These are difficult times. We are needing to make dramatic changes in how we work, how we interact and how we plan for the months ahead. We don’t know when this will subside. And we worry intensely about family and friends and how they will fare.
Over the past few days, I have received calls from colleagues acknowledging the stress this is starting to bring on them and frankly asking how best to deal with the anxiety. I answer them that yes, this is stressful. I follow that they are having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. From that declaration, there is a need for planning and action to manage the stress of this unique time. Below are nine action steps that may help us get through this:
1. Just the facts. In this age of vast social media platforms, there is misinformation generated daily regarding COVID-19. I stay away from opinion-based news and instead listen to the scientific and medical experts. That starts with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Fauci was the chief architect of our plan to battle HIV and AIDS in the late 1980s. His work saved the lives of millions. He is guiding our nation again through his work with the White House team. I also listen carefully to Dr. Bruce Dart at the Tulsa Health Department and Mayor G.T. Bynum. They care deeply for this community and are receiving the best guidance available on how to proceed.
2. Responsible citizens. Last week, President Trump and his team rolled out “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” which are guidelines on actions we all must take now to curb the rate of infections so as to not overwhelm our health care systems with a sudden increase in critical cases — often referred to as flattening the curve. Actions include frequent hand-washing and cleaning of surfaces. It also requires social distancing by those that can stay at home by the nature of their work and family duties. This is a new level of citizenship for all of us. Social distancing is a proven strategy to control infections. In the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, Philadelphia continued with major social gatherings such as parades. St. Louis instituted strict social distancing. After several weeks, St. Louis had dramatically fewer deaths from the Spanish Flu compared to Philadelphia.
3. Stay connected. Although we may be more physically isolated for the next few weeks or months, technology today allows us alternative connections. Texting, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, Teams and more allow us to still see and hear each other. I check in with immediate and extended family every day and it helps.
4. Acknowledge this is stressful. Showing a stiff upper lip is useful sometimes in getting through a tough time, but it is not a long-term strategy to deal with stress. When we listen to others and when we can be heard, there is a calming for all involved.
5. Personal health. Self care is an effective way to deal with stress with the added benefit of strengthening our immune systems. Following a healthy diet, keeping hydrated, taking vitamins, regular exercise, meditation and prayer can help. I would also encourage you to get outside when possible. As I walked the dogs yesterday on the River Parks trail, I said “hello” to each and every bike rider and walker.
6. Take a break. We live in a 24-hour news world. The content of news these past few weeks has been 90% COVID-19. We can only take so much worrisome information each day before it gets to us. At our house, we have adopted shorter bits of watching the news so we are current and have the facts but not overwhelmed. We do not watch the national news channels in the later evenings so we can wind down before sleep.
7. Can-do list. Under the current guidelines there are many things we can’t do. With activities out in the community curtailed, this can leave down time. This has allowed us to create a list of what we can do. This has included reading books, reorganizing the house and watching classic and new movies. It has also included my own version of Master Chef, where I need to cook dinner with what we have left in the pantry. It has been a challenge but also fun.
8. Structure. With some of us working from home, we have lost some of the rhythm of the day, which can become unsettling to you and family. If possible, put together schedules that bring back the routine of our days and nights.
9. Gratitude to those on the front lines. There are many in our community that social distancing is not an option. These are our citizens on the front lines including those in health care, first responders, police, fire, corrections, grocery stores, Meals on Wheels and curb-delivery restaurants. It is important that we thank them often for the work they are doing to keep our citizens safe, fed and healthy.
These are difficult times. It is a time when we must adapt in unfamiliar ways. If we listen to the facts and recommendations, stay connected and continue to talk with each other, put together plans and structure to all of this, our anxieties can be transferred to useful action. It is my hope that we are building a sense that our community as whole is doing what we need to do citizen by citizen to get through this.
Gerard Clancy, MD, is a psychiatrist and professor of community medicine and psychiatry at the University of Tulsa.