The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
— Marcel Proust
The current coronavirus pandemic has made us all intensely aware of the fragility of our physical health. Consequently, we’ve quickly adopted behaviors such as sheltering in place and face masks to protect us from becoming ill.
article continues after advertisementHowever, relatively little has been said about how this crisis is exacerbating mental health problems. It’s important for us to remember that mental health influences physical health, and vice versa.
This is not just a public health crisis; it is a mental health crisis.
In reality, we’re being forced to face life (and ourselves) without the usual endless distractions of work, chores, and entertainments that normally fill our days. It can be challenging.
Therapists like myself are seeing an increase in clients who, because of physical and social distancing or being cooped up 24/7 with family members or partners, are experiencing increased depression and anxiety. People with a history of alcohol or drug abuse are unable to turn to the things that always have helped them stay sober such as going to meetings or the gym or socializing with friends. Consequently, they’re scared of relapsing and turning to old habits to cope.
Those who are obsessive-compulsive disordered around cleanliness and germs are particularly vulnerable these days. Clients are reporting distress over cleaning, vacuuming and washing things repeatedly more than ever before. It’s debilitating for them and those around them who are being affected by the increase in OCD behaviors. Clients are reporting they can’t relax, feeling like covid -19 is everywhere.
Some people actually are medically sick and it’s affecting their mental health. Those with compromised immune systems such as those living with asthma, hypertension, AIDS or HIV+ to name a few are reporting feeling like damaged goods. They already go throughout the world feeling vulnerable and this is exacerbating their vulnerability.
Fear of Having Symptoms
Others aren’t ill but the situation is causing them to feel unwell and increased anxiety. During the AIDs crisis, I remember people imagining that they were experiencing some AIDs-related symptoms and were alarmed, convincing themselves that they had contracted the disease. Now with this Covid-19 crisis, someone may get a sore throat or a cough or feel short of breath and become terrified that they’re coming down with the disease. Doctors are seeing more patients today experiencing such symptoms, which very often are just symptoms of anxiety. Of course, the more anxiety one experiences, the more symptoms like shortness of breath one is likely to have. For those suffering with hypochondriasis it’s nearly the perfect storm.
And here’s another interesting potential reason for anxiety: Suddenly we’re becoming more aware of how many years we’ve lived. Where just a few weeks ago people might have said “Sixty is the new forty,” I’ve recently heard this expressed as “Forty is the new sixty,” even though the data shows that Covid-19 deaths are happening all over the age spectrum. People are talking in therapy rooms about feeling their older ages in ways they haven’t before.
Childhood memories come to us mostly unconsciously. This where therapy is helpful for people to see and become conscious of how they are recycling their childhood in the present. Being cooped up, either alone or with others, can sometimes bring out the worst in us, such as unresolved childhood issues. It may remind us of being grounded, of being stuck in the house with a highly dysfunctional or sick parent and feeling like we had nothing to look forward to.
I have had clients tell me they went and bought too many groceries even though they had enough in their home—and even had a meal service bringing them food—because they feared food scarcity that was real in their childhood. Another client told me he is worried about his spouse catching it and dying, or worse, him bringing the virus into the home and exposing his spouse and killing her. Going back into his childhood, he always felt responsible for his mother’s death when he was 12. Yet another client is worried about spending and money given what is happening in this economy but is fighting with his partner over spending money on things necessary for the home. He is reliving the poverty in which he grew up where his family had money and after a business loss the family had nothing.
I am a relationships and sexual health therapist, and some of my clientele fall into the LGBTQ category, a group with real reason for concern. Studies show that these folks are more likely than the general population to have compromised immune systems (higher rates of asthma, and self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, more of them smoke cigarettes, further compromising their immune system). Only 17 percent of them have health insurance. For them, times like these are particularly dangerous and stressful, and I fear that too many will not seek the help they need. These statistics are according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
Looking Through New Eyes
However, this may end up actually being good for us all. If we can have the presence of mind and courage to step back and see this crisis with new eyes, as Proust said in the opening quote, we may begin to see an opportunity to become our better selves. This requires that we begin to move out of fear toward growth, leaving behind a tendency to spread fear and anger to others, and move toward living in the present, focusing on the future, having empathy for ourselves and others, and better adapting to change.
Therapy can help. Many therapists, including me, have taken this opportunity to get involved in Telehealth; that is, working with clients remotely over the Internet. It is a great way to practice physical/social distancing while providing one-on-one counseling.
When someone is experiencing dire physical symptoms, it is wise for them to call their doctor and make an appointment. If they are in the throes of depression or anxiety, however, it’s an excellent time to reach out to a professional therapist and begin to unravel the knots that are at the roots of our mental and emotional discomfort.
Be safe, smart, and kind to others during this time … and remember, we all need one another.
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.