Is the coronavirus affecting your mental health? Here’s how to cope

Is the coronavirus affecting your mental health? Here's how to cope
It's not unusual if the uncertainty linked to coronavirus and partial isolation affects your relationship and mental health. Photo: Fotograferna Holmberg/TT
It's understandable if you're feeling worried amid the uncertainty around the coronavirus outbreak, and the real impact it is having on many people, but there are ways to cope. The Local spoke to Veronica Lax and the team at Turning Point, a Stockholm-based counselling service aimed at foreign residents, to understand how we might be affected and what we can do about it.

What kind of mental health issues might people face during the coronavirus outbreak?

There are people who already suffer from anxiety and the current situation can intensify their symptoms. It is important that they reach out to a therapist or friends if they are struggling to cope. Some people have contamination or germ phobias which can exacerbate their condition. It’s important to understand how to manage and overcome these phobias.

There is a lot of help online using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). All our therapists at Turning Point are offering online sessions and we have free introductory sessions. 

People who are working from home may feel isolated; there is uncertainty regarding how long this will last and what might happen next, some people are feeling trapped because they are unable to travel home, or return again to Sweden. 

People who are required to go into work might feel unsupported, not understood and vulnerable. There is a good deal of financial insecurity with people facing the possibility of being laid-off, losing their businesses, investments or finding themselves between jobs at a time when no one is recruiting.

Couples can find their relationship is put under stress when both people are working from home, and there are not the usual outlets for socialising with others or spending time outside. With social distancing going on, there is less support for children who are not in school.

In what ways might foreign residents be specifically affected?

Lack of understanding the local language will make it difficult to understand the news as quickly in this country and thereby added to feelings of isolation and insecurity 

There are a lot of people that have moved abroad for work, studies or a loved one. They may be far away from family and are restricted from going back home. This can cause a lot of anxiety, resulting in feeling trapped, alone, sad and hopeless. The positive aspect of our digital world is video conferencing is available with apps like Skype, Google Hangouts, What’s App, Messenger, etc. 

One downside of the digital world is the amount of information available. Advice changes from country to country and within countries, and day to day if not hour to hour. Each country has handled the situation differently in relation to measures like closing borders and schools.

Since the authorities may come across as not being in control of the situation, people can be confused and worried. Sometimes there can be strong differences of opinions between people as to the gravity of the situation and the correct way forward. There’s a risk of feeling even more lonely and afraid of being away from home. 

The Local's view: You are not alone – living abroad in the time of corona

A woman holds her smartphone light out the window during a flashmob show of solidarity in Italy. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

What about foreigners who also belong to the risk groups, or have close friends or family in other countries who do?

They are far away from their family and friends who may be sick or dying, with no clear way to go to them. Yes, this can be very challenging if they are alone during this time and away from their support network. Also, if you have been unhappy living abroad and not felt at home here.

Video conferencing is really helpful and some people may have been able to fly back home because they are citizens of their home country. Some people may struggle also with the language or navigating the healthcare system in Sweden. The Swedish healthcare does offer information in English on their websites like the Public Health Agency or 1177. Anyone who is in need of assistance is also welcome to reach out to us. 

For most of us the coronavirus doesn’t present a serious threat to our health but for people with existing conditions it can be deadly. They can feel particularly concerned or expendable because of the way in which the issue is being reported. 

How can people protect their mental health during this time of partial isolation and uncertainty?

Speak to friends and family on the phone or video conferencing. Find hobbies that can keep your mind off of your worries; listen to music, create projects at home, meditate (there are many apps these days like Calm or Headspace), walks in nature. I would emphasise that it is important to go out for walks and that one doesn’t need to totally isolate oneself.

Follow hygiene advice, for example washing your hands – although the advice to wash hands can present its own problems for people with obsessive compulsive disorders.

A yoga class via webcam. Photo: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Some useful reflection tools include asking yourself questions like: 'What do I need right now?' Or 'how can I help myself feel better?' and then write the answers down in a journal. It is important to listen to our emotions and see if we can meet our own needs when it is difficult to have them met by the outside from family or friends.

There are also online yoga and guided meditation groups. Make an effort to include one of these in your schedule so you can lower anxiety.

What can people do in moments where they're feeling particularly overwhelmed? 

When we get worried and stressed, our cortisol levels rise and our heart rate increases. Our bodies are getting ready to fight, freeze or flee and we have an excess of adrenaline. If we do not use that adrenaline, it causes us to feel anxious or restless.

Breathing slowly, meditating using an app, or exercise can help us regulate the cortisol levels in our body.

We also recommend clients to keep a journal which helps organise thoughts and get a better understanding of what's happening internally. Write down a list of things that cause you anxiety and what you can do to help. Also a list of things that cause your anxiety that are out of your control.

We think that worrying about something will help us control our situation but certain things we can’t control. Also write down and remind yourself of your resources. Watching the news can relieve our anxiety but if we read or watch too much news then it can increase our anxiety. 

Physical exercise such as yoga or pilates, or other exercises one can do at home or with an online group. Coming back to one’s physical experience in the body is a good way of managing feelings of being overwhelmed. 

Veronica Lax is a therapist who runs Turning Point, a counselling centre in Stockholm with a focus on international residents. She says: “We are more than willing to help the expat community with any psychological issues they may be facing at this time. We are offering online sessions to our clients. We also welcome new clients and free informational meetings.”

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