Author and health researcher Michelle Courtney Berry, MPS, CISD, RMT, shares best resources and best practices for managing stress and anxiety during a public health crisis/global pandemic.
As uncertainty and fear rise steadily over the public health emergency that is COVID-19, college campuses close and move to online offerings, economic futures grow dismal, social distancing becomes the norm, handwashing notifications fill up our inboxes and news feeds, and the world concern over Coronaviruses takes on an unprecedented level of news coverage and public anxiety, it is ever-important to take care of one another as we rely on sound, science-based information conveyed without hype and speculation to an increasingly skeptical public.
As business owners and others engaged in our economic development grapple with the reality of lost business (particularly if they have relied exclusively on a college or other entity that is now shuttered), and as our business communities, airline, hospitality, hotel, and travel industries among others, deal with diminished sales, often mandated reduced crowd size, decreased participation levels, and human engagement, what shall become of our local and national economies?
What do we do about our event planners, festival organizers, the hopes and dreams of attendees? As the entertainment industry braces for an uncertain future, let us not forget that the most vulnerable of us (people living in poverty, people of color, people with pre-existing health conditions, the elderly, people most at risk of contracting COVID-19) are already spiraling in a mostly broken health care system burdened by political theatre, greed, confusing insurance systems or not even having insurance, and so much more. Not to mention canceling our travel plans to places we can no longer visit. In a time that we might wish to feel more connected, social distancing is the rule-of-thumb, and fear is widespread.
Further, our already taxed social systems, non-profits, and compassionate volunteers will be stretched thin or beyond capacity as their clients with increased anxiety, escalating needs, and health concerns flood the already flooded systems. As we contemplate how to prepare for what we are unsure of what we may or may not be preparing for, our workplaces now grapple with how to manage issues related to time off, sick time, and extended care needs for employees who may not only just get sick themselves, but may be home caring for young children if and when primary and elementary schools close. What of those engaged in elder care with high-risk populations? Will we be afraid to visit our sick loved ones as we care for them? What will happen our loved ones in nursing homes cannot receive visitors? How will they fare mentally, as we are protecting them healthwise by staying away? How will we ensure care for those who are already isolated? How will we manage the real threats to health and safety for our health care workers, as more and more people who do not need masks, take them, thus diminishing the supply of masks for those who do (health care workers and people diagnosed positively with COVID-19)?
What do we do about price gouging, as stores run out of toilet paper and other basic necessities like hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial soaps? Why does my home of three have a case of toilet paper? I could blame my spouse for panic-mode, but I’d not be following my own advice which is to avoid trying to control what you cannot control, i.e., the actions and opinions of others.
Pending pandemics and actual pandemics make us feel out of control. They induce stress. They heighten anxiety for those who are already anxious. It might feel too simplistic to say that in times of unknown, we must be kind. But kindness is a healing balm to already fractured nerves and brains that can feel battered by the increasing slew of bad news and more bad news.
Pandemics are not just a medical phenomenon; they affect individuals and society on many levels, causing disruptions. Stigma and xenophobia are two aspects of the societal impact of pandemic infectious outbreaks. Panic and stress have also been linked to worsening outbreaks. See: https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/psychiatrists-beware-impact-coronavirus-pandemics-mental-health
Anxiety may trigger our deeply-held fears and biases, which can then lead to acting out, discrimination, and in some cases, outright violence against groups we perceive as threatening or “causing” outbreaks. This is unfortunate and it should not happen. This is not the time to escalate any sort of race-based or ethnic-based fears. It can and will not serve us, and in fact, it makes everyone less safe worldwide.
We are best at pulling together when the going gets tough.
My friends, this is tough going.
How do we manage to stay kind, relatively calm, and healthy during times of uncertainty?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has an EXCELLENT handout prepared on how to manage stress and anxiety for:
- the general population
- health care workers and their managers
- caregivers for teens and adults
- those in isolation
You can download these helpful tips here: https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/mental-health-considerations.pdf?sfvrsn=6d3578af_2
Consumer Reports has done an excellent job with their FAQ’s: https://www.consumerreports.org/coronavirus/coronavirus-faq-what-you-need-to-know-covid-19/
**Here are my recommended (7) tips for staying well during so much tumult unrest, tension, and anxiety:
- Be Honest About Control.** Take a piece of paper. On the left-hand side, write down what you can control and on the right- hand side – what you cannot. Be honest. If you dig deep and reflect reasonably, you will see that most of the problems you face are not written on the left, but on the “can’t control” side of the page. Despite your best intentions, you cannot control so many things, weather, the opinions of others, politicians, news coverage, negative people, tiresome people, boring people, stupid people, how fast COVID-19 will spread or will not spread. Worrying over what you cannot control is what fuels speculation and fear. It takes away your locus of control. It incites panic and poor judgment. What people think about you and their opinions about how you are either managing or not managing the crisis, gets placed in the right-hand column. You can’t control mass media coverage and its byproduct which is often sensationalism. You can’t control if your partner is freaking out or not. You can’t control if you are depressed. You can’t just “snap out of it,” it’s a clinical condition that requires treatment. You can’t control what other people may or may not be saying. All you can control is YOU and how you are taking care of your health, your mind, your body, and your spirit. If you want more good sources about the virus, with the facts, go here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
- Be Non-Negotiable About Self-Care. After making your list, go to your calendar (either paper or electronic). Make a series of self-care appointments with yourself that are non-negotiable. Maybe it’s taking a walk or some other form of exercise. Maybe it’s calling a dear friend, reading for fun, meditating, yoga stretches, taking some cleansing breaths or getting some sort of mind, body, or spiritual support. Whatever that time block is, it is, make it sacred and do not move or shift the time. Do not allow other people or priorities to make you neglect your self-care. Be firm about this boundary. Many of us will have protections by law for religious or other observances. Make sure you check with HR to see what your rights are in these matters.
- Consult a Mental Health Professional.** Some of our workplaces have EAP (Employee Assistance Programs). An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a voluntary, work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who are dealing with personal, personnel, and/or other work-related matters. If you don’t have this option, contact a therapist or see if you can talk to them online if going out is a concern to you. Reach out to support groups in your area and see how they and other non-profits are providing resources, outreach, and feedback to people during this difficult time. The CDC has an excellent guide on “Mental Health and Coping Through Covid-19”: that can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/coping.html
- Limit Attending to News Stories and/or Exposure to Outbreak Timelines. Research shows that the more you listen to the news about the virus, the more stress and anxiety you will face. This anxiety may interrupt your sleep (thus weakening your immune system), which is counterproductive when you will want to stay as healthy as possible. Remember that news stories, while some quite thorough and helpful, for the most part, are designed to get you to read, click, and buy. Most are in the business to make money. Finding a news source that is a non-profit that provides balanced coverage and non-sensationalized news is a good place to donate to. Donating to a cause like this, or another one, can increase positive vibes and feelings of connection and care beyond yourself, rippling the feel-good effects that can increase health and human happiness.
- Gratitude Matters. Science is now clear that showing gratitude boosts our immune system, improves physical and mental health, decreases stress, and improves sleep. It can seem odd to talk about being grateful in times like these but hear me out. Extending more courtesy to those around us, increasing kindness as we thank one another for helping us out, as we recognize all the people who are standing ready to help us get through this crisis, as we pitch in together to sanitize our workspaces, to hear the concerns of one another with heartfelt appreciation, that can make all the difference to our health and human happiness. Read more here about the power of gratefulness in our lives: https://www.happierhuman.com/benefits-of-gratitude/ https://gratefulness.org/
- **Fake it Til You Make It for Your Kids. Modeling calm while anxious isn’t always ideal because you want to show that it’s okay to be upset, worried or even afraid as an authentic human. However, if you have children and are a caregiver or care provider, they will be looking for you as the role model. I’ve been a resource to the news media about keeping calm for kids during several national crises. No matter what the horrific situation: 9-11, Newtown, and more, it is imperative that we let them know that anxiety is normal. For our children with anxiety disorders, their anxieties will be even more heightened. If they are American, it is still true that telling them that despite all the news they hear, our risk is still low for contracting COVID-19, but that hand washing, not hugging, kissing, and shaking hands are all tools we’re using to keep us safe and minimize our risks. Share with them the steps to prevent illness that we’re taking as communities and as a nation to stay safe. Do not share all of your adult anxieties with children. They take their cues from us. So don’t say we are safe but look really nervous. Instead confide in other adults about your fears and concerns so that when you talk to your children you can do so from a calmer place. Remember to be reassuring, validate that the unknown is scary, but keep to normal routines, and communicate with the school and read updates from your child’s school regularly. Keep your child home if they are unwell. Remember too, that our children, based on school shootings and other threats do not always view school as “safe.” Adding in COVID-19 worries and anxieties, may have your child at the brink of despair. Do not dismiss their concerns, but do make sure that your school’s counselors are able to work as a team with you to manage these concerns. If your school has closed, plan fun activities, board games, mental health check-ins where they talk about their concerns, bake yummy treats, go for walks if you are allowed, do in-home exercising, make sanitizing fun, listen to audiobooks, do yoga together, laugh.
Here are some great articles on talking to young people:**
Children: https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-crisis/health-crisis-resources/talking-to-children-about-covid-19-(coronavirus)-a-parent-resource Teenagers: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/11/well/family/coronavirus-teenagers-anxiety.html
- Be Resourceful, Seek Support. Whether an entrepreneur, employee, organizational leader, volunteer, or other great members of your community, every facet of your community’s lives might feel impacted by this global phenomenon. What resources are out there to support individuals who are worried they will either get sick or get laid off? What business groups are shifting adroitly into advocacy and outreach roles for their membership? What are the top pain points small businesses are identifying? How can proactive financial institutions address these pain points quickly, as the stress of many business owners is skyrocketing? What steps can employers take to make sure fair policies are in place for leave, time off and extended time off? What ways can financial counselors prepare their clients for impacts to their investments and retirement portfolios? What are the ways that those with means can support our non-profit organizations that will be tasked with helping our most vulnerable populations through these tumultuous times? Facebook just put out a guide, “Business Resource Hub” that asks all the right questions business owners are asking worldwide: http://bit.ly/FBguide-alt
Asking good questions, seeking solutions, finding help, having friends to rely on, and utilizing networks that can respond quickly with compassion and dignity will make all the difference as we work together in these unchartered territories.
I look forward to our continued conversations as we navigate these choppy waters together. May our shared commitment for using best practices, commonsense guidelines, and overall recommended health and safety protocols for our homes, schools, places of work, and more, increase our comfort and wellness for the good of all we love, interact with, and serve.
A sought-after commentator, speaker, Reiki Master Teacher, and wellness expert, Michelle is a devoted researcher on the psychology of human behavior at work and how to best reach the public related to communicating risk and health information. She has been a spokesperson and community relations leader for leading universities, governmental organizations, cities, and brands during the ALAR pesticide crisis, a city’s line-of-duty death of a police officer, a coordinator of a countywide crime prevention initiative, a commentator on the tragedy in Newtown, and a journalist during the U.S. drought, which she covered, among other stories, as a TV reporter assigned to The White House and Capitol Hill during the Reagan Administration. Michelle is also a certified health and wellness coach and an internationally-certified critical incident stress de-briefer with proven experience in trauma-informed supervision.
A former elected official (Alderperson and Alternate Acting Mayor for the City of Ithaca); a former spokesperson and director of community relations for the City of Binghamton; former spokesperson and media relations coordinator for the SC Johnson School of Business: and faculty member in Crisis Communications, PR, and Marketing at the Park School at Ithaca College, Michelle is also an entrepreneur and the Chief Marketing Officer for Alternatives Federal Credit Union.
She holds a graduate degree from Cornell University in Organizational Behavior and Risk Communication and a dual-BA degree from Binghamton University, where she was a Presidential Scholar and Commencement Speaker. Michelle resides in the Finger Lakes Region of New York with her family and an assortment of tropical fish and their cat Caitlyn.