Medical science has proven that uncertainty can exacerbate existing feelings of anxiety, stress and depression in people. And thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak, “no other time has been as uncertain as it is now,” said Emily Olson, co-owner of Washougal-based Ripple Wellness.
As a result, local mental health providers are helping their clients discover new routines, make adjustments and find positive things to focus on during this time of uncertainty.
“From what I’m hearing through the grapevine, stress levels are pretty high,” said Jeff Olson, co-owner of Ripple Wellness. “One of my patients said something to the effect of, ‘I’m just barely keeping my head above water through all of this.’ Some people (are affected) really bad. It’s really easy to react based on fear and anxiety right now. And for those who have those tendencies already, it’s an even harder time.”
Conditions exacerbated by stress — including autoimmune disorders, chronic pain and hormonal imbalances — are heightened during stressful times as well, Emily Olson added.
According to the Center of Disease Control (CDC), people who may respond more strongly to the stress of a crisis include older people and people with chronic diseases; children and teenagers; doctors, other health care providers and first responders; and people who have mental health conditions, including problems with substance use.
“Stress during an infectious disease outbreak can include fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones; changes in sleep or eating patterns; difficulty sleeping or concentrating; worsening of chronic health problems; and increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs,” the CDC’s website states.
Martha Martin, a Washougal-based psychologist, said people can be negatively affected “by the loss of control and the unpredictability of this situation.”
“People hear stuff from their friends or see things on social media — often bogus — that scares them,” she said. “When I talk to people, I remind them to get their information from trustworthy sources, such as the CDC or the Washington Department of Health. That’s been helpful.”
“All transition is hard — good transition and bad transition,” said Priscilla Gilbert, a mental health counselor at Lacamas Counseling in Camas. “Our brains like to do what is familiar and known. When transitioning into a period of shutdown and isolation, our brains scramble to figure out what is normal, and there’s a period of anxiety when you don’t know what’s coming. It can be stressful for people to find new routines.”
People ‘don’t have to wait to get support’
The Children’s Home Society of Southwest Washington (CHSSW) Resource Center, located in Washougal, is continuing to offer most of its behavioral health programming, individual and family counseling and other behavior health services for children and families through online platforms.
CHSSW follows the guiding principles of the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, which believes that “to be maximally effective, policies and services should support responsive relationships for children and adults, strengthen core life skills and reduce sources of stress in the lives of children and families.”
“The parent-child relationship is the most predictive factor in how a child copes with adversity or stress because strong, responsive parent-child relationship buffers the experience of adversity for children and helps them regulate their emotions so they can continue to learn and grow and develop,” said Andy Tucker, CHSSW’s Vancouver regional director. “For us, we’re continually trying to be positioned so we can help reduce stress in families, build up parents so they can be their best selves and strengthen family relationships, because we think that regardless of what happens, if we’re doing a good enough job with those things, kids are going to be all right.”
Tucker said he hopes to let people know that they “don’t have to wait to get support.”
“This has been such a tremendous societal disruption that there’s a very natural tendency on the part of people to kind of hunker down and shelter in place and think, ‘This is going to blow over in a few days,’ to treat it almost like a snow day or something like that,” he said. “(That) mentality can cause people to maybe neglect their social or emotional needs around well-being. I’m concerned about the fact that there’s a lot of folks in our community who are isolated and struggling right now, or they’re at home with kids and are really just doing the best they can in a difficult situation.
“I really hope that families out there that are struggling or need a bit of extra support are not waiting to reach out. It’s tough to learn new technology, but I think learning new technology is a short-term pain, long-term gain situation, where if they can get the support they need, this is going to be way easier and they’re going to come out of this way heather than they may have otherwise.”
Naturopath reminds clients ‘life is more than COVID-19’
Ripple Wellness closed its office to the public on Monday, March 23, but several employees — including Jeff Olson, an acupuncturist and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner; Emily Olson, a yoga instructor and physical therapy assistant; naturopathic physician Cesilie Cocks; and nutritional therapist Marketa Sima — continue to offer their services via online platforms.
Rippe Wellness is also holding its semi-regular classes, which focus on a variety of physical and mental health topics, on the Zoom app.
“People feel helpless, out of control, groundless. Some are jobless. It’s very unsettling,” Jeff Olson said. “Taking proactive measures can be grounding and empowering. People can (regain a) feeling of control. You respond better and make better choices by a wide margin when you don’t panic. Doing yoga, or participating in breathing exercises or meditation or prayer, at the start of the day can be very grounding. Then you can move on and focus on the positive things you can do for your family.”
Martin said that her patients have been expressing a fear that COVID-19 “will hurt them or their family.”
“They know someone that has been affected by it directly, or work with someone who has it, or (know) someone in a nursing home who has it,” she said. “They have a fear of either ‘I’m spreading it or getting it.’ This is bringing (society) back to the basics of survival — food, shelter, the need to be healthy and provide for the family. All of those things are so important, but the most important thing is to stay healthy and alive.”
A group of clinical psychological scientists at the University of Washington’s Center for the Science of Social Connection recently released a report that stated that the United States “should be prepared for what may be an epidemic of clinical depression because of COVID-19.”
A 34-year-old England resident who suffered from bipolar disorder took his life after being unable to cope with the self-isolation imposed by the outbreak, according to a report by Yahoo News UK.
“There’s so much social distancing going on, but I say, ‘Connect, connect, connect.’ You can reach out to people, even with an email or through video chat,” Martin said. “(I would tell people to) connect with their friends and family members every single day. That will help because people are feeling isolated, and that’s when mental health can go down fast. That’s why (connection) is so critical.”
“I’ve noticed that extroverts are having a heck of a time with (the social distancing),” Gilbert added. “They’re trying to figure out creative ways to connect with other people. And I’ve noticed that for introverts — for whom this would be their natural jam — this is pushing them a little too far, and they have more of a desire to go out now. It’s interesting to see how it affects people who have families versus solitary individuals.”
Gilbert is asking her clients to get sufficient sleep; limit media intake; exercise; enjoy sunshine; write down things they’re thankful for; complete projects around the house; practice random acts of kindness; journal; and participate in enjoyable activities with family members or housemates.
“Self-care practices allow us to manage that which is manageable,” Emily Olson said. “They allow us to feel better, to stand taller, to be more relaxed and to not let our anxiety get out of control. And gratitude practices are so important right now. (I encourage people to) look out for things to appreciate. Gratitude is a character trait, and we can cultivate it like any other trait. We spend so much time on social media and thinking about all of the ‘what-ifs,’ but we need to spend an equal amount of time on our soul and spirit and focus on doing what’s good for the body and mind, and make a conscious effort to do what feels good.”
Cocks said that she reminds her clients that “life is more than COVID-19.”
“I counsel patients and talk them through their confusion,” she said. “I think it is important to give them some sense of normalcy, in a way — call them about their refills; check in on how they are; remind them to eat well, exercise and rest, and to manage their overall health as well as their particular conditions.”
Martin and Gilbert are continuing to provide services for their clients via online platforms.
“I’m helping a lot of people put together a daily routine to give them structure,” Martin said “I tell them to carve out some time for themselves, take a break (from the news cycle), read, be with their kids, or even just step outside and take a deep breath. And I’m really ramping up my self-care support — (emphasizing) healthy eating, stretching, getting sufficient sleep, staying hydrated. All of that basic stuff that people can forget about is so critical right now.”
Already, Gilbert is starting to see a difference. People are “finding some silver linings” and “having fewer days of panic,” she said.
“Everybody’s world shifted, and now they’re finding new rhythms and gaining perspective about what they used to be stressed or concerned about,” she said. “Previously they were operating in ‘burnout’ mode, and as a counselor I can appreciate peoples’ lives slowing down. They can see beneath the layers of the busyness and burnout, and tune into what they were missing before — the relationships they weren’t investing a lot into, or the feelings they didn’t know were there.”