Self care—handling mental health, stress and trauma

February 11, 2021

By Sandra Millon Underwood, RN, PhD
FAAN Professor, UW-Milwaukee School of Nursing

It’s well-documented that stress and trauma can affect our mental state, even in the best of times. But months of anxiety, fear, grief, and social isolation can take their toll on our mental health, particularly during this pandemic. Parents are coping with ensuring their children continue their education, while juggling jobs and other priorities. Some people have lost their jobs. Some have lost loved ones. Some are alone, with no social interaction. And others are experiencing difficulties as they face an uncertain future. During unprecedented and challenging times some people turn to their faith to sustain them. But that is not always enough. Sometimes talking with a trusted friend, relative or professional can be helpful. Others have found a greater sense of calm after journaling and mindfulness. Whatever works for you, the key to maintaining a positive outlook and healthy mental state is, first, acknowledging your feelings and, second, seeking help if you need it.

According to Lola Awoyinka, a public and community health graduate student at the Medical College of Wisconsin, before the pandemic, data from a Community Health Survey identified that 33 percent of African Americans in Milwaukee County responded that they had a mental health condition in the past three years. While there is not great data on what has changed during the pandemic, a recent study published in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) chronicles one of the first national estimates of how the pandemic has adversely affected mental health. According to the study, three times as many Americans met criteria for a depression diagnosis during the pandemic than before it.

Arnitta Holliman, MS, LPC, CPC, is the ReCAST Program Manager for the Office of Violence Prevention, City of Milwaukee Health Department. She said that their office is receiving quite a few calls from people and community activists seeking information for those coping with or surviving violence and providing mental health referrals.

“Whether it’s a violence survivor, loss of loved ones, or interpersonal violence, we try to connect people to resources and information to assist them,” said Holliman.

As a licensed professional counselor with a master’s degree in clinical psychology, apart from her work with the City, Holliman acknowledges that one of the best ways to cope with the pandemic is to stay connected.

“Everyone has been affected in some way by this pandemic. Whether it’s following stay-at-home orders, loss of jobs or the loss of loved ones, we’ve all been touched in some manner. It’s well documented that people experiencing mental health issues are prone to isolate even more. If you or a loved one is struggling mentally, it’s important to stay connected to your support system and don’t be afraid to let trusted friends or family know that you are struggling. Rather than isolate, it also helps to focus on what’s going well. When it feels as if everything has shifted and is falling apart, compounded uncertainties like the pandemic, tend to cause people to feel even more hopeless and helpless. If things become too overwhelming, be sure to connect with a therapist or psychologist,” said Holliman.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since COVID-19 many of us are facing challenges that can be stressful, overwhelming, and cause strong emotions. Public health actions, such as social distancing, are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but they can also make us feel isolated and lonely, increasing stress and anxiety. Learning to cope with stress in a healthy way will make you, the people you care about, and those around you become more resilient. Stress not only affects you emotionally but can also take a toll on you physically. For example, it can contribute to:

• Feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness, or frustration
• Changes in appetite, energy, desires, and interests
• Difficulty concentrating and making decisions.
• Difficulty sleeping or nightmares.
• Physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems, and skin rashes
• Worsening of chronic health problems
• Worsening of mental health conditions
• Increased use of tobacco, alcohol, and other substances

Gale Johnson, Director of the Wisconsin Well Women Program for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, says that she advises people to adopt a hobby to take their minds off challenges.

“Everyone should have a hobby; it’s something you do for YOU. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it allows you to focus on other things and it may even be something that you can share with others. Hobbies are not a cure-all, but they can help. COVID-19 has restricted many activities, so while it’s important to stay safe, it’s important to reach out to others virtually or by phone to stay connected and take care of ourselves. Just being at home alone is a bit much. Anything one can do to take a moment for themselves helps,” said Johnson.

Below are some CDC recommendations that you can help yourself and others stay mentally healthy:

• Limit watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. It’s good to be informed but hearing about the pandemic constantly can be upsetting. Consider limiting news to just a couple times a day and disconnecting from phone, TV and computer screens for a while.

• Self-care.
◘ Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate external icon.
◘ Eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
◘ Exercise regularly.
◘ Get plenty of sleep.
◘ Avoid excessive alcohol, tobacco, and substance use.
◘ Continue with routine preventive measures (such as vaccinations, cancer screenings, etc.) as recommended by your healthcare provider.
◘ Get vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine when available.

• Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.

• Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.

• Connect with your community- or faith-based organizations. While social distancing measures are in place, try connecting online, through social media, or by phone or mail.

The Healthy Eating and Active Living Milwaukee (HEAL) is a culturally-tailored program that aims to provide education, resources to secure healthy foods, and active living supports for adults at risk for developing lifestyle-related diseases; and, to empower adults to make changes in their physical and social environment to improve nutrition and physical activity. ‘Like’ their Facebook page that’s full of videos of healthy recipes and low-cost, no-cost exercise.