20 Jul 20200 Comments
You’ve sheltered in place for what seems like forever. You’ve Zoomed with your children and grandchildren, FaceTimed with friends, and learned the best times (be honest, it’s midnight!) to submit an online grocery order for home delivery.
But now, some restrictions have been lifted or lessened. You’re more than ready to venture outside and hoping that things will start to seem “normal” again.
For many, the pandemic has elicited negative physical and emotional symptoms, says Erica Fross, LCSW-R. “Our bodies and minds perceive the current situation as a threat and an emergency,” she says. “And our normal reaction is to go into the fight or flight situation, but we can’t do this. Instead, we are in a frozen state, being told to just stay put.”
The body’s stress response system is designed to deal with an immediate situation, explains Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD, assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at New York Medical College. But the current pandemic is constant and unremitting in terms of stressfulness, with no breaks from the worry. “In a situation like this, our stress response system is always on and the soothing parasympathetic part of our nervous system becomes underactive,” Dr. Gerbarg says. “We become way out of balance in terms of managing our stress system. Our nervous system goes into defensive mode.”
When this goes on for weeks and months, the system can become exhausted and depression may set in, she says.
If you’ve lost a loved one to COVID-19 and were not able to say goodbye, the feelings of loss can be overwhelming. “There is trauma over the terrible loss and there can be guilt,” Fross says. “And the loss of rituals that people would have observed at the time the loved one was lost have also been taken away.”
Even if you haven’t personally lost someone, just the disturbing images on TV – of stacked up caskets or ambulances lined up in front of hospitals – can stay with you and replay over and over in your mind, Fross says.
Some individuals can feel traumatized by the pandemic, says Alisa Rosenfeld, LCSW, founder of Senior Care Therapy (www.seniorcaretherapy.com). “Older people can get really down and think that the way it is now is how it will always be,” she says. “They may feel scared and depressed.”
What You Can Do to Feel Better
Reach out to a friend or family member who might not be in the habit of calling others, suggests Fross. “Some people are reluctant to reach out, and it is important to engage them,” she says. “It’s good for a person’s well-being to be helpful – and engaging someone with a phone call can feel like a way for you to fight back and help yourself.”
Breathe to calm down. “One way to take care of your body and feel less stress is to use breathing techniques that slow the breath down,” Fross says. “When you are stressed, your breathing can get constricted. Slower breathing can lower the baseline of your anxiety. When you slow your breath down, you slow your heart rate down, too. You are telling your body, this is not an emergency.”
Dr Gerbarg agrees that breathing techniques can help you stay calm and centered, and also help you get a good night of sleep. She and her husband, Dr. Richard P. Brown, who are the authors of The Healing Power of the Breath, conduct workshops that teach breathing techniques. You can look on their website (breath-body-mind.com) for free materials to get you started, or view their work on YouTube.
In addition to having a calming effect, breathing exercises can actually help you feel more connected to the people you love. “We know that we hold the people we love in our hearts,” Dr. Gerbarg says. “If you slow your breathing down and think about the person you love, notice what happens and how you feel. You begin to have positive feelings toward the person. You feel love instead of worry.” By practicing breathing, she explains, you’ve shifted your system out of the defense mode and into the social engagement mode.
Limit the amount of media you consume. “The more time that you watch, the more it increases the likelihood of having a traumatic response,” Fross says. “Everything is overwhelming right now. It is hard to see these images on TV, so make a conscious effort not to watch the news too much.”
When Restrictions Are Lifted
You may continue to experience anxiety even as things start to get back to normal, experts say. Though it’s hard to envision how social distancing rules will play out, one possibility is that older Americans may still be told to continue sheltering in place while younger people go out. “This is going to be hard to deal with,” Fross says. “You may feel spikes of fear as your children and grandchildren move around more. You may feel a degree of caretaking responsibility toward your family. Then, suddenly, you can’t access your family because they can go out. This can be hard to deal with and may make you feel angry and resentful.”
And if you have a fear of being too close to people, that’s normal, too, Fross says. “It is not irrational to struggle with whether or not you feel scared when someone walks close to you,” she says. And it’s okay to tell the person, I don’t feel comfortable with you being that close to me. You don’t have to say it in an aggressive way. Of course, the information keeps changing so it’s normal to feel skeptical. This will be an ongoing problem.”
And focus on staying healthy by getting enough sleep and eating right. “We want to stay as healthy as we can while we are in quarantine so that when the day finally comes when we can get out there, we want to be strong and able to enjoy all the things we’ve been missing,” Dr. Gerbarg says.
And you may want to seek help. Senior Care Therapy offers telehealth behavioral therapy. “Teletherapy can be really helpful,” Rosenfeld says. “Our therapists can help to decrease loneliness and give people the coping skills they need to get through this difficult period. It is important for people to be hopeful and to know that at some point, this will be over.”