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‘Health is wealth’: Professionals urge people to take care of mental health during COVID-19 pandemic

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — As physical health has been on the forefront of people’s minds during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and local health professionals emphasize that managing mental health is just as important, too.

Furthermore, even people who have never experienced anxiety may not realize they’re experiencing anxiety right now, said Alyssa Smith, who serves as the community health manager for the Rowan County Health Department.

Smith said some indications that someone is experiencing anxiety can include fatigue, irritability and just sad days. And some triggers of anxiety can include increased exposure to news, social media and concern for loved ones who have underlying health conditions like asthma and COPD.

“Life is not going on as normal,” she said. “We’re social creatures.”

Dr. Russ Greenfield, who serves as Novant Health’s integrative medicine director, said other symptoms of anxiety can stem from the sense of being on edge without being able to point to a source for it, the inability to sit still, a change in appetite and sleep issues.

Smith said it’s important to remember that responses to trauma are individual and based on each person’s experiences. Therefore, emotions may not manifest the same for every person.

Greenfield said some people manifest their emotions physically by upset stomachs or headaches that aren’t usual.

And stress can affect immune systems, both Smith and Greenfield said.

“We crave control,” Greenfield said. “And when we don’t have that sense of control, the only thing we can do is take control of what we can … and make peace with what we can’t.”

Greenfield added that when people are under stress, they reach for comfort food like snacks and sweets. But it’s important to eat healthy because heavily processed foods can contribute to inflammation and mood disorder.

And Smith said bodies can build resilience when people practice mindfulness.

While everyone is vulnerable to mental health issues during this time, people with a prior history of mental health concerns and health care workers are particularly at risk of heightened stress and anxiety.

The CDC notes on the “Daily Life and Coping” section of its website that people with pre-existing mental health conditions should continue taking their medication and treatment while monitoring any new or worsening symptoms.

Greenfield said he’s seen more health care workers reaching out for mental health resources amidst the pandemic, adding that it’s frustrating for them to see what’s happening globally without being able to help like they’re trained to do.

But fortunately, Novant Health is making a big effort to acknowledge and recognize the stress and sacrifice being taken on by its health care workers amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. Novant provides services on the daily, including employee assistance programs, chaplain services and exercise activities that allow workers to “take a pause” and take care of themselves.

“Those who give, and give, and give, and give, can end up running on empty,” he said.

Some of those services include videos of meditation techniques and breathing exercises, as well as interaction with the chaplaincy to help manage loss and “answering the call” to serve in the health care field from the perspective of meaning and purpose, Greenfield said.

Both Smith and Greenfield suggest being kinder to ourselves and each other by taking time to disconnect from the constant news flood, and connect socially with family, friends and support systems.

The CDC also recommends avoiding drugs and alcohol, as well as sharing the facts about COVID-19 to understand the actual risk to yourself and loved ones in an effort to reduce stress.

The WHO suggests seeking information updates at specific times during the day, once or twice as the sudden and near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause people to feel worried. Additionally, avoid misinformation as the actual facts can help to minimize fears.

Additionally, the WHO recommends finding opportunities to amplify positive and hopeful stories and positive images of local people who have experienced COVID-19.

And for parents, the CDC recommends monitoring children for symptoms of excessive crying or irritation, poor school performance, difficulty concentrating or avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past.

Greenfield added that there’s a difference between “social distancing” and “social isolation.” Even social distancing, he said, can allow for time outside to enjoy the sunshine or the stars at night. And listening to music or reading books can provide solace for people during this time. Additionally, some meditation apps that usually charge are free and could serve as an additional resource, he said.

“Health is wealth,” Greenfield said, adding that never before have people been paying more attention to taking care of their health.

And if there is a silver lining to be had in this, he said, it’s that health professionals across the globe are confident that eight out of 10 people who come down with the virus are going to be fine. The problem with the other 20%, however, is that it’s still unknown which two out every 10 people are going to be the most impacted, adding that many precautions are being taken right now for that reason.

“Understand this is hard, but we will get through it,” Smith said. “And we’ll get through it by leaning on each other.”

Greenfield added that “healing takes place in community.”

Individuals who need additional resources for managing mental health issues can visit the CDC website, the WHO website, contact the county health department or contact Novant Health.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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