Home / Wellness / How to keep your mental health in check during the coronavirus pandemic
How to keep your mental health in check during the coronavirus pandemic

How to keep your mental health in check during the coronavirus pandemic

In the last week, Houston therapist Kara Smith has had to field several questions about COVID-19.

One client asked if everyone who contracts the virus dies; another asked if she will suspend her practice. A third asked if the virus can be passed to pets.

“I am seeing a wide range of reactions to this pandemic,” said Smith, a licensed clinical social worker. “As stories arise, such as the cancellation of the Rodeo and the remainder of the NBA season, clients’ anxiety levels are rising. Many clients are worried about losing their jobs, especially those in the supply chain, oil and gas, or travel and leisure industries.”

But people who do not normally seek mental health services are feeling an uptick in anxiety as well, partly due to a sudden sense of loneliness and isolation, as working from home and social distancing become more prevalent.

On HoustonChronicle.com: Not feeling well? Here are some practical home remedies

More Information

Mental health, self-care practices one can do alone from home

For your body:

  Eat more nutritional foods

  Drink less caffeine

  Eat less sugar

  Exercise

For your mind:

  Deep breathing

  Mindfulness

  Journaling your thoughts, body sensations and emotions

  Play games

  Do a crossword puzzle

  Read a book

  Limit exposure to coronavirus media to one or two times per day

  Yoga

  Learn something new

  Discover new music

For your spirit:

  Read religious, spiritual or metaphysical literature

  Watch a religious, spiritual or metaphysical video or listen to a podcast

  See if your place of worship will offer online streaming or religious services

  Connect with nature (go outside, care for a houseplant, look out the window at nature)

  Spend time with your pets

  Meditation

  Reach out to someone outside your household at least once a day. It is important for us to stay connected to others during this time.

Source: Kara Smith, Houston licensed clinical social worker

What are people the most afraid of? Other people, Smith said.

“The most difficult thing for most of my clients to do is to trust that other people are protecting us as much as we are protecting ourselves,” she said. “As we hear stories about people who were asked to self-quarantine going to crowded places, the ability to trust those around us to do the right thing decreases.”

These heightened feelings are normal, and it’s important to understand the difference between anxiety, obsessive compulsive patterns and coronavirus news-induced feelings of panic.

Dr. Elizabeth McIngvale is the co-director of the Houston OCD program and president of the Peace of Mind Foundation, a nonprofit organization with the goal of helping people who suffer from various types of obsessive compulsive disorder.

“Certainly during this time, we see a lot more increased fear responses and anxiety,” McIngvale said. “What we’re seeing are more patients who aren’t normally at our clinic. We’re really seeing anxiety and panic take over and be part of the general population at this point.”

Anxiety levels spike in a general population during times of uncertainty, like when there’s a hurricane in the Gulf. But with a virus like COVID-19, which is spread person-to-person and takes days to show symptoms, there is an extra level of fear. Constant news updates, mile-long lines at grocery stores and supply shortages can contribute to a collective feeling of urgency or panic.

“There’s this added level of responsibility that if I’m not cautious enough, I can catch it, spread it and it’ll be my fault,” McIngvale said. “You’re going to definitely see that people are making decisions based on risk.”

On HoustonChronicle.com: Four hacks to help you sleep better

Measures to slow the spread of coronavirus have extended much further than “wash your hands for 20 seconds.” Most large gatherings have been canceled, and companies are encouraging their employees to work from home if they’re capable. This weekend, the House of Representatives passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which mandates employers provide paid sick time to employees who qualify.

Americans crave communion with others, and self-isolation can play into a greater feeling of anxiety, and in some cases, depression.

“As people isolate more and socialize less, they are more prone to feelings of loneliness and restlessness, if not anxiety and depression,” Smith said. “If people are asked to remain at home for days, it may also bring up trauma memories of Hurricane Harvey, leaving people feeling trapped, isolated and helpless.”

The best thing to do is take better care of ourselves in body, mind and spirit, Smith said.

McIngvale and Smith both recommend limiting exposure to “coronavirus media” to one or two times per day because constant exposure can increase feelings of anxiety and panic.

Also, find a credible source, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or a trusted media source,, and only get information from there. Pay attention to recommendations and guidelines, but try to avoid the rest if you’re feeling uneasy.

Finally, use the appropriate amount of caution, but don’t overdo it.

On HoustonChronicle.com: Quarantined? Take the time to declutter your home

“When anxiety is taking over, we start to see 20-second recommended hand washes turn into multiple hand washes and an inability to leave the kitchen because they’re stuck washing their hands,” McIngvale said. “When is it a normal response or when is it (obsessive compulsive) or anxiety taking over?”

Social distancing can also affect people who rely on in-person communities, such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, to stay accountable in their recovery from drugs and alcohol. A good alternative is In The Rooms, an online support group website with video meetings.

Many therapists, including Smith, offer video therapy appointments in lieu of in-person visits. It’s important to stay accountable and on top of your mental health even if you’re under quarantine, McIngvale said. At area hospitals, telemedicine apps are being used in as many consultations as possible, especially those not related to coronavirus.

Anxiety and a little bit of uneasiness are normal during this time,” McIngvale said. “But most people should return to functioning. If it’s consistent and affecting your life, seek help before it causes any major disruption.”

julie.garcia@chron.com

Twitter.com/reporterjulie

Renew Houston: Get the latest wellness news delivered to your inbox