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Peace during uncertainty: Finding ways to maintain mental health during a pandemic

Mary Beth TeSelle
Special to The Union
Happy family using digital tablet together in living room
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Resources for older adults

Knight shares two resources to support social connectivity for older adults:

The Friendship Line 800-971-0016: A hotline/warm line available 24 hours a day for people 60+ who are experiencing loneliness, isolation, grief, depression, anxiety, or thoughts of suicide.

FREED’s Phone Reassurance Program 530-477-3333: Volunteers make regular phone calls to check-in with isolated seniors.

For older adults isolating due to risk factors, there are many resources and supports being coordinated through our local 211 service (such as food/grocery shopping).

With 90 percent of the U.S. population (about 298 million people) currently under a “stay at home” order, it is accurate to say that we are a nation under isolation right now.

And while isolating is the right thing to do from a public health perspective, it can be very difficult in a variety of ways, including mentally and emotionally.

“During this unprecedented time people are experiencing many heightened emotions such as fear, sadness, anxiety, emotional detachment, numbness, anger, and loneliness to name a few,” explains Anastacia Knight, MSW, Social Outreach Program Coordinator with Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital Foundation.

Knight says in addition to emotional changes, people also may be experiencing physical changes such as appetite increase or decrease, sleep issues, and somatic or body feelings like aches or pains that aren’t typical for them. And if a person already has a mental or physical health concern or disability, these feelings or symptoms may be amplified right now.

“People may also be noticing their thinking has been affected,” Knight says. “They may have more difficulty remembering things, making decisions, and have trouble concentrating. It is important to remember that for most people these are signs of stress and can be seen as a fairly normal response to all of the changes and stressors we are coping with currently.”

Knight explains that our often intense emotional reaction to being isolated is rooted in primal biology. Humans, she explains, are social creatures with a need for connection. The inability to meet this need creates a stress or survival response.

The change and uncertainty that is inherent during a pandemic can intensify our biological stress reactions.

“Predictability feels safe to our many systems and lack of it can cause fear,” Knight explains. “Additionally, research has found that social isolation and loneliness takes a significant toll on our systems-mentally, emotionally, and physically.”

Fortunately, there are tools we can all employ to help combat what we are feeling.

“People need to be kind and compassionate with themselves during this time,” Knight says. “Recognize this is an extraordinary time we are experiencing. Take care of your physical health by eating healthy food, getting enough sleep, exercising or moving your body as you are able, and avoiding too much caffeine and excessive alcohol use, as well as illegal drugs.”

Knight encourages everyone to practice “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing” because having social connections is so beneficial to our health. Using technology like Facetime, Zoom or other meeting platforms, email, or even just calling and texting can all be great ways to maintain social bonds with friends and family.

For those experiencing anxiety, Knight recommends trying meditation, breathing practices, prayer, or simply listening to music. Explore the wide variety of apps and YouTube videos available to assist with these practices.

For older adults, who often are already isolated, facing mandated isolation can be even more challenging. Their social interactions are now more limited or nonexistent, and their fears and worries may be heightened by being in the high-risk group for health issues related to COVID-19.

“I have found that seniors often have difficulty reaching out and asking for help,” says Knight. “Those of us that don’t fall into the older adult category can make it a practice to check in with seniors in our life, including family and neighbors, to talk with them and see if they need assistance or just a friendly ear and some connection.”

As we face several more weeks of isolating, Knight reminds us all that it’s important to recognize when someone needs professional help to cope.

“If someone is experiencing the increased signs of stress and it is interfering in their life and how they function, they may want to reach out for help,” Knight say. “Most mental health therapists are adapting to our current situation by offering online or phone services. People can call their insurance company for a list of therapists.”

California has also created a newer mental health warm line (885-845-7415) that is available to anyone in need of help.

And as always, if an individual or someone a person knows begins talking about hurting or killing themselves or writes about death, dying or suicide they need assistance immediately. In those cases, call the Nevada County Crisis Line at 530-265-5811 and/or go to the local emergency room for evaluation.

Knight shares one final, important piece of advice.

“Remember to breathe,” she says. “Know that there will be an end to this current situation, even if we don’t know exactly when that may be.”


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