Two mental and spiritual wellness experts share insights on caring for ourselves and others as we enter a new phase of separation.

By Cecily Sailer

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In the past week, as alarm steadily increased over the spread of the coronavirus, we have collectively experienced a radical shift in the way we conduct our lives. 

Those who can are now working from home. Schools are closed for weeks, at least. Parents are suddenly full-time caregivers and educators. Hourly workers face a frightening future as businesses shutter, while nonprofits scale back or halt services that address critical social needs. 

Churches, temples, and synagogues are moving their services online, if they can. The same goes for therapists who play a key role in their clients’ mental health regimen. Alcoholics Anonymous, often the first stop for those seeking addiction relief, has winnowed meetings or made them virtual. But all of us, in a way we’ve never experienced, will spend more time alone, away from one another.

As we withdraw for our safety and survival, screens become our primary mode of human interaction. What might we lose as a result? How can we safely care for those needing human contact now more than ever? How do we care for ourselves as we spend more time in separation and isolation?

Michael Davis gets emotional as he talks about his personal experience of homelessness during a house blessing ceremony at Community First! Village, a planned housing development for people coming out of chronic homelessness. Davis had recently moved into a tiny house on the property, after living on the streets for many years. The ceremony, held Saturday, was one of the last events where volunteers were allowed on the property, due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the people living at Community First! Village are particularly vulnerable because of their age and compromised immune systems.
Michael Davis gets emotional as he talks about his personal experience of homelessness during a house blessing ceremony at Community First! Village. One of the consequences of social-distancing in the wake of COVID-19 is the emotional toll it can take on a person. Health-care experts encourage people to reach out and stay connected during this time. [photo by Kelly West]

The Emotional Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis

“Humans are hard-wired to be social,” says Dr. Jeffrey Shahidullah, assistant professor of psychiatry at Dell Medical School and a licensed psychologist at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas and UT Health Austin. “Even the most introverted among us require social contact from time to time. Being social creatures has aided in our survival, and social interaction is crucial for mental health.”

Science supports what we already understand intuitively: People who experience healthy relationships feel happier, healthier, and live longer. Shahidullah says people with strong, healthy relationships tend to navigate adversity more easily and rebound more quickly. Social networks and interpersonal support also enhance our memory function and boost recovery after a serious illness. 

But when these networks fall away or lose cohesion, our emotional health naturally suffers. “Our social habits are just as ingrained as our other habits, like going to the gym or grocery shopping,” Shahidullah says. “Being cut off from regular social routines — interacting with coworkers, attending religious services, chatting with the front desk staff at your child’s school — for weeks at a time, or even a few days at a time, can be distressing.”

Our seniors and elders, who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, may already feel isolated from the rest of society, and this crisis is likely to deplete them further. Those who struggled with anxiety or mood disorders before the COVID-19 outbreak may feel particularly challenged during a crisis like this one.

As many pundits and health-care experts have pointed out, we’re unprepared as a society to handle a health-care dilemma of this magnitude. Gwendolyn Morgan, manager of interfaith spiritual care and health care chaplain at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center in Vancouver, Washington, says we’re also unprepared for the emotional challenges we’re likely to face as a result. 

“So many have lost the art of being in solitude, of being with themselves,” she says. “We’re seeing this in children who can’t be separated from their devices. And adults who’ve not had the resources or privilege to take personal time for reflection — they need more direction, resources, encouragement, and inspiration to find out how they can tap into their own internal resources.”

Both Shahidullah and Morgan agree: It’s time to reach out, stay connected, check on our neighbors, friends, and coworkers, and offer meaningful support.

“It’s even more important now to care for ourselves and one another, especially those who are fragile,” Morgan says. “It’s important to offer compassionate presence, loving kindness, and support with each unfolding of this crisis.”

Taking Emotional Self-Care and Outreach Seriously

Shahidullah says the first step is to pay attention to how you are feeling, especially if the feelings are negative. Sadness, a depressed mood, irritability, and loneliness are important indicators, along with difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, and difficulty focusing on tasks.

Both Shahidullah and Morgan recommend we all connect socially using technology, but they caution us to notice the emotional quality of such connections. Shahidullah encourages people to “use these conversations as an opportunity to discuss and process your experience and emotions.” 

Morgan reminds us that human touch is a key part of how we connect with one another. With handshakes and hugs off the table indefinitely, it’s important to connect with our voices and make eye contact instead. Rather than relying on text messages, emails, and social media, pick up the phone or use a video calling app.

When reaching out to friends and acquaintances who might need additional help, stay present, be thoughtful, and go the extra mile. Shahidullah encourages people to get creative and send care packages to those who might feel most isolated. 

These can include the phone numbers of people ready to talk and listen (including suicide or crisis hotline numbers), reminders of life achievements, expressions of gratitude, pictures of loved ones or fond memories, items that stimulate the senses (pleasant-smelling lotions, incense, or soaps), as well as journals, books, and crossword puzzles for distraction. “Anything that reminds them they are loved, cared for, and appreciated,” Shahidullah says.

When it comes to offering help and assistance to others, Morgan reminds us to be proactive and specific. Rather than saying, “Let me know if you need anything,” make an offer: “I’m going on a grocery run. Can I get you a few things while I’m out?” 

Be mindful of what you consume. Both Shahidullah and Morgan say it’s important to remain informed as conditions change and new information emerges. But extended news consumption usually feeds uncertainty and anxiety. “If we stay in this place of chaotic and frantic news media, we become more susceptible to emotional, spiritual, and physical depletion,” Morgan says. The same goes for social media. While it can help us connect, Shahidullah says, “it’s no substitute for real-time interaction.”

Where possible, use this time to develop new coping strategies. Shahidullah points to growing research that mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety and improves mood. For those new to the practice of meditation, he recommends relaxation apps for phones or tablets. 

Do something creative or go outside.  Morgan says she journals every day, and being out in nature makes her feel grounded and centered. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, her interfaith team regularly escorted patients and their families to the hospital’s healing garden as much as possible. “For five minutes, ten minutes, it doesn’t matter,” she says. This week, they’re assisting patients with guided visualizations and meditations that focus on the people, places, and pets that make each individual feel more at ease.

Exercise, physical activity, eight hours of sleep — the classic suggestions for healthy living — apply just as well now, even if they feel more difficult to maintain. Shahidullah also cautions people to avoid alcohol and substances as a way of numbing or suppressing emotions.

Michael Davis hugs Jasper Lee Darrell after a house blessing ceremony at Community First! Village, a planned housing development for people coming out of chronic homelessness. Davis had recently moved into a tiny house on the property, after living on the streets for many years. The ceremony, held Saturday, was one of the last events where volunteers were allowed on the property, due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the people living at Community First! Village are particularly vulnerable because of their age and compromised immune systems.
Michael Davis hugs neighbor Jasper Lee Darrell after a house blessing ceremony at Community First! Village, a planned housing development for people coming out of chronic homelessness. This may be one of the last times the two men hug for while as communities across the country practice social-distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19. [photo by Kelly West]

Turning Inward & Seeking a Spiritual Center

As a spiritual counselor, Morgan spends much of her time thinking about the relationship between the self and something greater. She’s worked for years with people experiencing extreme pain and illness, helping them connect to their unique sense of spirituality as they move through treatment, recovery, or the final stages of life. 

She says the COVID-19 crisis could offer one opportunity — being in isolation may give people time and space to explore spiritual questions. But flipping on a spiritual switch is easier said than done, especially for those struggling to meet basic needs for themselves and their families. Those already living on the margins find themselves in a new state of urgency and fragility. It can feel like teaching yourself to swim just as you realize you’re drowning.

Morgan says she tries to help her patients identify a north star, or a compass point in their lives. “If you stop people and ask what helps them stay centered, focused, or grateful, they’re usually able to name something. If you ask what pulls them into anxiety and fear, most people can name something and then use these answers as guideposts.”

Asking such questions, she says, “opens another realm, another opportunity to look at our core values, to look at what brings us hope, what brings us joy, who we love and who loves us, who is our community, and how we reconnect with our deeper selves, our spiritual paths, and what is of value to us.”

Residents and volunteers pray together during a house blessing ceremony at Community First! Village, a planned housing development for people coming out of chronic homelessness. Two formerly homeless people had recently moved into tiny houses on the property. The ceremony, held Saturday, was one of the last events where volunteers were allowed on the property, due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the people living at Community First! Village are particularly vulnerable because of their age and compromised immune systems.
Residents and volunteers pray together during a house blessing ceremony at Community First! Village, a planned housing development for people coming out of chronic homelessness. Seeking spiritual connection is one method of coping with social distancing, but for those struggling to meet basic needs for themselves and their families, finding time and space for that can feel unachievable. [photo by Kelly West]

Additional Resources for Mental and Emotional Support

Aunt Bertha will help you search for mental health care support in your area. 

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7.

Find AA meetings, NA meetings, and 12-step resources in your area or online.

The Spiritual Care Association has created a resources page for the COVID-19 crisis.

Read about “the burden and benefit of social distancing” in Psychology Today.

GEN Austin’s Girl Sparks YouTube channel features social-emotional learning videos for girls.

Inside SEL offers social and emotional learning support for educators and parents.

Find resources and ideas for expressive writing.

Try a Loving-Kindness Meditation from Greater Good in Action.

Here are four ways you can support children during the COVID-19 crisis.

Find work-related support at Empower Work.