Managing Fears and Anxieties In a Time of Pandemic

The pandemic has stripped away communal gatherings that would otherwise help us deal with all the grief, uncertainty, and fear it has brought about.

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“It affects everyone, everywhere. It’s insidious, silent, and invisible,” said Brenda Mamber, a career social worker, adjunct professor in Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service. “You don’t know when the threat will be over and at what cost, so it’s very hard to cope with your feelings when the world as you knew it no longer exists.”

She and other Fordham experts offered advice for coping with the psychological effects of this pandemic while also strengthening overall well-being.

Give Thanks

David Marcotte, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, clinical psychologist, and associate professor at Fordham who teaches a popular undergraduate course on the psychology of well-being and living a happy life.

“Negative events are like a sponge” in the mind, he told students in one class session last year. “When [sponges] get wet, they start getting bigger and bigger, and if we’re not doing something to counteract that, the sponge gets so big that it fills our head.”

He begins each class with a five-minute mindfulness meditation and teaches other techniques for building resilience and keeping calm. Gratitude is better than optimism, hope, or even compassion for boosting mental health and satisfaction, he said.

Studies have shown that people who practice gratitude generally fare better than people who don’t. They cope better with stress, take a rosier view of life — and recover faster from illness.

Journal writing is one of many ways to practice gratitude. Carol Gibney, an associate director of campus ministry at Fordham, said that she and her friends have started a daily text thread, sharing “three things that we’re grateful for.”

Find Community and a Sense of Purpose

In times of crisis, “what we know is important is a sense of family and community and connection,” even if it’s attained virtually, Mamber said.

Dr. Philip A. Pizzo, a pediatric oncologist and immunologist and former dean of the Stanford School of Medicine, has called for physicians to prescribe ways for their patients to foster this sense of community and connection. In a January 2020 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, he noted that poor social relationships are tied to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and strokes.

“Having a purpose, seeking social engagement, and fostering wellness through positive lifestyle choices (e.g., exercise, nutrition, mindfulness) are important in reducing morbidity and mortality and improving the life journey,” wrote Dr. Pizzo, a 1966 graduate of Fordham College at Rose Hill. “These variables are important at all stages of life and particularly for those in midlife and older.”

Volunteer

Finding ways to help  others, like making phone calls to seniors or sewing protective masks, can provide purpose and address the sense of helplessness associated with not knowing what to do, Mamber said.

It’s also a way to cope with any sense of guilt at being spared others’ suffering, said Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a psychotherapist and author of It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self (Random House and Penguin U.K., 2018).

Helping others could mean bringing food to a neighbor’s doorstep, for instance, or simply doing your part to contain the virus, she said. “Just taking care of your family and staying at home is being a good citizen,” said Hendel, a 2004 alumna of Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service.

Feel Your Emotions

Hendel emphasized the need to address and validate the emotions triggered by distressing news. It could be as simple as taking five minutes a few times a day to tune in to them. “If you start to just block the emotions, eventually it’s going to make one feel worse,” possibly leading to anxiety and depression, she said.

One tool for addressing strong emotions is the change triangle. Detailed in It’s Not Always Depression, it’s a way to identify blocked emotions, work through them, and keep them from becoming debilitating, Hendel said. Other techniques for managing anxiety include going to a quiet room, closing your eyes, and imagining a favorite place as experienced through all five senses.

Change Your State of Mind

Also helpful is keeping a list of “state changers” such as exercising, taking a bath, playing with a pet, calling a friend, watching a funny show— anything that can reliably help you feel better, Hendel said.

“The tiniest bits of relief are good enough just to take the edge off,” she said. “If the nervous system is firing away ‘danger, danger, danger,’ releasing adrenaline into the system, we don’t have conscious control over it. All we have conscious control over is how to try to calm it.”

She noted the many support groups that can be found online, as well as apps that help with meditation. Also useful are simple things like positive self-talk or mantras — “this is temporary,” “one day at a time.”

Take Time to Grieve

A new Fordham initiative, Care for the Parent, offers insight from Fordham clinical psychologists to help students’ families cope during the pandemic. See videos and learn more at fordham.edu/carefortheparent.

For those suffering from not being able to visit a loved one hospitalized with COVID-19, “you’re just going to have to validate that it’s hell and be grief stricken. And don’t let anyone tell you not to be grief stricken. Reach out to people, cry when you need to, get support,” Hendel said.

It’s important to balance empathy for others’ travails with self-care, she said, noting that highly sympathetic people can be “triggered all day long by the suffering.”

“Find your own balance, because it’s unique for everybody,” she said. “It’s an ongoing lifetime practice of getting to know yourself and what you need and what’s best for you.”

Be Kind to Yourself and Your Loved Ones

Jeffrey Ng, Psy.D., director of counseling and psychological services at Fordham, noted the importance of self-compassion.

“The current circumstances will likely make it more challenging for us to stay on track or get things done as effectively as we might have wanted or planned for,” he said. “Being kinder, gentler, and more patient with ourselves when this happens will go a long way toward preserving and enhancing our mental health and well-being.”

Also, parents should be sensitive to all the events — concerts, plays, sporting events, graduations — that their children are missing because of school closures, said John Craven, Ph.D., associate professor of education in Fordham’s Graduate School of Education.

“The impact of this pandemic on students emotionally may run in deep, quiet waters,” he said.

Go On a News Diet

Mamber advised moderating one’s consumption of pandemic-related news to avoid being overwhelmed. “I have to monitor that for myself, something I learned during 9/11. You feel compelled to watch the news to learn what’s going on, but find it hard to disconnect. Finding the right balance will help support your natural resilience.”

Hendel recommended scheduling news watching for the least disruptive time of day (not right before bed if it impedes your sleep). Ng recommended focusing on more factual news rather than sensational pieces that could spread misinformation.

Get Outside If You Can

Unless there’s a public advisory to the contrary, “social distancing doesn’t mean never leaving our homes, going for a walk, shopping for groceries, or interacting at all with others,” Ng said. “What it does mean, though, is that we’ll need to be doing these in a more limited, intentional, and conscientious manner.”

Gibney said one of her favorite ways to feel centered is to explore nature. “The great outdoors always speaks to me. Looking at the clouds, looking at a tree, being aware of nature’s beauty— [these]are ways that can help people find consolation,” she said.

And then, sometimes, consolation comes from displays of community. Mamber said it’s been inspiring to hear people in her Manhattan neighborhood open their windows and call out in support of health care workers every night at 7 p.m.

“It’s amazing to hear that, to know that people in that moment are apart, yet together,” she said. “Creating something beautiful, a new social ritual and structure, out of the uncertainty and fear gives us hope for the future.“

When to Seek Help

Seeking help is “a sign of strength and maturity rather than weakness,” said Jeffrey Ng, director of counseling and psychological services at Fordham. He encourages people to seek professional help for any of the following: Persistent sadness, anxiety, anger, irritability, hopelessness, or feelings of being overwhelmed; Sustained loss of interest in social or pleasurable activities; Significant impairments or changes in daily functioning, such as sleep, appetite, or hygiene; Thoughts about death, dying, or suicide; or impulsive, reckless, or risky behaviors, such as substance abuse or self-injury.

Mental health resources have been posted online by these and other organizations:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: cdc.gov

The American Psychiatry Association: psychiatry.org

The American Psychological Association: apa.org

This piece was originally posted in Fordham Magazine.

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