University Physician Dr. David Weismantel, assisted by Assistant Research Scientist at the University of Michigan Dr. Elizabeth Koschmann, Ph.D. and her program "TRAILS to Wellness", sent out a campus-wide email May 8 that provided a list of mental health resources for the Spartan community to use during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"In just a few short weeks, our world has changed," Weismantel said. "Like most people on the planet, those of us within the MSU Community – faculty, staff, students, and our families and friends alike – are finding ourselves struggling with a similar feeling, an unsettling discomfort that comes with so much ambiguity and uncertainty."
Weismantel said your range of emotions may fluctuate dramatically at any given moment — this is expected and completely normal. You could go from being anxious or scared, frustrated or angry, exhausted or unmotivated to being calm, at peace or even grateful all in the same day, which can definitely be hard to manage.
Deciphering what is and what isn't a good coping method for you can be a long process, especially when dealing with difficult and challenging situations.
"Comfort may give us temporary relief, but causes problems over time," Weismantel said. "Care, on the other hand, tends to our emotional, physical, and spiritual needs over time, even if the effects aren’t quite as immediate."
According to Koschmann's program, good questions to assist in the evaluation of a coping method can include:
- Does this calm me down if I am worried, or help me feel better if I am sad?
- Does this help me sleep better at night?
- Are there any negative side effects — either right away or later?
- Does this hurt anyone or put anyone in danger, including myself?
- Does this help connect me to friends or family members that I trust?
- Is this something that my teacher or doctor would want me to do?
However, this may open up worrying thoughts that infiltrate your mind, causing your ability to focus on what you can physically control to become a struggle.
"The human mind seeks certainty and control, yet these may be impossible in the current environment," Koschmann's program said. "Our brains are designed to protect us from danger by increasing our attention to risk and threat."
This is your fight-flight-freeze response and, according to Koschmann's program, you can quiet it in three basic steps:
- Identify your thoughts. Ask yourself what exactly it is you're worried about or express the worry in a complete sentence.
- Examine the facts. Determine if your thought is fully true, partially true or not really reasonable. If your thought happens to be true, evaluate how helpful or productive it is. Ask yourself how you know it's true, what evidence is behind it and if there is any contradicting evidence.
- Come up with a believable, but less worried, thought. Put yourself in someone else's shoes. For example, ask yourself what you'd tell a friend who was having this thought or how you would cope if the thought came true.
Losing track of what's real and what's not can cause you to spiral. In uncertain times like this, it is important to stay in the present.
"When you find yourself overwhelmed by strong emotions, try to refocus your attention on what’s going on in and around you in the current moment," Koschmann's program said. "Notice and attend to where you are and what you are feeling, without judgement."
There are many different types of grounding techniques. According to Koschmann's program, some things you can do include:
- Notice and name your feelings. Remind yourself that they will pass even if the situation remains the same. To truly do so, you have to look inside yourself and find the strength to tolerate and even accept the way you feel as is.
- Ride the wave. Our feelings come on, peak and roll out again. Instead of fighting against, closing off or trying to distract yourself from them, practice tolerating them and trusting they will, again, eventually pass.
- Resist the urge to plan for the next week or month, anywhere in the unknown future. You can create a daily schedule to maintain consistency, but try to take life one moment at a time. Your brain is a problem-solving machine, but no solution is a good solution if it is rushed.
- Dial in on your five senses. Listen carefully for very subtle sounds, look for all the colors in the rainbow, notice how your feet or fingertips feel, pay attention to a subtle taste in your mouth or scent in the air. This is well-known as "5-4-3-2-1."
One of the most effective coping methods to stay mentally healthy, according to Koschmann's program, is physical activity, though making it possible may require creativity during this time. Some ways Koschmann recommended you can get your heart rate pumping include:
- Doing a fitness challenge with someone else in your home — you can find a lot of these on YouTube or TikTok even.
- Going outside for a walk, jog, or bike ride.
- Playing hopscotch, jumping rope.
- Walking up and down staircases.
- Trying a free, virtual Zumba or yoga class.
- Doing 30 minutes of basic level strength and cardio training such as jumping jacks, push-ups or sit-ups.
- Dancing to your favorite music playlist.
If you're not used to being physically active or you have health conditions that make it difficult to do so, it is understandable that this coping method may be difficult and it is okay if you can only do a little bit. Set goals and use special rewards such as eating a favorite snack, watching an episode of your favorite television show or taking a nap to boost motivation.
Right now, it is essential that you act in kindness and compassion to both yourself and others. Everyone is experiencing some form of loss, whether that be through the death of a loved one due to illness, financial loss due to unemployment or canceled events, all of which are valid.
Self-compassion and recognizing joy can help you heal. Check in with yourself and treat yourself kindly, just like you would a friend. Give yourself permission to feel out your feelings thoroughly and freely. Guilt is common, but it's never helpful, so try to push it out for gratitude instead.
Another way to heal is to stay connected with those around you. Remember, social distancing does not equal social isolation. You can do this through old-fashioned letters, scheduled phone or video calls and social media platforms.
"Although none of us know exactly when this will end, it will not last forever," Weismantel said. "True, it is likely that the road ahead will be different than before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the current circumstances will end eventually. Although You may be physically separated, you are not alone. As Spartans, we will continue to be here for one another."
Additionally, Weismantel recommended the confidential, no-cost programs Counseling and Psychiatric Services, or CAPS, for all registered students and Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, for MSU faculty, staff, retirees, graduate student employees and their family members.
"Your first priority should be your basic, physical needs," Koschmann's program said. "Next, build in time each day for taking care of your emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs. Finally, try to make time for activities that bring you joy and comfort."