Special to JohnFMurray.com – April 3, 2020 – By John F Murray – We live in challenging times. Everyone in the world is on lockdown and much more so than during the 1917/1918 Spanish Influenza when social media and even mass media were non-issues. You either got the killer flu and died or you did not, and people in more rural areas often did not even know what was going on until it was over. While the worldwide impact from that was horrible, the psychological impact and issues created by this 2020 virus with social media, daily international press briefings and constant worry has a mental toll that is difficult to measure but nevertheless catastrophic. It is probably more analogous to what our nation dealt with in coping with WW2.
As a clinical and sports/performance psychologist with over 20 years in private practice helping people to cope better with an almost unlimited variety of issues I would like to do my small part to help people understand the potential mental ramifications of Covid-19 and how we can get through this trying period in our history with the least amount of mental and emotional damage. I will offer my perspective of what the mental effect is and offer coping strategies for all.
Understanding the Mental Toll
Stress and Coping
Fear and anxiety are greatly heightened when factors are unknown or ambiguous. This novel virus has no present vaccine or proven cure and you cannot see it, but latest estimates are that it might kill 100,000 to 240,000 in America alone. Like a thief in the night it strikes terror in its victims. Contracting the virus or having a close friend or family member do so is a particularly daunting challenge. Terror and panic often ensue, and while this is understandable, we know from years of research and clinical experience that this response is very dangerous and ineffective. Stress coping research and practice suggests that magnifying the impact of a problem only serves to exacerbate the impact. If at all possible, a much wiser and more clinically successful approach is to take on a more “can do” spirit and remain optimistic and confident mentally if you get the virus. This has the actual effect of increasing killer t-cell production and proliferation in the blood, a vital immune system response. The mere act of changing your mindset toward a challenge like this can have often surprising and amazing physical benefits according to research that was first presented in 1987 by Lazarus and Folkman.
Whether you or your friends and family get the virus or not, we have some other very important challenges and they affect everyone. This self-imposed isolation, social distancing, and acts of watching paint dry at home are not at all healthy mentally. Isolation is needed, but we’ve known forever how important intimacy, social behavior, group activities and variety are to healthy living. Who would have imagined that in just a few weeks we went from perhaps the most vibrant economy in human history to turning every human into a nursing home patient or white-collar criminal on house arrest? We all need what is called social support, the connection with other human beings that is being so drastically altered. The younger folks with their media savvy, face timing and snap-chatting might be adapting a little better, but most people over 50 are only into Facebook, and some over 80 are lucky if they even know how to use email properly! If you are into social media, and living under the same roof as an older person who has not been able to tap into the benefits, and might be feeling lonelier than ever, this is a great opportunity to share your wisdom with those older and less sophisticated folks who need it now.
Depression and Suicide
At any given time, a huge percentage of the population is going to be depressed, and one of the leading causes of death from depression in both younger and older people is suicide. The research and practice both show that trigger events such as Covid-19 or some other economic, social or personal loss can often make this depression much worse and I would not be surprised if the rate of suicides goes way up as a result of the time we live in. Some will argue that pulling together to fight this common enemy can also have positive psychological outcomes, and that may be true for some, but I am more concerned for the vulnerable as this could also be the tipping point that leads to much more severe depression and ultimately suicide. Time will tell. The bottom line is that the self-imposed exile and withdrawal that our society has necessarily imposed is the last kind of behavior you would ideally like to see for those who because of their mood disorder already self-isolate, lose valuable reinforcers, and spiral further down.
What Can You Do to Cope Better?
Keep Yourself Engaged
One of the major findings in psychology in the 20th century was the values of action and engagement and striving for something in order to improve mental health. Studies have established that those who wake up with a mission of sorts, and push hard to accomplish something that day with mini goals and games, are the best performers and find their activities most rewarding. Even though you might not be going to work for a few more weeks, do something, anything at all, to find a purpose and set some reasonable but challenging goals to keep you fired up. Study for the SAT if you are a high school student, work on an important hobby, read that book you keep putting off, or write a psychology article like I am doing now!
This quarantine period might be the perfect opportunity to get back into that walking or running routine that you let slip two years ago when you got so busy making money at work. Vast evidence shows how exercise and mental health are happy partners, and the physical and self-esteem benefits of looking and feeling better are obvious.
Listen To Music
Get back into your CD collection or tap into YouTube as you crank up the tunes. Nothing can improve mood and well-being better than the inspiration and energy resulting from good music. If you have a quality set of headphones use them well as others in the house might not be so enthusiastic about your particular tastes!
We often get so absorbed in our own lives that we forget that there are others struggling too. Isn’t it funny that one of the best ways to improve our own mental state is by aiding others? It is so true. Some of the wisest psychologists from the early 1900s realized this and often wrote prescriptions for their most mentally ill patients to do specific things to help others. The irony is that the patients often got better just by turning away from their own struggles and seeking to make another person’s life more comfortable.
We all have our politics and pet peeves and we live in a very contentious age. Now might be a good time to try to either give it a rest for a while, or even more ambitiously, to try to understand the other side even though you’ll never agree. Being cooped up in a small space can present difficult challenges, so open your mind or just hold off on pushing your agenda until this all blows over.
Clean Out That Closet
We all have projects that we’ve been meaning to get to for the past 8 years, but we never really felt it was the right time. That time might be now. Rip apart that cluttered closet, throw out 70% of it or donate items you not longer want to a local charity or thrift shop, and emerge on the other side of this battle with a great feeling of accomplishment.
Call Your Psychologist or Sports Psychologist
When one of my athlete clients is injured, we often find the extra time is perfect to finally work on those mental skills of confidence, focus, goals, and emotional control, and imagery/visualization becomes a big part of our work. The same is true for my more general clients struggling with depression or anxiety who might have been laid off at work, are going through a divorce, or just coping with the stress of this virus. The bottom line is that while face to face sessions in the office are not going to work for a while, 75-80% of my practice is on the phone or skype, so the phone offers an ideal time to begin a new evaluation and self-awareness, and start counseling or mental coaching. Many are offering discounts during this quarantine period, including this particular psychologist.
John F. Murray, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical and sports performance psychologist in North Palm Beach, Florida. Dr. Murray works with high achieving individuals and teams in sports, business, and life also with those with more general issues and needs as a clinical psychologist. Dr. Murray has been called “the most quoted sports psychologist worldwide,” “the king of sports brains,” (Sports Illustrated) and, “one of the major psychologists in sports,” (Fox Sports). He can be reached for questions at: 561-596-9898 and his websites are at: https://johnfmurray.com and https://www.SportsPsychology.com