For many, quarantine can be compared to a roller coaster. There are up days, those on which you feel fairly well adjusted, and there are down days, those on which you exist in an agitated, anxious state; you feel sort of off, stressed out, or weird, and time flows like you’re wading through sand. While this fluctuation is normal, some are struggling more than others and experiencing more lows than highs. According to Douglas Pfeifer, CEO of Life and Purpose Behavioral Health, a mental health and addictions outpatient treatment center that provides person-centered treatment and mental health services and support to five Washington County school systems including Belpre and Marietta, trauma can be defined as an experience in which one feels helpless, powerless, and overwhelmed by an event or events impacting daily life and functioning.

Trauma can be understood through the three E’s: event, experience, and effect. The event itself doesn’t necessarily make something traumatic, but a person’s experiences related to the event and the effects it has on that person’s life are what creates the trauma. “COVID-19 is a significant event that each person will experience differently based on its individual effects,” Pfeifer said. “We can foster resilience and strength based on how we respond to this crisis and tend to our emotional and physical wellbeing.”

Making the unpredictable predictable and staying connected will help us to get through this difficult time.

“When we experience stress in an unpredictable, severe, and prolonged way, it produces vulnerability that subsequently leads to problems like anxiety, depression, and substance use. However, if stress is predictable, moderate, and controlled, we build resilience. Although at times, this pandemic can cause us to feel helpless, we are not helpless in our own self-care. Making the unpredictable predictable and staying connected will help us to get through this difficult time.”

Building Resilience

Pfeifer suggested the following ideas regarding how to cultivate resilience during the ongoing pandemic:

Schedule your exposure to stress. Limit media consumption and social media use, and seek and stick to reputable sources of information detailing the COVID-19 crisis.

Stay regulated. Find times throughout the day to engage in calming activities like drawing, exercising, listening to music, playing outdoors with family, or taking a walk.

Focus on your breath. Our ability to stay regulated centers on our breath. Take deep, belly breaths throughout the day, but especially when you notice yourself feeling stressed as evidenced by an increase in heart rate, shallow breathing, tension, and/or discomfort.

Physical distancing does not have to become social distancing. Stay socially connected with family and friends using video platforms like FaceTime, Google Hangout, Zoom, etc.

Help others. Generosity is a universal need; we find joy, purpose, and value when we help others, and this is a great antidote to toxic stress.

Reach out. If you are struggling to cope despite making efforts to do so, reach out and seek help from area counseling services. Asking for help is a sign of strength.

Telehealth Options

Area providers continue to provide services through telehealth, using Zoom, or via phone for those who lack access to computer or Internet technology. “We have some staff providing in-person services, but that is more so in the arena of addiction,” Pfeifer said. “When stay-at-home is lifted, we plan to focus first on intensive services.

“We have a great number of staff who share their ideas and continue to explore ways to engage clients on video,” said Pfeifer. “Telehealth is not as scary as it might seem once we begin to get familiar with it, and in fact, we believe it will be a part of our day-to-day when things begin to return toward normal.”

Photo by Yura Fresh

Both Ohio and West Virginia have established communication tools for those in need of addiction or mental health services. The Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (MHAS) launched a mental health COVID-19 CareLine for Ohioans. Trained staff are available to provide emotional assistance to anyone struggling with mental health concerns due to the ongoing stress of the pandemic. The number to call is 1-800-720-9616, and all calls will remain confidential.

We are encouraging people to reach out for services, to not let those mental health services go.

April 21, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice and representatives of the Department of Health and Human Resources’ (DHHR) Office of Drug Control Policy announced the development of a smartphone app for individuals in recovery from Substance Use Disorder (SUD). The app, aimed at reducing isolation and offering support resources to state residents will allow treatment providers across West Virginia to remain connected and engaged with patients.

Developed by CHESS Health of Rochester, NY, the app is an evidence-based mobile application designed and proven to provide ongoing support and relapse prevention. Features of the Connections app include group discussions, peer support, and socialization, one-on-one messaging with a care team, recovery progress tracking, and eTherapy programs for learning and practicing key recovery skills. Individuals use an alias name to maintain anonymity within the online communities, which only will include other West Virginians.

The Connections app will be available, at no cost, to individuals through their treatment provider and to those in recovery no longer affiliated with a provider. Providers and those in recovery seeking information about access to the Connections app or the CHESS Health platform can visit this website.

Social Connections are Key

Pfeifer said maintaining relationships with family, friends, and loved ones during such a difficult time is equally important, as social distancing also can lead to social isolation. “The biggest loss here is the loss of connection. We are encouraging people to reach out for services, to not let those mental health services go. Yet losing social connections can have damaging effects for all of us, and so we emphasize physical distancing rather than social distancing.

A short text or phone call, a Zoom get together, or a written note are great ways to connect.

“It doesn’t take much to make someone feel loved,” he said. “A short text or phone call, a Zoom get together, or a written note are great ways to connect. We have been eating meals in the back of our car parked at our parents’ home while maintaining distance yet getting a decent social connection. And if you can set a predictable schedule of social connection throughout your week, it will create routine and structure, which add to the benefit of social connection.”

A number of mental health checklists have been shared through social media outlets as well, and while Pfeifer is encouraged by the widespread publication of these ideas, he also urges mindfulness. “It is great to see these ideas circulate because it means people are attempting to help others and trying to create positive outcomes,” Pfeifer said. “However, mental health is more than just do this, and do that.”

Tissue paper rainbow photographed by Melanie Lamb

“For example, exercise is vitally important and necessary, but if you work out at 6 a.m. then sit in front of the TV for the rest of the day watching the news and reading social media posts about the dangers of COVID and how vulnerable we are, then you will continue to struggle as exposure will offset exercise. It is about repetition, and we will cope better through small, repeated doses of regulating activities versus one big, daily dose. And the most significant component remains social connection. There will be consequences to eating more and exercising less, but we are social beings, and many health problems can be tied to a lack of attachment and connection.”

As a community, we have to take care of ourselves so we can continue to care for others.

Pfeifer is optimistic this pandemic will bring about lasting changes in attitudes regarding mental health struggles and supports. “Everyone experiences this crisis differently based on whether they are vulnerable or resilient,” Pfeifer said. “In times of need, people step up to help and care for others, including those most at risk, yet my concern is that we will become exhausted, and the empathy and giving will fade away. So, as a community, we have to take care of ourselves so we can continue to care for others.”

“This is not the first crisis we have faced that brought about an increase in generosity and understanding from our community, yet it is a crisis that has impacted all of us rather than just a portion, so I am hopeful COVID normalizes mental health,” said Pfeifer. “I hope we are able to take time to reflect on our experiences and discuss with others how COVID has altered our lives and the benefits gained from compassion and generosity, so that going forward, we will be progressively thoughtful rather than reactive.”