It was only a few months ago that we held our loved ones close and exchanged warm handshakes with new friends, rarely if ever weighing the life-or-death calculus of opening a grocery store fridge.
Many have a simmering unease that they are unprepared for the long haul — or may not have realized the struggle has arrived.
We talked with mental health professionals about how you can take an honest look at yourself and determine what type of help you might need.
Adaptation to change
People around the country are grappling with how much their lives have changed in just a few weeks. Adapting to a new routine looks different for everyone, but it’s important to assess how much your life has changed compared to being completely upended, said Lynn Bufka, psychologist and associate executive director for practice research and policy at that American Psychological Association.
Technology has been used to keep employees and personal relationships together as social distancing has become a common way of life.
Most people had stress in their lives prior to the pandemic, so now is a time to to check in about how you normally respond to pressures before being alone for extended periods of time.
Is how you’re responding to your new routine helping, interfering or distressing you further?
While it might be hard to accurately evaluate your response to uncharted pandemic living, lingering feelings of disappointment in one’s work or personal responsibilities and being overwhelmed are indicators of mood changes, Bufka said.
Asking loved ones to help brainstorm ways to enjoy activities that brought joy before can relieve some of these feelings, Bufka said. Going on walks with safe distance between loved ones or having virtual coffee catch-up sessions with friends can also really improve someone’s mood.
Bufka also pointed out that now is not the time to be hard on yourself if you’re not performing as well as you used to in your professional life or other areas.
“Nobody’s really flying at the top of their game at the moment,” she said. “Maybe we’re not going to be as productive. Accept that maybe some things will never get done. Maybe something will get done later. Doing what’s important right now matters most.”
It’s easy to lounge around in a robe all day and maybe skip brushing your hair as often as you once did, but neglecting daily self care can be an indicator that you’re more than just comfortable at home, said Shane Owens, psychologist and assistant director of Campus Mental Health Services at Farmingdale State College.
While everyone should expect to feel a bit weird at times, going more than two or three days without looking after hygiene, under or overeating, and increasing use of intoxicating substances are signs that a person might be in an emotional slump, he said.
“Once you notice that you’re having an issue with that, take a couple days and devote some time to them,” Owens said. “It might be that you have to think about what you’re doing if you really see that you’re letting yourself go.”
Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, hazy memory and concentration, and loss of interest in activities that once excited you are also signals of depression, he said.
Owens suggested trying to wake up at the same time each day, setting a bedtime or adding a shower can incrementally improve a person’s goal of being functional again.
“If you find you’re running into a big wall with one of those things, it might be time to call somebody,” he said.
Few imagined a world where people would be having virtual concerts or family reunions as a way to save lives. However, this is where the world is right now, and the inability to see where one fits into the world after is also a sign that it might be time to call a hotline or seek professional help, said Tara Jungersen, licensed mental health counselor and chair of the Department of Counseling at Nova Southeastern University.
Hopelessness and difficulty setting goals, whether that’s planning which restaurant you want to dine at once restrictions are lifted or rethinking career options, are indicators that professional support might be needed, Jungersen said.
Many people have passed the stage of reorganizing closets or connecting with estranged loved ones, but now is a time to reset how to view isolation as end dates continue to be extended, she said.
“If we are labeling as this ‘I am trapped’ or ‘I am a caged animal,’ then the risk of having some depression or anxiety increases with that,” she said.
Data hasn’t quite shown how people diagnosed with mood disorders such as anxiety or depression prior to the pandemic are coping, according to experts.
However, if you do deal with either or both conditions, it’s recommended that now is not the time to withdraw from your counseling or to discontinue use of medication.
The main side effects of the illnesses can make the advice difficult to follow, Bufka said.
“One of the challenges with depression is that it decreases motivation to get out and do things,” she said, noting that withdrawal is also common in those with depression under any circumstance. “It takes away a lot of our energy.”
People with anxiety can often feel too overwhelmed to get anything done, which can also lead to a darker route toward sadness, she said.
For those who know someone with existing mental health conditions, it’s crucial to try to engage them in video chats or stepping outside for fresh air, experts say.
All the factors that go into an anxiety disorder are what the world is going through, such as the breaking down of routines or feeling out of control, Owens said.
“We’re all in it together,” he said. “We are all experiencing this, and it’s okay to feel bad.”