Experts offer strategies for managing stress during pandemic

by Daniel McKay
Whitefish Pilot | April 8, 2020 1:00 AM

In trying times, staying sane is paramount.

And during a pandemic, where the fear of the unknown looms and folks lose their normal social interactions in favor of staying in their homes, finding that grasp on mental health can be key.

Deven Robinson, Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at North Valley Hospital, says the pandemic creates a scenario where more fear comes to light, but many coping strategies aren’t feasible due to social distancing and other preventative measures.

The situation affects everyone, he says, but especially those already working through their own mental health issues.

“It’s interesting,” Robinson says. “There’s obviously a lot more anxiety, fears, worries out there. Things that normally we do to cope — like I’m a proponent of physical activity, yoga — all those things have been put on pause. Some people really struggle with depression and being isolated alone, and now we’re social isolating to help prevent the spread of the virus. I think it wears more on those patients.”

The problems extend past the adults working from home or at their essential workplaces too.

Whitefish Schools, in accordance with a directive from Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, closed on March 16 and are remaining closed until at least April 10. This week is the second week of their remote learning program, where students tune in from home via Google Classroom or Hangouts and receive online direction from teachers.

The extra time at home can be tough for students too, says Dana Remley, School Psychologist at Whitefish Middle School, though the case varies with each kid.

“I think kids are really resilient for the most part, so for any change in any kids life, kids are going to have different kinds of reactions,” she says. “Some adapt really well and other struggle, but I think we can help the ones who struggle and validate how they feel.”

Remley herself is working from home with her three children, and says she sees different reactions to the new learning paradigm from each of them.

It’s important to remember we’re not in a normal situation, she says, and with that, it’s OK not to feel normal.

“I don’t think it has to be a normal school day,” Remley says. “We have to recognize this isn’t normal, we are in a public health crisis. It doesn’t have to look the same, we have to modify our expectations so that kids feel some satisfaction and sense of accomplishment, but we have to be really careful we’re not overwhelming our kids right now.”

For parents, Remley says a focus on healthy routines, like having consistent bed and wake times as well as movement breaks throughout the day, is important, but more important is simply being there.

“I think parents right now just need to be available,” she says. “If we’re more available and the TV and phone is off and we’re creating time and space so we’re with them and they can talk to us, that can be really helpful and assuring. Kids need to feel safe and loved right now.”

And if kids are asking about the pandemic, Remley says it’s OK to say “I don’t know.”

The depth of the conversation will vary by the child’s age, she says, but it’s OK to talk to kids about the pandemic and what’s going on in the world.

“That will really vary by the age and the curiosity of the child. Obviously with much younger children, keep it simple and factual but follow their lead. Make sure to reassure them that what we’re dong is to keep them safe,” she says. “For older kids, you want to answer their questions and make sure we don’t make promises we can’t keep. We don’t know everything’s going to be OK. There are parents who have changes in job status and income and we don’t know. We can’t answer questions we don’t know the answers to.”

“It’s OK to say ‘I don’t know,’ to say ‘I don’t know when you’ll go back to school,’” she added. “We’re doing our best to keep each other safe right now.”

For everyone, coming to terms with what is and isn’t in one’s control is important, Robinson says.

“We don’t have control over the schools being closed or what the government is doing, but we have control over socially isolating,” Robinson says. “Do we have control over deciding to take a trip to Spokane, yes. There’s certain things we have to be OK not controlling, and that’s hard for some people.”

Robinson says reviewing what we have control over is one of a few exercises he recommends for his patients as well as anyone else needing some help right now.

He also recommends a focused breathing exercise, consisting of breathing in for 5 to 10-second breaths, holding that, and breathing out for another 5 to 10 seconds, repeated over several minutes.

Yoga and other physical exercise is important too, he says, and at least with running or hiking, within the social distancing guidelines of remaining at least 6-feet apart from others.

Mindfulness practice can be worked into any of these too, he noted, by just taking the time to be present and observe the surroundings and how one is feeling.

“We have to get creative here. If you can, there’s free yoga and workouts you can stream online,” he says. “Yes, we’re doing social isolation, but you can still run outside by yourself or go for a walk. Physical activity helps because it helps with endorphins and helps depression and the sympathetic nervous system. But also just be mindful on a walk. Look at the snow on the mountain or how nice the lake looks. Be mindful and not just caught up in worry.”

These are all things Robinson is dealing with himself — his practice has shifted to online services rather than in-person.

He’s working through the same problems as everyone, and he says he feels for his colleagues that can’t stay at home to do their job.

It’s just one day at a time, Remley says, and we all need to be honest with how we’re feeling and reach out to others who may be having their own difficulties.

“We just have to balance sitting with all of this change and how it is making us feel and also creating some sort of healthy coping routine. It’s a delicate balance, and I want people to be really kind to themselves if they’re struggling with us,” she says. “Social distance doesn’t have to be social isolation, so we should all reach out for help when we need it.”

The state Department of Public Health and Human Services recently also announced an expansion of mental health services to assist those who may be experiencing a range of emotions as a result of the current COVID-19 situation.

The Montana Warmline, a free, confidential service staffed by individuals who understand the behavioral health needs, provides early crisis intervention with emotional support that can prevent a crisis. The Warmline is available at 877-688-3377 or at http://montanawarmline.org/

The Montana Suicide Prevention Lifeline, provides 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress, at 800-273-TALK (8255).

The Montana Crisis Text Line, which can be accessed by texting “MT” to 741741, is available. When a person texts the Text Line, a counselor responds within minutes and is available for any behavioral health crisis.

The Whitefish School District has resources for parents at www.wsd44.org/apps/news.

For mental health resources, visit www.krh.org/nvh/clinics/north-valley-behavioral-health and www.natechutefoundation.org/our-resources.html.