As millions across the U.S. prepare to return to work – and maybe, a level of normalcy – the phrase, “We’re all in this together,” heard constantly in the media, turns out to be both true and untrue. Yes, the pandemic is a global experience. But it’s also very much an individual experience. Your race, age, socioeconomic status, where you live and whether or not children are in the house all have a dramatic impact on how you’re responding to the pandemic. For many, aside from the isolation, life has changed little. But others have lost family, friends, a paycheck or a business. For some of them, any sense of security has vanished.
Much has been written about the need for personal protective equipment, or PPE. But now, as we face reentry, it’s time to develop our EPE – emotional protective equipment. And there’s no better time than May – when the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) observes Mental Health Awareness Month – to begin the conversation.
Fear, worry, and stress are normal responses to perceived or real threats, and at times when we are faced with uncertainty or the unknown. So, it is normal and understandable that people were (and are) experiencing fear in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the spread of the COVID-19, added to the fear of contracting the virus, were the significant changes to our daily lives as our movements were restricted in support of efforts to contain and slow down the spread of the virus. Faced with new realities of working from home, temporary unemployment, home-schooling of children, and lack of physical contact with other family members, friends and colleagues, it was (and is) important that we look after our mental, as well as our physical, health.
Depression, like anxiety and fear, often has clear symptoms: a depressed mood; feeling sad, empty, or hopeless; having difficulty with day-to-day tasks; increased fatigue; and sleep difficulties. Among the most concerning symptoms of depression are thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, and developing a plan for suicide. Even anxiety’s signs and symptoms are usually easily recognized. People with generalized anxiety tend to worry excessively and find it difficult to control that worry or stop it, even with logic. This can lead to feelings of being “on edge,” and it may cause symptoms like sleep disturbances and even heart palpitations. But there’s one problem with recognizing these conditions right now: Everything is all kind of messed up. And that makes spotting symptoms hard, even in yourself.
So as people are gradually returning to work, there are things you can do to help improve your mental health. You can practice skills rooted in stress management, mindfulness and self-compassion. First, you must recognize the current circumstances are legitimately stressful. Exercising, eating right, regulating sleep and keeping a routine as best you can, will strengthen your body and mind to manage these very real stressors. Other things you can do include:
- Be patient with yourself. No one has experienced this. No one should expect to get it “right.”
- Remember to breathe. Let a wash of calm overwhelm you and help you find a bit of solitude when you’re feeling untethered. A few deep breaths with eyes closed and feet firmly planted on the ground can actually do wonders.
- Set a routine. Routine is important for all of us, but all the more so when a person is struggling with anxiety, sadness, and other issues.
There are also things employers can do to help with their employees’ mental health. As Cheril Clarke, founder of PhenomenalWriting.com and an expert in business communication, writes in her a recent blog post, “COVID-19 is an opportunity for employers to lessen anxiety among employee ranks through compassionate and constructive dialogue. It is a chance to uplift and encourage workers rather than reinforce stereotypes of aloofness and class division.” To help ease employees’ mental health issues as they return to work, she says employers can:
- Actively listen to their employees
- Acknowledge their employees’ fears
- Offer employees flexibility
Nothing about the days we are living in is ‘normal.’ There is no previous experience with which to compare, except what was before we had ever heard of COVID-19. And that comparison shows us that Americans are feeling more depression, anxiety, and fear than normal. But there is help if you need it. This is an incredibly challenging time. Never have Americans experienced a pandemic that has impacted employment, education, and the economy the way COVID-19 has. We are all living in very stressful and uncertain times right now. If you are feeling stress and are noticing that it is impacting your mood, sleep, or eating patterns, don’t wait. Get help. You will be glad that you did.