Mental Health IS Health: Coping with COVID-19

By Dr. Laura Howe-Martin and Dr. Brittany Hall, Psychologists, UT Southwestern’s Moncrief Cancer Institute

You have likely seen or heard of many ways people are learning to cope with the uncertainty and social isolation associated with the current pandemic. Many are facing financial insecurity and/or continue to show up for work each day in essential jobs, despite the risks. Others are struggling with chronic social isolation and find themselves doing a host of things, like making homemade bread, doing Pilates in the living room, and creating TikTok videos (and video fails!).

Sometimes, these strategies are very effective, and sometimes, we still find ourselves anxious, lonely, and worried that this current, uncertain situation will never end. These are all very common reactions. People generally do well with routines (which are disrupted for some right now) and certainty about the future (also disrupted for most).

Our advice is as follows:
1) Acknowledge this is a difficult time. Simply saying this aloud to yourself or others can be relieving, and keeps us from pushing away very real emotions. Sometimes, there is pressure to “make something good” out of a challenge. If you can do that, great for you. However, if you are like most of us and find yourself only able to cope with one day at a time, that is perfectly okay.

2) Identify the healthy strategies you have used to deal with difficult situations before. All of us have experienced stress and challenges in life. What has helped you cope in a healthy way in the past? Perhaps you are the type of person who has relied on exercise, hobbies, spiritual practices, or even cleaning out the closet as a way to “do something” when feeling stressed. Pick up that strategy again!

3) Avoid reliance on unhealthy coping strategies. It’s difficult not to rely on the things that help us escape. If you tend to sleep the day away, eat a sheet pan full of brownies, or rely on alcohol or drugs to cope, this can have a negative impact in your long-term physical and mental health.

4) Maintain your social connections. Humans are social creatures, and isolation can be difficult. Even brief phone calls, video chats, and group online social hours are helpful for keeping us connected. It’s not what we typically do, but these virtual social contacts continue to be valuable.

5) Create a routine. Some of us have too much to do, with juggling work and new tasks such as home schooling. Others have too much time on our hands now. But for all of us, even basic routines can help us maintain a sense of normalcy. Continue to go to bed and get up at the same time each day, care for your personal hygiene, dress in “day clothes,” and maintain some sort of schedule or task list (no matter how small).

6) Seek help. If you already have a mental health condition, keep seeking help! If you notice an increase in feelings of sadness, anxiety, or drug or alcohol use, reach out for help! Many providers and organizations have been able to rapidly expand their abilities to provide telehealth options for mental healthcare, making the help you need more accessible than ever. Even a brief consultation with a licensed provider can often bring relief and a new perspective.

For further information:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Domestic Violence Hotline

National Cancer Institute: what patients with cancer should know

UT Southwestern Department of Psychiatry: for information on clinical trials and ongoing mental health treatment at UT Southwestern