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- The COVID-19 pandemic has people feeling overwhelmed by the new challenges they are facing in their daily lives
- Daphne J. Holt, MD, PhD, teaches coping skills to help with the overwhelming stress on us during the pandemic and discusses how learning resiliency through online training can help us all with our mental health during this stressful time
The COVID-19 pandemic has people feeling overwhelmed by the new challenges they are facing in their daily lives. Whether it be balancing working from home while caring for your child, feeling isolated or having to take risks as an essential worker.
In this Q&A, Daphne J. Holt, MD, PhD, physician investigator in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, teaches coping skills to help with the overwhelming stress on us during the pandemic and discusses how learning resiliency through online training can help us all with our mental health during this stressful time.
Q: How do you define resiliency?
Holt: Resiliency is the ability to manage the stress in one's life, including highly stressful life events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and all of its consequences in our lives. The concept also includes the idea that sometimes we can grow and develop new coping skills during stressful times, if the stress is not too overwhelming.
There are certain abilities that have been linked to resilience, including being able to think flexibly about situations and the ability to manage one's emotional reactions by not avoiding, suppressing or acting too quickly on them. Also, the ability to connect with others in an authentic way can be protective. Some of these abilities can be improved with practice.
Q: What problems have you seen from patients since the start of the pandemic? How can they learn resiliency to help them cope?
Holt: People are feeling isolated and overwhelmed by the challenges they are facing in their daily lives. It's a really tough combination—the increased social isolation plus the stress due to having to either work remotely, with less separation of work and home life. Or they are working in an essential capacity with all of the potential risks (e.g., the fear of COVID exposure either on the way to work or at the job) and stresses associated with having to abide by physical distancing guidelines while being uncertain at times about what they are (since they often change) and whether they are effective.
The general uncertainty about the state of the world and our futures is very difficult for people (i.e., about what's going to happen to our jobs, health, children and the country). Uncertainty is very difficult for the mind to tolerate. Stress associated with having children at home trying to participate in remote learning while the parents are working nearby or having older children at home who are anxious about their futures are other common challenges people are struggling with now.
There is a lot of juggling going on, in the middle of a lot of uncertainty about how the coming weeks and months will unfold.
Q: How can resiliency help the average person having a hard time cope with stress during the pandemic?
Holt: It can be useful to think about what has helped in the past during times of stress. Everyone is different. For some, it's being with other people in whatever form that's possible, while for others it's having enough "alone time" to decompress.
Many people feel the most resilient when they are exercising frequently or when they are getting enough sleep and rest. Being in nature or being very engaged in a hobby, project or work can be important. Helping others who are struggling, even in relatively small ways, can boost resilience—and there are lots of ways to do that right now.
Q: Do you have any advice for people or families to help manage stress and mental health during this time?
Holt: In addition to what I mentioned above, there are a few simple things one can try to do in terms of daily reminders. It can be helpful to remember certain phrases such as "stay in the day." It's good to try to focus on what's right in front of you, during the next few minutes or hour.
I think it's also helpful to remember that just about everyone, whether they're showing it or not, is having a more difficult time in some way or another right now. People are not always at their best during this time and trying to cut people some slack for things that go wrong can actually provide a lot of relief.
Q: How can people learn about resiliency trainings during the pandemic?
Holt: For the moment, people mainly become aware of these programs via resource lists, such as one on the Department of Psychiatry website, informational emails and word-of-mouth. The Resilience and Prevention Program at Mass General is conducting some resilience training workshops for adolescents, college students and health care providers (in research studies that have certain eligibility criteria). The Benson Henry Institute also has a range of resilience-promoting programs that are available.
Q: When should a person reach out for clinical help?
Holt: As with any time, when painful feelings and emotional distress become persistent or start to interfere with one's ability to do tasks that are normally pretty easy to do, it's important to think about getting help. It's better to ask for help before these feelings become overwhelming and debilitating.
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