When the Coronavirus Cancels Therapy

These are anxious times. Health care systems are overwhelmed, nearly everything has been cancelled and there’s no telling when we’ll all be collectively out of our sweats. In the face of the coronavirus outbreak, mental health care is more important than ever—but it’s also disappearing.

Martha Smith, a 38-year-old in Oakland, California, who works for a global online auction company, has been dealing with the anxious effects of the coronavirus since January. “The company that I work for, just because of what we do, we’ve been experiencing the effects of the coronavirus since the first of the year,” says Smith. “So it’s actually been a really stressful and difficult time.” She’d been seeing a therapist since June of last year, which helped, but earlier this month, Smith’s therapist was forced to close her office and switch Smith’s sessions to Zoom.

“Most psychologists are suspending their office practice and will be continuing to treat their patients remotely,” says Franklin Porter, a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City. “While that’s obviously not ideal, people can still maintain therapeutic contact with their therapists, wherever they may be located.”

Virtual therapy sessions are a solid plan B. “I slept until 15 minutes before my appointment,” says Smith. “I’m feeling much more well-rested than I usually am, and I’m in my own bed surrounded by my cats. I’m in my safe space.”

But for some, the prospect of having to DM their therapist is just one more thing to be anxious about. “My main concern in regard to online appointments is the feeling of isolation they create,” says Elizabeth Keller, a 21-year-old student at the University of Southern California. “A part of the therapy experience that I enjoy is visiting my therapist’s office, as I associate that space with a measure of peace and reassurance,” she says. “I’m afraid that I won’t feel the same way if I begin speaking to her online, as my apartment is even now beginning to make me a little stir crazy, and I anticipate that feeling will only unfortunately get worse as the quarantine situation evolves further.”

In the face of so much anxiety and uncertainty in mental health care, the experts recommend focusing on the things you can control. “Excessively worrying about unknowns outside of your control can exacerbate anxiety,” says Mimi Winsberg M.D., chief medical officer at Brightside Health in San Francisco. Here’s how to keep prioritizing your mental health:

Plan ahead and create a routine.

In the face of so much change, something as simple as a schedule can be a powerful form of self-care. “Emulate your life before COVID-19 to the best of your ability,” says Winsberg. “Follow the same schedule of when you wake up, when you eat, and when you go to sleep.”

Do the same for mental health care. If you typically see a therapist once a week, aim to keep up that same cadence virtually. Or if your therapist can’t offer virtual sessions, keep that hour blocked on your calendar for your own form of self-care such as doing some yoga, video chatting with a friend, or cooking something you love.

Limit information overload.

Being subjected to a 24-hour news cycle won’t do much good for your nerves. Sometimes it’s hard to get an escape, so it’s best to limit your exposure and be a little more intentional about how often you check for news updates.

“Try choosing two times per day to catch up on the latest developments or choose a singular news source that you trust and sign up for alerts so the latest developments come to you, rather than the other way around,” says Winsberg. You don’t have to cut yourself off completely, but just dial back.

Prioritize your physical health

You’re probably finding yourself at home a lot these days. If you’re in an environment that allows it, go for a long walk around your neighborhood or start an at-home yoga practice. Moving your body is essential in lifting your spirits. As for food, try to prioritize health. “Foods that are high in protein and potassium have shown to help calm moods,” says Winsberg. Treating your body with kindness and compassion will go a long way as you work or go to class from home.

Breathe and practice mindfulness.

Breathing sounds like such a no-brainer, but it’s important to your overall health and wellbeing. Winsberg swears by the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Also known as “relaxing breath,” it’s been proven to lower heart rate and alleviate anxiety.

Here’s how to do it: Empty your lungs of air and breathe in calmly through your nose for four seconds. Then hold your breath for seven seconds. Then exhale forcefully through your mouth for eight seconds. Repeat this cycle up to four times or until you feel better. This is a great way to stay grounded in the present moment and can be done virtually anywhere.

Be intentional about staying connected.

Being cooped up in your house away from family and friends may cause you to feel lonely. One way to combat this is to stay virtually connected. Michelle Lin, a junior at the University of Colorado Boulder, is currently implementing this point. “It’s hard to feel connection when all of it has to be over a screen, but I’m coping in the best ways I can, still calling and texting my close friends, or engaging with bigger communities on social media,” she says. “It’s an uncertain time, but we all have to make sacrifices.”

If you didn’t have a therapist before the coronavirus outbreak but feel like you need one now, Talkspace, Betterhelp, Amwell, and MDLive are great places to start.

Juliana Ukiomogbe is a freelance writer based in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter.

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