The new normal: Fighting off cabin fever while isolated in your cabin (3 things to consider about mental health during isolation)
The year 2020 is three and a half months old, and among the threat of war, a divisive presidential primary, a divisive presidency and a near-total disruption of everyday life in response to an encroaching pandemic, one wouldn’t be blamed for feeling as if they’ve lived several lifetimes in recent weeks.
And for Summit County residents feeling the stress from some or all of those things, waking up to the earth literally shaking beneath their feet last Wednesday didn’t help.
Aaron Newman, Summit County’s director of behavioral health, says that people feeling burdened by all of that are far from alone.
“During this time there’s a lot of unknowns for individuals that can cause a lot of stress, panic and anxiety for them,” he said.
The Summit County Health Department has activated its “continuity of care plan” to make sure that mental health care remains constant throughout the crisis, Newman said, whether it’s through online support groups or through other means.
Whether you’re worried about the risk of exposure to COVID-19, the personal and financial effects of the pandemic or attempting to explain the unexplainable to your kids, local leaders in the mental health field have offered various strategies for taking care of your brain and seeking support — at a distance — during a time where pretty much everyone is as confused as everyone else.
An everyday crisis
The experience of living through an unexpected event followed by months of isolation isn’t new to Mary Christa Smith. The coordinator of Communities That Care, an initiative of the Summit County Mental Wellness Alliance nonprofit, went through all of that as part of becoming a mother.
“The life experience I’ve drawn upon in this time is being a new mom,” Christa Smith said. “I had a brand-new baby in January, I holed up at home for three months. I did not go out. People brought me food; I had to create this rhythm of the day in a period of pretty great isolation during that time.”
To stay in control of her situation, she sharpened her yoga practice and played guitar. Many of the effects of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, she said, are reflected in peoples’ smaller crises.
“Most of us have had something really unexpected happen in our lives,” Christa Smith said. “Some people have blown out their knees and have been incapacitated and out of work, some people have lost their jobs in surprising fashion or some people have had to move or had an illness in the family.”
Could this email have been a meeting?
For those lucky enough to find themselves still employed but working from home, the practice of social isolation can present its own challenges. Newman said one way to address the possibility of cabin fever is to meet face-to-face remotely or speak on the phone in situations that might have previously called for an email or a quick Slack message.
“Having that human contact over the phone can really help someone that’s not used to working from home or to that isolation,” he said. “Email’s nice right now, but people still need to have means of having that human conversation.”
Colton Miller, a licensed psychologist at the new Psychiatric Clinic at Park City Hospital, said establishing a routine and a discrete workspace at home, as well as staying informed about the outside world, are two other important aspects of staying sane during isolation.
“Set aside work hours and dedicate a space in your home to do that work that’s as distraction-free as possible, and kind of mentally prepare yourself, ‘Hey, this is my work area, this is work, but when I leave this room I’m going to go back to my personal life,’” Miller said.
There’s a difference between staying informed and overdosing on the news, he said.
“I’d recommend that people stay aware of current guidelines from experts, and turn off the news outlets that are 24-hour cable news that are based on a lot of fear and conjecture, because that can really play into peoples’ anxieties and paranoia,” he said. “Pay attention, get your news for 10 to 20 minutes during the day, then focus on your life and what you can do.”
Rising to leadership
Presidents, prime ministers, senators, congresspeople, governors and local officials are all navigating uncharted waters right now.
There’s another group of leaders who are being called upon to take on that difficult task: parents.
Smith, the Communities That Care coordinator, says that it’s OK for parents to be honest and say “I don’t know,” but not to burden their children with their own anxieties and abdicate their position as guiding forces of a household.
“I would be advising parents to be comforting and reassuring to their kids; to let them know that we will get through this, we are resilient, we are going to be OK, life is going to be different for a while,” Smith said.
While every family will face varying degrees of physical, financial and spiritual stress in the upcoming months, according to Smith, the process of isolation and the disruption to normal schedules presents a chance to find a silver lining in the absence of school, sports and other social interactions.
“This time actually offers us a unique opportunity to slow down and be very intentional and spending quality time connecting with our kids and asking them, ‘What would be fun that we could do together today,’” she said. Activities could include exercise or learning a new and useful skill like how to make a bed.
Miller, who recently enrolled his child in online preschool, advocated for a balanced diet of interaction and “me” time, as well as that of activity and, yes, screen time.
“It’s OK to allow your kids to watch a show here and there; Netflix is not the devil,” Miller said. “You’ve got to implement some structure for your family and use this as an opportunity to really get to know them, and at the same time it’s OK to take breaks from each other; to have some quiet time in your bedrooms and to relax and kind of breathe a little bit.”
As for teenagers who may already be restless and who may be separated from their peer groups, Smith said that time spent online can be valuable in allowing them to maintain those friendships whether it’s a session of Dungeons & Dragons over Facetime or interactions on social media.
Just not hours spent scrolling aimlessly, though. That was unhealthy even before the virus.
‘Don’t be a hero’
As Summit County’s leaders urge residents to isolate themselves and their families, new, remote options for mental health care are emerging on a regular basis. The Psychiatric Clinic at Park City hospital is preparing and deploying its own remote telehealth options, county officials and Connect Summit County are rolling out their online support groups and the SafeUT smartphone app is a standing option among many others. The Park City School District is continuing all of its counseling services remotely as well.
Deanna Rhodes, executive director of Connect, said her nonprofit is ready to help guide residents to finding care if — or when — they need it.
“With the panic, anxiety and fear, that very much takes a professional,” Rhodes said. “Logging into these support groups or wherever people find support is really, really important. Don’t be a hero with it.”
If you’re starting to feel the pressure, visit the Psychiatric Clinic at Park City Hospital online, contact the Summit County Health Department, Connect Summit County or the Summit County Mental Wellness Alliance for resources. Summit County maintains a “community concerns” hotline at 435-333-0050.
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