By: Alan Johnson, NAMI Ohio
As Ohioans slowly begin returning to work in the next few weeks, it’s natural to feel a good deal of anxiety and fear.
Gov. Mike DeWine’s announcement this week that Ohio will gradually, and with great caution, return to work is no doubt being met with a combination of relief and concern by the most Ohioans, particularly those with existing mental illness.
While times remain uncertain, mental health officials shared with the National Alliance on Mental illness of Ohio some helpful suggestions to potentially deal with back-to-work worries.
IT’S OKAY TO BE ANXIOUS
“It’s definitely a time of uncertainty. The big thing is it’s invisible and unpredictable,” said Vicki Montesano, chief of mental health treatment for the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. ”Anxiety and unpredictably exacerbate it when we can’t control the situation.”
Montesano says what we all know: “We look around and life as we know it is going to change.”
Dr. Douglas Smith, medical director of the Summit County Alcohol Drug Addiction & Mental Services Board, agreed. “One big message is its okay to be anxious. It’s part of the human experience and you’re not alone.” Smith is interim Director of Psychiatry at the Northeast Ohio Medical University and a NAMI Ohio board member.
Both Montesano and Smith agree that recognizing anxiety and fears rather than trying to ignore or hide them is crucial as the recovery from the long COVID-19 quarantine unfolds.
GET HELP IF YOU NEED IT
“You don’t necessarily have a panic disorder if you are a little bit afraid about walking into the grocery store,” Montesano said. “But it’s important to get help if you need. Don’t wait too long if your symptoms are serious and you’re struggling.”
“Therapy is helpful for insight into learning about oneself,” she said. “It can help you work through anxiety and fear. We are probably in this for the long haul.”
Smith said people who have mental health providers should keep in touch with them, even if appointments are done virtually through a computer or phone. There will be issues to work through, including dealing with the return to work-life balance, a new or increased workload, financial concerns, and trauma from the two-month isolation.
“They should be open and discuss their issues with a professional who knows them well,” Smith said. “They need to look for their support systems, including family, friends and NAMI.”
EMBRACE THE RETURN TO STRUCTURE
“Paying attention to our thoughts is something we are not trained to do,” Montesano said. “Temper those thoughts: try to find a middle ground. We’ve got a scary invisible enemy out there. But it doesn’t have to be like I’m walking into a black hole.”
“Be kinder to yourself. If you have anxiety, try deep breathing exercises,” she said. “Try to get back to eating right, stay away from caffeine and sugar as much as possible. Get outside and get some exercise and pay attention to what’s going on in the world.”
Smith said a big problem people have faced during the quarantine is a lack of structure in their lives, especially if they are not working or are working from home.
“Most people do better with structure in their life,” he said. “Part of the problem with the last six weeks or so is there has been no structure. I enjoy my weekly venture to Walmart, but it’s different.”
“Everybody craves that vacation but it’s different now that we’ve disrupted our schedules. Sleep is off, work is off, exercise is off. We must adapt to the new situation.”
GET SOME SLEEP, PET YOUR DOG
Both of those sound simple, but they’re invaluable, Montesano and Smith agreed.
“Sleep is very important,” Montesano said. “Try to do the same thing every single night. Have a routine. Turn off the television and the phone.”
“Embrace the structure, even if you’re not in the first wave of going back to work,” Smith said. “Human are social animals and we need some sort of connections like we have with co-workers.”
As for petting your dog, or cat, that’s one of several relaxation techniques recommended by both experts. Others are listening to music, prayer, meditation, mindfulness exercises and progressive muscle relaxation to ease tension in the body head to toe.