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Embrace down time, limit social media during covid-19 crisis, say mental health experts

Like just about everyone else these days, Jen Bertolasio finds herself in a situation she could not have imagined even one month ago.

Bertolasio, 32, of Carnegie works as a data analyst. But, along with her husband, she is now on Day 13 of working from home with her two children — a 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son — under foot while maintaining a safe social distance from the rest of her family.

“It’s stressful,” said Bertolasio. “It’s hard not seeing friends and family. My mother’s birthday is coming up, and we’re planning a family FaceTime party. It’s been very difficult.”

Leslie Craven, 47, of Pine is a financial adviser for Royal Bank of Canada. She usually works out of an office in either Pittsburgh or Lower Burrell. But she’s been at home for more than a week with her husband, a software consultant, and her two boys aged 9 and 7. Craven has plenty of worries.

“I worry about the economy, of course, because of the work I do,” said Craven. “I spend part of the day wearing my teacher’s hat because I’m worried about my kids falling behind in school. And I wonder: ‘How does life get back to normal?’ ”

At least Craven and Bertolasio are still employed.

Many people have lost their jobs and now have that challenge to deal with on top of being concerned about their children, financial pressures, their own health and the health of others they care about.

Dr. Jack Rozel, a psychiatrist, is medical director of crisis services at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. He is seeing the covid-19 pandemic take center stage in mental health.

“I came in early (Wednesday) morning to be able to touch base with our overnight staff, and I was told that people were bringing up covid in almost every single call,” said Rozel.

“We’re seeing people who were mentally well, without a care in the world two months ago, who are now struggling with feelings of anxiety and sadness and feeling overwhelmed,” Rozel said. “We talk about post-traumatic stress disorder. But we don’t really have a diagnosis for ‘ongoing-and-who-knows-when-it’s-ever-going-to-end stress disorder.’ ”

Focus on the here and now

New York City psychologist Tony Ortega is an author of books such as “#AreYouHereYet: How to STFU and Show Up For Yourself.” He advises his clients during stressful times to focus on the present, to “dial it back to right here, right now.”

Ortega said worrying about the future during this pandemic only compounds the stress of dealing with it.

“We do not know how this is going to look at the end. Trying today to project into the future as to what our lives are going to look like is a useless use of brainpower,” said Ortega.

“What we need to focus on is, ‘OK, I know I’m trapped in the house today. How am I going to make today a kick-ass day?’ Fear, anxiety, stress — it’s usually all future related. Sometimes it’s just a matter of sitting down and watching your breathing and being very present to your senses.”

Ortega said the best way to avoid feeling overwhelmed is to avoid focusing on the problem and focus on the solution.

“People are out of work and there are some real concerns like, ‘How the hell am I going to pay rent? How am I going to pay my credit card bills?’ One of my (clients), God bless him, he’s being very proactive and contacting his credit card company to see what they can do.”

Another reason to avoid stress is the adverse effect it can have on your immune system.

“I think the most important things that we can do to combat stress is to get the right amount of sleep, eat the right diet, exercise appropriately and understand that this is something that we’re all in together,” said Dr. Arvind Venkat, Allegheny Health

Network emergency physician.

“We’re not alone in our fight against this virus. That, I hope, will combat some of the individual stress that people are experiencing.”

Being stuck at home has left lots of people glued to social media for the latest news on the pandemic, something Rozel insists is not healthy.

“There’s a lot of stuff in social media that’s just going to reinforce the anxiety and the fear. News is about what’s new. Use the news for updates, use the news to learn things. Don’t use it as a way to spend your downtime.”

Ortega recommends using your downtime to better yourself.

“I’ve been telling people. ‘Look at your bucket list.’ One of the things that people tell me when they find out I’ve written books is, ‘Oh I’ve always wanted to write a book.’ Guess what, Mary, you’ve got a chance to write it now.

“So, it’s taking a look at all of those things like, ‘Oh, I want to take an art class.’ Lots of universities are offering free classes right now or free tutorials.”

Grief amid uncertainty

As the spread of covid-19 worsens and the number of deaths increases, more and more people are dealing with the loss of loved ones on top of everything else.

Nurse, life coach and author Mary Odgers said it’s important for people to be able to accept grief and uncertainty. She speaks from firsthand experience.

Odgers and her husband lost their home and almost all of their possessions to a 2008 California wildfire. A year later, her husband committed suicide.

Odgers has just published a memoir about her journey during and after the California wildfires. In her book, “Six Funerals and a Wedding,” she offers advice for staying calm and grounded.

“We are wired as human beings to want certainty in our lives. We want certainty in keeping ourselves safe, certainty in keeping ourselves healthy, keeping our loved ones with us. Certainty is only so controllable, and learning to live with the uncertainty is kind of surrendering. And it’s very difficult to surrender when your life is out of your control” said Odgers, who lives in Solana Beach, Calif.

“I think it kind of goes back to the whole idea of deciding what you can change and what you can’t change and praying for the wisdom to know the difference.”

Odgers advises people to take on the things they can change.

“That’s what has happened in my life through the different tragedies I had in a very short period of time. You come to realize that part of the struggle is resisting the struggle. And when you feel the slightest bit of freedom, it’s usually when you’ve decided to go with it and work on acceptance.”

The surge ahead

Meanwhile, Rozel said he sees a surge of increased mental health issues coming.

“The burden of mental health kicks in after people have had a chance to catch their breath and say ‘Whoa, what was that?’ At the given moment, we’re seeing lots of issues around mental health but our surge is still coming, meaning anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Rozel.

“We’ve already seen some research from China and other countries that there are increased demands for mental health services, both from people with preexisting mental health issues and for people without preexisting mental health issues.”

The National Suicide Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

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