My emotional response to the COVID-19 pandemic came in stages. Initial reports caused pinpricks of concern, followed by a growing list of minor inconveniences — hands chapped from frequent washing, limits on in-person meetings — as cases trickled out around the globe.
Around the time that Amgen staff in the Thousand Oaks headquarters (and elsewhere) began working from home, my worries about toilet paper shortages gave way to a realization that I could unknowingly carry the virus home to my family, and then to tangible fears as friends and neighbors counted among the infected. Now I compulsively read the news and worry about where my kids will go if my wife and I both get sick. At the same time, I feel grateful to have my job and my health when so many others have lost theirs. Sound familiar? This could describe the feelings of anyone working their way through the COVID-19 pandemic.
To get some expert insight about how we can all care for our mental health during this unprecedented moment in history, we spoke with Janie Jun, a licensed clinical psychologist and the associate director of quality and provider strategy for Lyra Health. As the mental health services provider for Amgen staff in the U.S., Lyra Health uses HIPPA-compliant telehealth systems to provide video therapy sessions with coaches and therapists, as well as psychiatrists who can prescribe and manage medications.
What are the most common mental health challenges you’re seeing around COVID-19?
General stress, anxiety and depression are most common at this moment. These feelings are totally normal, and everyone is experiencing them to some extent. We’re seeing a lot of people who just want to talk through their fears about themselves or their family members contracting COVID-19. There’s stress about feeling isolated at home, or about having kids out of school and working without childcare support. And of course, many people are struggling with financial stress and anxiety.
How do I know if what I’m feeling is general stress, anxiety or depression?
General stress simply means you’re feeling worried about what’s going on with COVID-19. Anxiety is a reaction to sustained stress where worries might be harder to control, it may also include physiological symptoms like panic attacks, and it may impact your sleep or work life. Common symptoms of depression may include struggling to get out of bed each day or lacking the energy to do normal activities, especially if other people notice these changes too. Clinical anxiety or depression should both be diagnosed by a clinician. I encourage people to seek help early and get support as soon as possible.
What can I do to work through fear and anxiety in a positive way?
Focus on specific problem-solving actions you can control. For example, when it comes to managing your risk of contracting COVID-19, it’s not reasonable or even possible to sanitize everything in your house. We recommend taking reasonable precautions like those recommended by the CDC — social distancing, staying home if you’re sick, hand washing, and disinfecting frequently touched spaces — and look at the evidence that shows these are reasonable and effective ways to protect you and your family.
How can I stay informed when the news and social media triggers anxiety about COVID-19?
A lot of extreme fears that people feel around COVID-19 may come from inaccurate or overly sensational news that isn’t helping the situation. Consider taking a media break if looking at the news or social media makes you feel more distressed without helping you take better precautions. And only look at reputable sources like the CDC, WHO or your county health department that present the facts in a straightforward manner.
How can I cope with grief or loss caused by COVID-19?
Grief is the right emotion for many situations, including losing a loved one or even losing a job or having your life otherwise turned upside down because of this pandemic. It’s important to give yourself time and space to allow those feelings to come up. Don’t just shove them back down or ignore them. Try giving yourself a 5-minute window during the day to let the feelings of grief and sadness come out. After that time is up, try to refocus your attention on something else to help regulate your emotions so you don’t constantly get overwhelmed by them.
How should I talk about COVID-19 with my children?
Take a developmentally appropriate approach, channel a sense of calm, and let them know their feelings are valid. You can be matter of fact about what’s happening, but you don’t have to go into detail about the impacts the disease is having around the world. Instead, focus on educating them about actions they can take to help keep themselves and their family safe. Find a relatable way to teach them to wash their hands correctly and instill the importance of keeping a safe distance from other people. It’s also important to give them opportunities for self-care and limit their media exposure.
How has the pandemic affected people with preexisting mental health diagnoses?
The additional stressor of COVID-19 is certainly an added weight on their shoulders. Some people may decide to temporarily change their treatment plan by adding more frequent sessions. We also see some clients who say this situation has helped them reconnect with their core values, giving them perspective, more time with loved ones and opportunities to do things they didn’t have time for before.
What advice can you offer about practicing self-care and finding work-life balance?
One of the biggest things we should all remember is to have self-compassion. This is a new situation for everyone, and no one is going to be perfect. Everyone is doing the best they can, and things won't always go the way you expect them to. Do what you can to connect with people as much as possible. Set up opportunities to virtually speak to your coworkers so you don't feel isolated, and connect with your loved ones outside of work. It also really helps to set and maintain a routine. Keep your sleeping, eating and exercise schedules the same as you typically would (if possible) and take frequent breaks. Know what hours you’ll work, and when you and your partner can take shifts to care for your kids. Of course, that can be more difficult for single parents, who may need additional problem solving around their child’s schedule.
What is an average therapy session like?
I start by asking about the specific worry thoughts you’re having: Are you worried about contracting COVID-19, or do you worry that you could spread COVID-19? Then we talk through the evidence for and against that specific worry thought to decide the probability of that event coming true. This helps determine whether you’re falling into common thinking traps, like catastrophizing or overestimating the probability of the event. The main modality we use for our therapy is often cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a technique you can use to help regulate and manage your thoughts, emotions and behaviors. The tenet of CBT is that thoughts, emotions and behaviors are all interconnected, so if you make a helpful change to one of those factors, the others will change as well.