Dealing with stress, loneliness during COVID-19 pandemic

High Country Behavioral Health Clinical Director Jared Bingham, Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager Kim Proffit and Uinta County Community Prevention Specialist Kendra Safford join Evanston Mayor Kent Williams for a proclamation signing last fall. When speaking to the Herald, the three health officials agreed that loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic is a problem, but one that can be mitigated with the right measures and activities. (HERALD FILE PHOTO)

EVANSTON — “Loneliness is a universal human experience, and being the social animals that we are, there must be implications when those social connections are not satisfied,” University of Chicago senior research scientist Louisa Hawkley recently told the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). “When that social network is missing, the consequences are very real in terms of mental and physical health.”

Wyoming has joined the rest of the nation with rising numbers of coronavirus victims. Governor Mark Gordon has asked residents to stay at home, wash their hands and practice social distancing.

More locally, High Country Behavioral Health Clinical Director Jared Bingham said, “Social isolation is a real challenge and people need to find other ways to reach out to others. It is a good idea to not hide totally away from any contact; one can use the phone, internet, social gaming and other ways to interact socially. Also, get out in fresh air and take a walk; just remember to stay 6 feet away from others.”

Bingham said that if people become so overwhelmed that nothing seems to ease the stress, they can call High Country’s office, which is manned 24/7, at (307) 782-3097. Counselors are using telehealth and limiting office visits.

Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager Kim Proffit agreed this is a challenging time.

“People are not only worried about their own health but also worry about family members and those people living alone,” Proffit told the Herald. “This is an unusually stressful time and we are living under constant worry and uncertainty and the fear of financial distress. It is important to reach out and help people to connect with local resources that are available. Volunteering in some safe way to help others relieves some of our own stress. There are many examples of how to do that on YouTube and the internet.”

Websites for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), American Counseling Association, Wyoming Department of Health and AARP all provide similar recommendations for coping with the stress of social isolation that include the following: 

• Practice calming techniques. Focus on what you have control over and ways to reduce your anxiety.

• Physical exercise. Go for a walk, do yoga, play with your children or your pets — or any movement that gets blood flowing.

• Connect with others via email, phone, video chat or letter writing. Reach out to shut-ins or those who live alone with cards, letters or phone calls. Get in touch with people you haven’t heard from in years. 

• Listen to music and find other activities that bring you joy. Start a new hobby.

  Limit news consumption. It is important to get accurate information and facts to calm fears — especially locally — but too much negative coverage can be distressing. • Work on projects you have been putting off because you were too busy.

• Find ways to laugh. Watch funny movies, and read comedy or joke books.

Uinta County Community Prevention Specialist Kendra Safford also agreed that these are trying times for mental health.

“While social distancing is critical to help keep everyone safe, it can take a real toll on your mental health,” she said. “We are really encouraging people to make a concerted effort to continue to connect with friends, family members, neighbors and coworkers digitally. A quick FaceTime or Skype call can really help mental health and well-being. Additionally, going for walks, limiting media consumption, and taking on projects around the house can be beneficial. It’s important to note that excessive alcohol and other substance use is likely to make things worse.”

Safford said people can find a list of helpful resources at www.uintacountyprevention.com/resources/.

Local massage therapist Tammy Koncitik said she felt responsible to close her practice weeks before the governor advised it. Koncitik advises people to practice deep breathing.

“Breathe in through the nostrils deeply and exhale through the mouth as you relax the throat muscles,” she advised. “This causes the body to go from sympathetic (fight or flight) to parasympathetic and brings on deep relaxation. You can find examples of this on YouTube called, the Luna Breath. I also do a lot of puzzles, watch comedies and find something to make me laugh. I definitely limit my exposure to the news coverage.”

Sara Shields, pastor at Evanston Union Presbyterian Church said, “Go deep, go long. I’m not sure where that saying comes from but I like it.”

By “going deep” Shields said there are no wrong feelings — feel them, and then let them go. If you are in isolation with family members, share with them, hug them, touch them, hold hands and sit close. She suggested naming how things could be worse and then naming the positive in what one has now, including the act of slowing down and viewing it as a “gift of time.”

“Know that not everything will be what you want but don’t become hard or immovable when they aren’t,” Sheilds said. “What you want is just around the corner. Be ready to experience it. Be resilient and adaptable.” 

In “going long,” Shields said, “Dream about the future and plan future activities for when it is safe to move about once again. Dream about your friends and use social media to contact them. Be ready for what comes next after the pandemic is contained.”

The Wyoming Department of Family Services (DFS) recommends that Wyoming residents remember to give additional support and understanding to parents and children during this time of increased stress. According to Ed Heimer, field administrator and licensed clinical social worker with DFS, “Increased stress causes people to focus more on the negative. If you assume the worst in a situation, you’re liable to provoke negative behavior from other people. This can potentially keep a negative behavior cycle going.”

To combat these negative thoughts and behavior, Heimer suggests limiting news intake and disturbing media and turning on relaxing music, taking a walk and looking for positive news. Tips for parents include increasing communication with children, consistently reinforcing positive behaviors and creating a calm environment. Monitor children and teens for increased stress and use exercise and fun activities to help alleviate the stress. Teens and older children can be encouraged to write about their feelings and the situation. Parents should model positive and affirmative behavior.

If prolonged stress leads to major depression or feelings of wanting to harm self or others, there is help at the CDC’s Disaster Distress Helpline at (800) 985-5990. All DFS offices currently remain open. For help or support, call the local DFS office at (307) 789-2756, call the Uinta County Suicide Prevention Task Force National Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or text WYO to 741741.

Therapist Dawn Delgado, national director of operations at the Center for Discovery, focuses on the possible “silver lining” in the current pandemic. She said the Chinese word for crisis contains two characters: “danger” and “opportunity.” A positive outcome of stay-at-home policies around the world is the planet is experiencing less pollution and greenhouse gas, Delgado said. She said she views the recent and often used cliché “we are all in this together” as a model for the opportunity to gain a deeper connection with others once the pandemic is over. She said we may experience post-traumatic growth from this experience, if we are resilient and adaptable.

In the April issue of Time magazine, former surgeon general of the U.S. Vivek Murphy wrote, “A sense of imminent threat such as the current coronavirus pandemic makes our world feel even less safe and hospitable and brings on anxiety. This may not initially feel like loneliness but more as negativity towards others. The natural response is to protect ourselves against the threat and close down and prejudge others.

“Loneliness is a universal condition that affects all of us directly or through the people we love,” Murphy continued. “We are hardwired for connection … And even now, as we face the global COVID-19 pandemic and resort to physical distancing to reduce the spread of the virus, we are recognizing that we cannot make it through the fear, danger and uncertainty of the current moment without supporting one another.  … When we share a common purpose, when we feel a common urgency, when we hear a call for help that we are able to answer, most of us will step up and come together.”

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