Self Care More Important Now than Ever, Mental Health Providers Say

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our world in unprecedented ways, questioning our daily routines, our work and our health, and not just physically.

Margaret Watt, co-director of The Hub, Southwestern CT’s Regional Behavioral Health Action Organization, said that this time of social distancing and change can exacerbate mental health symptoms in people with existing mental illnesses, provoke anxiousness in people who live alone, and be particularly hard on people recovering from substance abuse and addiction, as most of their support comes from group meetings.

However this unprecedented time of intense transition can put everyone under pressure, says Gayle Borden Greenberger, a practicing therapist in Westport.

“All of us are finding ourselves trying to manage really extreme circumstances in our home lives and our family lives and in our work lives. And, for most people, this is uncharted territory,” she said, adding, “You don’t need to have existing or pre-existing mental health issues to feel and be very vulnerable in this environment.”

Protecting our physical self has been of utmost importance in this time: everyone knows to wash their hands, keep social distance, and monitor themselves for symptoms. However, fortifying emotional and mental health can be just important.

Emotional Self-Care 

Greenberger said that emotional self-care, or paying attention and accepting emotions and caring for mental health, is necessary for “maximum immune boosting.” In an uncertain time like this, emotional self-care can often mean listening to, and accepting emotions.

“One minute, we feel really strong and calm and hopeful and positive. And then in the next minute, we can feel incredibly scared… maybe even depressed, or in some moments panicked,” Greenberger said. “I tell people, we have to allow all of those feelings to exist and to change.”

Furthermore, finding a healthy outlet for these emotions can be especially important, such as journaling, listening or playing music, or talking to someone.

“[Emotions] are movable elements, and they come into us and they do move through us,” Greenberger explained. “So allow yourself to feel them, and then try and identify actions or choices that have helped in the past, to move through them.”

The Hub’s Watt echoed this sentiment, saying that talking to someone is a great way to care for your emotional self. An anonymous, free and accessible way to do this is through calling one of Fairfield County’s ‘warm lines,’ phone lines for people who are not in crisis, but who can call to talk to a trained recovery support specialist, who provides “inspiration and motivation and connection,” Watt said.

A CT Young Adult Warm Line (855.6-HOPENOW or 855.467.3669)  is open from 12-9 p.m every day, with 18-25 years old specialists trained in peer support who have dealt with mental health or substance issues. The Soundview Warm Line (800.921.0359) is open 9 a.m.-9 p.m., seven days a week for any age.

Lori Fields, a trained clinical social worker and practicing mindset and performance coach through her practice, Your Worthy Self, echoes the importance of emotional self-care in this time.

Fields said that for women especially, people are wired to beat themselves up for not being the best. She said this state of not feeling good enough is often perpetuated by social media. “It’s a real challenge on a regular basis to be in a good state with yourself.”

Lowering expectations and counting the small wins can be a great way to emphasize emotional health over long term goals. “Self-care is being able to intervene on your own behalf and interrupt that self-talk when you find yourself spiraling into a very negative place with yourself,” Fields said.

She suggested that this could be as simple as changing perspective from wanting to run five miles today to wanting simply to stay active. And above all, to give yourself permission to feel good, even if you don’t reach your goal.

“Sometimes people are so reluctant to kind of lower the bar, because they’re so afraid that it’s not going to give them the ultimate results that they want,” Fields said. “But what they don’t realize is lowering the bar and making it easier for you to feel good about any effort you’re making to take care of yourself makes you want to do it more often. That’s how we sustain self-care.”

Individual Strategies To Use

Beyond self-care, Greenberger said that with the loss of control we feel over this pandemic, a way to combat this helplessness in a positive way is by establishing a routine.

“We want to try and normalize routines by keeping as close to what you did before this crisis ensued,” Greenberger said. “So if you showered in the morning, continue to shower in the morning and if you used to get dressed, get dressed, that’s a simple thing. Get dressed every day. It’s so simple, but it’s important.”

Exercising is another way to care for yourself in this time, she adds. Furthermore, another simple way to protect your mental health in this time is to be intentional about getting fresh air, in any way you can.

“If you can’t go outside, open a window. If you can’t open a window, spend time next to a window,” Greenberger said. “Exposing yourself to fresh air is extremely important for both our physical and our mental health.”

Limiting social media to prevent information overload is another simple way to protect your mental health, she said. Greenberger said she recommends being “intentional” about when and where you receive information, such as allotting a certain time of day to get news and turning off notifications outside of that window.

Reaching Out

Of all the challenges the epidemic poses, one of the paramount concerns is the absence of connection. With social distancing and quarantine, Greenberger says we miss social connections not only with friends and family, but also simply from errands or work, as well.

Because of this, staying connected with loved ones, whether through zoom, texting, face time or other methods, is “more important now than ever,” Greenberger said.

“We need social touch points during these stressful times to remind us of our sense of belonging and our togetherness,” Greenberger said.

She recommends arranging at least three to four times per week to authentically connect with loved ones and the community, though daily connections would be “ideal.”

Resources:  Help is there

Isolation can increase risk factors for mental illness or addiction, Genevieve Eason, the president of Wilton Youth Council, said.

Isolation in normal times we would think of as a risk factor for mental illness or for addiction. During these times, it’s really important that people who are struggling with their mental health or in recovery from addiction or in treatment, find ways to reach out,” Eason said.

Though resources exist, it can be hard to know when feelings warrant outside help. Greenberger said that when emotions begin to interfere with daily functions, such as work, hygiene, or sleep, that is a sign additional help could be necessary.

“If people are noticing really big fluctuations in their moods….if people are having difficulty getting out of bed, or feeling in control of their emotions on a regular basis, that would be another sign that you know that help could be needed,” Greenberger said.

Watt went a step forward, saying that if the question crosses your mind, why not seek help?

“What do you have to lose?” Watt asked, adding that most of the resources on The Hub website are free and easy to access.

Watt, who works to advocate for mental health legislation, said that federal and state legislators have acted quickly to expand the ways mental health providers can offer therapy virtually, allowing phone call sessions for instance so that more people can get care. However, Watt is working to help make sure legislation allows clinical group therapy sessions to be offered online, as group sessions are particularly pertinent to people struggling with addiction and intensive outpatient care.

Beyond one-on-one therapy sessions, any person no matter their needs can access resources for mental health through the Hub’s grand list of free and condition free resources on its calendar, including phone meditation, peer support, AA meetings, virtual recovery support groups, and daily young adult connection groups.

“Everything we’re highlighting on the calendar is free supports. No eligibility, no referral needed,” Watt said.

Additionally, the Hub is putting out weekly videos called “Coping with Corona,” with resources the community can access during this time.

Like most of her colleagues, Greenberger is offering tele mental health sessions via various online meeting platforms, including phone or FaceTime to provide continuity of care and support during this time period. She added that Psychology Today can help people find local therapists.

Fields is offering free mindfulness videos, like the one below, on her YouTube channel to help people start their day on an “intentional” note, as well.

Additionally, Greenberger and many of her colleagues in Fairfield County are currently working to operate pro bono or on reduced price sessions for emergency management professionals, frontline workers, and hospital workers.

Wilton Youth Services is continuing to offer support through phone sessions and is taking new referrals via email (to Liza Starnino or Colleen Fawcett). For other town assistance, contact Wilton Social Services director Sarah Heath.

Wilton Youth Council welcomes parent input about their needs as well, and will continue to curate resources on its website.

This experience that we’re having presents challenges and opportunities and I hope that Wilton Youth Council can be here to support people with their challenges and that they’ll let us know what kind of support they need,” Eason said.

Above all, mental health providers stress the importance of taking care of yourself during this time, taking the small wins, and knowing this will pass.

“Emotions are going to come into you and move through you and then they’re going to pass,” Greenberger said. “They’re not going to obliterate you.”

Disclosure: Greenberger is related to a GOOD Morning Wilton staff member.