[Editor’s note: This is the first of four articles in a series on action plans for different areas of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The next three articles will be posted on subsequent Mondays in June.]
With the coronavirus pandemic, everything has changed, from the hygiene habits of washing our hands more frequently to the physical distancing that we must now maintain. For many, the financial stress and rapid changes brought about by the pandemic can be just as scary as the virus itself. Business closures, income reduction and the uncertainty of what might be ahead once we return to “normalcy” has increased stress levels for all of us, and many people are even experiencing symptoms of depression. Understanding what is happening in our brains and having a plan of action can help us manage these new challenges in the different areas of our lives.
Through this four-part series, we will look at a plan of action that can help the rational brain feel in control again and view the new challenges we now face as opportunities to develop our resilience.
Let’s start with a plan of action to help reduce anxiety and prevent depression symptoms.
1) Write down specific worries.
The first step to solving a problem is understanding what is happening. Why are we so stressed out? Perceived lack of control.
Uncertainty produces hypervigilance in the brain. Our brains are on high alert, increasing our levels of stress. Stress is an automatic defense mechanism that prepares us to face a threat, whether hypothetical or real. It is regulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (in the brain) and the adrenal gland (above the kidneys).
In the face of danger (uncertainty), the hypothalamus activates the alert system (increased heart rate, respiratory rate and muscle tone) and produces cortisol — the stress hormone — secreted by the adrenals, which maintains this physiological alert as long as necessary. If it is perpetuated too long, stress can become a health problem that leads to increased risk of anxiety, depression, substance use and other maladaptive behaviors.
The brain likes organization and predictability. That is why we organize information in categories known as bias or stereotypical organization. Therefore, the first step to overcoming anxiety and depression is making a list of the worries you have about how the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted your life. Examine your worries, aiming to be realistic in your assessment of the actual concern and your ability to cope. Try not to catastrophize; instead, focus on what you can do. Your life is going to be different for a while, but identifying what worries you have and focusing on what you can control will make the difference.
2) Make a list of possible solutions.
Think of all possible options. This is the all-familiar “brainstorming” technique. Include whatever possibilities come to mind that could help you get by, even if it is not your ideal option. The goal is to focus on concrete things that you can problem-solve or change. A solution-focused approach will help you focus on your strengths instead of your weaknesses.
Think about how you have been able to cope with difficulties in the past by asking yourself questions such as “How have I managed to carry on?” or “How have I managed to prevent things from becoming worse?” After you have evaluated your options, accept your new reality and develop a plan.
Remember, anxiety comes from not knowing what will happen, and depression comes from believing there is nothing we can do to change it. Having a plan will move you from paralyzing anxiety to action. Practicing physical distancing, getting enough sleep and doing other activities to support your immune system are examples of positive actions that you can take immediately. Put your attention on your strengths and abilities, and imagine yourself coping and adapting.
3) Know your emotional triggers.
Pinpoint what your emotional triggers are and how you react to them. It is natural to feel stressed about what may happen if our income does not cover our obligations, or if someone we love gets sick, or if we must quarantine longer. In fact, feeling down from time to time is a normal reaction to life’s stressors. But when hopelessness and despair enter the picture or take hold and just will not go away, then we need to pay closer attention because it may be a sign of depression.
Depression is more than just sadness in response to struggles or setbacks. Depression changes your perception and the way you feel, bringing you feelings of emptiness and doom. It impacts your ability to sleep, work, eat, and enjoy your life.
It is also important to remember that the feelings of hopelessness or helplessness we may experience are symptoms of depression, not the reality of the situation. There is hope. There is a solution. Even if we cannot see it right now.
4) Conduct a strength inventory.
Resilience is the ability to withstand, recover and bounce back in the midst of stress, chaos and ever-changing situations. It is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, the courage to come back.
Conducting a strength inventory can help you feel stronger and more resourceful. Identify what negative thought you struggle with. Replace or reframe how you are viewing your challenges. The situation you are facing is hard, but is there something you can learn from it or some other silver lining? If you have been through difficult situations in the past — and most of us have been through those at some point in our lives — identify what got you through them, and use it to your advantage.
5) Practice kindness.
Studies have shown that people who consistently help others experience less depression, greater calm and fewer pains. Kind people create joy and satisfaction through helping others. People who can give and accept support in a tough situation tend to feel less depressed.
Kindness toward others can translate into kindness to you. Seek support from your family and friends or a professional mental health provider if you need it. It can help you deal better with hard times.
Esther Scott is a licensed professional counselor in Arlington, Texas. She is a solution-focused therapist. Her specialties include grief, depression, teaching coping skills and couples counseling. Contact her through her website at positiveactionsinternational.com.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.