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How COVID-19 is affecting adult mental health: A Q&A with Dr. Craig Lammers

Posted on Dec. 11, 2020 ( comments)

As COVID cases continue to spread throughout Washington State and the rest of the country, shutdowns increase again, and winter begins to settle in, you might find yourself feeling stressed, uneasy, and even anxious and depressed.

Maybe you notice that you're more irritable than usual with your family members, have a vague or nagging feeling that something isn’t right, feel lethargic or unmotivated, or are experiencing even more challenging symptoms like panic attacks.

If so, you’re not alone. According to the Washington State Department of Mental Health, two to three million Washingtonians are currently experiencing significant behavioral health symptoms.

To find out more about this pattern and ways to cope, we recently sat down for a conversation with Dr. Craig Lammers, PhD, Clinical Psychologist at MultiCare Rockwood Clinic.

Q: What behavioral health issues are you seeing that are unique to 2020?

A: Most people would probably say that they’re anxious to see 2020 in the rearview mirror due to the effects of COVID, including health and economic impacts, job losses, and the closing of schools. We’ve also been experiencing a higher degree of social unrest in our country this year.

Three words that I use to describe this time, which I often hear my patients use as well, are uncertainty, division, and fatigue. We’re seeing more anxiety and depression, underneath which is fear and worry about what seems to be unpredictable right now. These feelings aren’t entirely unique to this time, but we’re seeing a greater volume of patients these days.

The pandemic has affected every level of society, and as therapists it’s one of the first times that we’re going through the same thing our patients are. Usually we feel one step removed, but now we’re right in there with them.

How is the lack of social interaction affecting people right now?

One of the most difficult aspects of COVID is the lack of human interaction. People are experiencing social isolation in a way that I surely haven’t seen before.

Human contact nurtures us emotionally. We tend to need it on a daily basis, and during the pandemic that’s been taken away. Classrooms are closed, churches aren’t gathering, social organizations aren’t meeting, gyms and restaurants are shut down, and people are working from home, so they’re not surrounded by their colleagues in a meaningful way. Even though many of these activities are still happening virtually, it’s not the same as physical proximity.

Even if you have a few friends over to dinner now and then, you might be standing six feet apart while wearing masks, and not hugging or shaking hands. So, social isolation is a significant element right now leading to discouragement, depression, and feeling alone.

How is our mental well-being related to our physical well-being?

In the fields of psychology and medicine, there has been a growing awareness over the past several decades of how integrated the body and mind are. Our physical well-being is a byproduct as well as a foundation of our emotional well-being. In many ways good emotional health depends on proper nutrition, adequate sleep, and exercise. For many people, exercise can do as much good as an antidepressant.

What advice can you give to parents during this time?

I strongly encourage parents to focus on self-care. By caring for yourself in a healthy way you’ll be more available for others. From there, two ways parents can help their kids right now are by providing structure and a sense of hope.

Structure can go a bit out the window if kids are at home all day doing remote learning, but if you can, aim to have kids up, dressed, and eating meals at roughly the same time every day. Children thrive on structure and will cope much better with more routine during this time.

Parents can also try to give kids a sense of hope, that even though this is an unprecedented time it will pass and we can be resilient in the meantime. Kids need to have some sense that we believe that. It’s ok to feel discouraged, but try to balance that with the belief that we’ll move through this as best we can.

What advice would you offer adults right now to help mitigate any negative impacts?

I’d recommend five main things:

1. Stay physically active, eat well, and get enough sleep. Good physical self-care helps our emotions, thoughts, and ability to focus. These actions aren’t always as easy to stay on top of as we head into winter months, but try to find ways to stay active and to care for your physical health.

2. As best you can in a safe way, try to stay socially engaged. Zooming might not be the same as in-person contact, but reach out to people who are important in your life. Hear their stories, what they’re up to, and how they’re being creative during this time. Share with them the things you’ve done that have been successful and worked well for you too.

3. Try to focus on what you can control or influence. One of the hardest things for many people is feeling out of control, as we’re being told that we can’t do the activities we’re used to doing.  So try to take advantage of this time by focusing on what you can still do. For me, since I can’t be as social as I usually am, I’m trying to learn some things on my computer like photography skills. When I can take more control of my free time, my sense of anxiety starts to diminish because I feel like I’m not living with as much uncertainty.

4. Keep a routine. Try to get up at about the same time every morning, dress as if you’re going into the office, and eat meals at about the same time, as though we were moving through a more typical period.

5. Practice gratitude and thankfulness, even amidst changes, uncertainty, and losses. I think keeping a gratitude journal is a phenomenal thing to do. If we can take some time to reflect, even just for a few moments every day, every person has some things they can be thankful for.

Do you think the mental health impacts of the pandemic will be lasting or reversible?

I think it will depend in part on the specific impact. If someone has experienced a significant loss such as the death of a loved one or a job layoff, they might have a more difficult time recuperating. They might be trying to make sense of the fact that they couldn’t be with the person they loved at the end or even have a funeral or memorial service.

But my sense is that most people will move through this and be able to say that it was difficult to experience but that they’re doing ok. They’ll return to their relationships and pull back from isolation. If the pandemic begins to lift as it’s currently predicted to in 2021, I think the majority of people will pull through and recover well.  

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