subtle things people might experiencing that shows they are taking a mental health strain?

A: Think about what are your usual behaviors for you. When you notice changes from that, you can be curious if something is going on. Especially if you are feeling disconnected with friends. If we are noticing our sleep getting disrupted, nutrition disrupted. These small changes are important to catch. If we catch them sooner rather than later, it’s best. It’s sometimes hard to tell. Speaking to a mental health professional is helpful.

Anxiety is on the rise and stress is on the rise. The coronavirus is coming between our lives, so feeling something is understandable.

Q: Is it better to deal with anxiety with or without medication?

A: In general, people handle anxiety in different ways. Some people feel OK taking medication, some try to cope without it. Stress is an embodied physiologic reaction to things. If it’s starting to feel unmanageable, get help.

The real key is not letting the stress and anxiety getting to places where it’s overwhelming us, getting in the way of us being healthy in other ways: connecting with friends, communities, our jobs. If that’s the case, we need to think - can we reach out?

These are the moments in life when we need to reach out. These are the moments in life that are the hardest to reach out. It’s really a sign of strength to be able to reach out and ask for help.

Q: What about those of us who are feeling like we are handling this OK? Reaching out to others who may be struggling. How do we do that?

A: If you feel concerned about someone you love, it’s OK to reach out and ask if they are OK. If you can put the invitation there - say I’m here for you, you are on my mind, let’s talk or do a Zoom together. Invitation without the pressure.

Q: People say, “I don’t want to bring it up because they might be avoiding it now and I don’t want to be the reason they start thinking about what makes them sad.” What then?

A: Trust your gut in terms of when and how you bring that up. Maybe it’s just a phone call more generally to ask how they are doing. If they don’t bring it up just say, “Hey you have been on my mind. I don’t want to intrude, but I want to support you.” Generally, people want to be able to talk to someone, they feel isolated. A lot of times it’s on people’s minds more if they can’t talk to someone. A sense of connection helps.

Q: Is it better for both myself and three-year-old to just avoid the stress of making him do work if he’s not interested and I’m too stressed?

A: We have to have flexible expectations with ourselves during this time. A lot of us give ourselves a really hard time when we don’t live up to the mark we set for ourselves. There is some need here to be flexible considering the circumstances we are in. Be kind to ourselves, kind to those around us. Have self-compassion. If we don’t get our to-do list done, it’s OK. It’s more of a marathon rather than a sprint.

Q: How do you calm elderly parents during this time?

A: The vulnerable community is one that is especially worried right now. It’s important to give them a sense that you understand where they are coming from. There’s an impulse for us to want to rush in and fix the problem. It’s hard for us to see the ones we love in distress. Turns out, a lot of times what someone is needing is not direct and quick advice. They need someone to listen to them and give them a sense that they understand. Be willing to listen to them and not rush in for advice. The person may just want to express what they are feeling, share their fears, etc. Of course, if they ask for advice, you can help them get the answer. The sense of connection is so important.

Q: I am worried about returning to work. At my office, no one seems to care. What do I do?

A: A lot of people have this on their minds as we come out of this stay-home order. The increase of stress and anxiety when you see people not observing the guidelines is normal. We can’t control other people’s behavior. But seeing what other people are doing, we have to ask ourselves, how can we change our behavior to make ourselves feel safe. That may mean, to have more distance while still engaging. May mean, more time to sanitize, wash hands, etc. If you see people doing things you really disagree with, you could say something. But keep in mind, people are approaching this in different ways and trying to do the best they can with what they have. So, be mindful of how you have the conversation. Raise your concern with caution.